William J. Acton, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners
It applies to many things in life, of course – an athletic event, an academic endeavor, even eating a meal: finish strong!
It's one of my favorite sayings, but one often poorly followed (even by me!):
It applies to many things in life, of course – an athletic event, an academic endeavor, even eating a meal. I argue it's one of the reasons Jesus saved the "best wine for last" as he shared his first miracle with the world at the wedding party in Cana. The best thing about a "finish" is the opportunity it offers. We may start poorly, or lag a bit somewhere in the middle, but we always have that chance to make up for it at the end. The end is all about hope, opportunity, possibility, perhaps even redemption. Just ask the fans of the 1969 Mets. Better still…ask fans of the 1969 Cubs. There is no substitute for finishing strong.
So, as we in educational advancement look to the second half of the school year, and for many of us, the close of the fiscal year, we offer some tips on finishing strong, whether you are ahead or behind in this year’s fundraising game!
This first one seems obvious, but I’ve seen very few schools actually do it: a "half time" assessment of results to date. It is important to take a deep dive into overall/big picture results as well as the detailed results of specific activities. Look at results relative to established goals as well as achievements of previous years. Explore who donated and what vehicles prompted their giving. Where and who did the money come from? What is the cost benefit of specific advancement activities? What events brought the right stakeholders “closer” to your mission? What activities ate up time with little to no immediate or (potential) long-term return? Be data-centric in your analysis and honest in your assessment. You have to know what worked and what didn't, and what you need to do to have a successful second half.
While good football teams make halftime adjustments all the time, whether they are winning or losing, very few advancement offices do the same. It is common to simply just execute the "same-old, same-old" regardless of how things went the first six months of the fundraising year. But if you were good at capturing data – which solicitation vehicles generated what results, for example – then you should be able to adjust your 2nd half plan to take advantage of opportunities in front of you. Increase or change planned tactics and job behaviors. Adjust your advancement budget. Increase social media activity or email “asks.” Fine-tune communications with specific markets. Step up in-person major gift solicitations. It's really no different than those football coaches: exploit weaknesses, build on strengths and steer clear of making big mistakes.
It’s common when fundraising results are lagging, or circumstances like a pandemic wreak havoc on your operations or, worst of all, when there is no real advancement plan in place… to maybe panic a bit and just do something. But you have to avoid knee-jerk, panicky reactions. Randomly sending a generic solicitation letter or email won't get you what you’re looking for. Nor will simply adding a fundraising event based on the suggestion of an eager (ill-informed) volunteer. If you have committed your advancement office to being data-driven – first of all, good for you. Second…use that data to build informed strategies. This starts – and almost stops – with your major gift program. Commit to it. Really. Find the time to execute it. It is the fundamental activity that will truly advance your school. In addition, spend your "direct mail" and email time/funds wisely – personalize and customize your approaches. Build your "asks" around a case that is compelling, urgent AND relevant to each recipient. Bring a sense of urgency and “difference-making” to the asks. Stick to fundamentals and execute them flawlessly.
Sounds crazy to suggest in January, right? But the time is now to plan your summer goals and activities. Typically, summer months in advancement are often WITHOUT much fundraising activity. Summer is the ideal time to regroup, recharge and sign up for continuing professional education. It is a great time to host a "beach day" for your prospects who are, yes, at the beach. It is a great time to schedule major gift visits for engagement and solicitation. And it is the perfect time to lay out your plan (with goals, budgets and benchmarks) for the next fiscal year. Plan NOW for an advancement staff or committee retreat/training session this summer. If you want a productive summer…plan it now.
Execute the above four tactics and I’m pretty sure you will finish strong. And position your school for an even stronger start to the 2022-23 school year.
Posted on: January 18, 2022
Photo by Glen Rushton on Unsplash