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Annual Fund: It’s All About Relationships

Interview with Sylvia Racca | Executive Director, Dartmouth College Fund at Dartmouth College Kathy Howrigan | Senior Consultant & Principal, Analytical Solutions, Marts & Lundy

As consultants in development and fundraising, we know that when it comes to the area of annual giving, best practices are continually changing and the way that a potential donor is approached varies. Therefore we wanted to talk with those in the field for their insights on the current state of annual giving. To do this, we called on Sylvia Racca and Kathy Howrigan to share their views on the state of the Annual Fund — good, bad, or ugly.

Here is what we learned:

  1. Institutions of higher learning have become much better at direct marketing. Gone are the days of the “stale” annual fund appeal that changed very little from year to year.
  2. Annual fund participation is trending down. Advancement teams are scrambling for ways to reverse the trend.
  3. Direct mail still works and is the most reliable mechanism for bringing in gifts, however it’s not your “grandfather’s” direct mail anymore.
  4. Analytics and its companion, marketing, are on the rise but at the expense of “tried and true” relationship building.
  5. Millennials are relationship pros so leveraging their predilection for electronic communication to build relationships with that generation is key.
  6. Segmentation has become much more diversified, moving beyond class year to other affinities and characteristics such as gender, ethnic identity, and gender expression.
  7. Good volunteers make a significant difference. Higher annual fund participation and strong volunteer leadership go hand-in-hand.
  8. Institutions are looking for ways to revitalize volunteer-based, class-based fundraising.
  9. Leadership giving is a challenge. Schools with large endowments and the rising cost of higher education can scare away the big gifts.
  10. Middle-range gifts are also a challenge. At large institutions like Dartmouth, mid-range gifts are $25,000 - $75,000; at smaller or mid-size schools middle range gifts are $2,500 - $10,000. Perhaps this is because advancement teams focus on identifying and stewarding major donors, leaving mid-range donors in the anteroom. Adding special gifts officers who focus on and reward smaller donors with “major donor attention” makes a difference.
  11. Relationship building within the organization is very important. Team meetings, sharing metrics, transparency, and accountability go a long way.

Sylvia’s advice to her younger self: Don’t get hung up on climbing a tradition ladder rung by rung. But also, stay in a job long enough to put down roots and really learn from the experience.

Kathy’s advice: Any day that you show up with the mindset of being in service (vs. focusing on self/career) leads to top performance and true job satisfaction.

We'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree with these points? Is there something that you would add? Please comment below.

Sylvia Racca joined Dartmouth in December, 2002, as the Executive Director of the Dartmouth College Fund. Sylvia has been in fundraising for higher education for 20 years. Prior to Dartmouth she served first as the Director of the Annual Fund, and then as Director of Development, at Scripps College in Claremont, California, which is one of the Claremont Colleges along with Pomona, Claremont McKenna and Harvey Mudd. Before moving west, she served as an Assistant Director in the Alumnae Fund of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Prior to her career in higher education, Sylvia enjoyed a successful and engaging career for a decade syndicating tax-advantaged investments in commercial, historic, and multifamily real estate throughout the United States with Atlantic Equity Corporation in Boston, Massachusetts.

She is very proud to be an adopted member of the class of 1983, and in 2013 she graduated with her Master’s degree in the Arts & Sciences from Dartmouth College.


Kathy has worked as a fundraiser and analyst for nearly 20 years and has special interest in using data and operations assessments to increase annual giving. She joined Marts & Lundy in 2011 after serving as Director for Saint Michael's Fund and Advancement Services at St. Michael's College, Vermont. Kathy had previously worked at Dartmouth College, rising from Director of Prospect Management to Director of Marketing and Analysis for Dartmouth College Fund. Kathy serves on Marts & Lundy's Board, is on the Editorial Review Board for Giving USA and is faculty for Rice University's Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership.


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