Annual giving – a perennial relationship: CCAE Exposé #2

November 2021
Written by: Richard Fisher

Annual giving is perhaps the most misunderstood of the marketing tools in a university’s arsenal, mistakenly equated with the annoying call at dinner time congratulating you on winning a cruise in a competition you never entered. In other words, a bolt from the blue.

Yet the key difference is that alumni-targeted annual giving swims in the water of a pre-existing, ongoing and possibly lifelong relationship – one that began with student recruitment activities and goes right through to the city, the campus and the academic experience. So, far from being the beginning of a relationship, annual giving is a new link in a relationship that has already had thousands of touchpoints over a long period – and will hopefully have many more.

But this relationship only works if both parties are invested in it. There’s no such thing as a one-way partnership, so listening to donors is a major function of the annual giving unit. This is why annual giving has long been the most responsive and nimble part of the fundraising portfolio. Whether an initiative is working or not is often immediately apparent and can be quickly addressed. The timeline of annual giving is now or, preferably, yesterday. And while alumni remain the main focus of the unit’s activities, these can also extend to parents, friends and external and internal communities. Some, like Carleton University, have successfully branched out into crowdfunding with their Future Funders website where a single project to support Women In Engineering has already raised $105,000 vs. a target of $5,000!

Annual giving operations have to be adaptable to new technologies and new ways of giving – donors demand the kind of seamless transaction that they get from a major brand retailer. The proliferation of new platforms in social media has breathed new life into annual ‘Giving Days’, making the experience much richer for donors and the Giving Day itself a perennial event, rather than a one-off. Canadian schools have taken this opportunity to build continuity by branding their giving days, such as ‘McGill24’ which raised almost $4 million in March of 2021.

2020 was a ‘black swan’ year that no-one saw coming, but many Canadian institutions in 2021 are already reporting that donations are returning to 2019 levels and even beyond. Paradoxically, COVID has actually provided a new touchpoint for donors to give to student support, with an increased emphasis on students’ mental health and wellbeing. UBC’s CCAE Prix d’Excellence award-winning annual giving initiative emphasizes the unique challenges facing students at this ‘turning point in history’. Interestingly, the pandemic has provided, for the first time in the modern era, a truly global issue that concerns students everywhere.

The tectonic plates are shifting in other ways too. Canadian universities like McMaster are reporting greater interest in supporting research in science and health, particularly in the areas of sustainability and mental health. Initiatives like these present opportunities to reach beyond the traditional alumni base, as these projects are not necessarily predicated on a pre-existing relationship. And research into major areas like heart disease, cancer and diabetes need little introduction. To make the donors’ task easier The University of Toronto has a searchable list of research projects seeking support.

Turning to the expansion of the annual giving operation itself, some US institutions like Ohio State University are moving to a more ‘customer-focused’ approach by establishing the Ohio State Engagement Center that supports donors, alumni and other community members on an inbound basis, much like a concierge service. Complementing annual giving’s outbound activities, this hybrid approach could be a game-changer for the donor experience, particularly at the lower giving levels.

More than ever, the ground is shifting beneath our feet. Annual giving operations across Canada are adapting at warp speed, exploring new ways to build the donor relationship from year to year, even as technology is continuously morphing. But the key thing to remember is that we are not dealing here with an isolated act. Far from being a one-off experience, annual giving forms a crucial and continuing part of a perennial relationship between Canadian institutions and their donors.

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