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How to Start an Annual Fund

Before you can launch a major campaign, you need to build an annual fund. And whether you're raising money for public or private schools, alumni are the key to getting the support you need.

By Mal Scanlan
Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn.

There are lots of good organizations out there asking for money, so if you're going to successfully raise funds for your athletic program, you need to separate yourself from all the rest. First and foremost, donors need to identify with your mission.

What are you doing that other programs aren't? How have you made an impact on the community? If you disappeared tomorrow, would anybody notice? That's what makes you stand out, and that's what people need to hear.

The parents of your current students can be a great source of revenue, but in the long term, they're going to move on to something else. On top of that, their donations usually come with strings attached, which can get you into some uncomfortable situations. That's why I recommend focusing on your alumni. You want to target people with strong, deep connections to your program. They're your best shot at getting outside revenue.

Any effective, long-term fundraising campaign begins with a strong annual fund. And any effective annual fund begins with your alumni base.

How do you reach them? With reunions. I work at a private school, but the model for public schools is very similar. Let's say you graduate 500 people a year. If 15 percent of those people become donors, you're going to see some real money. How much? Let's say you hold a five-year, 10-year, 15-year, 20-year, and 25-year reunion. If each class averages $5,000, which isn't a lot of money, you'll come out with $50,000 in a year. That's enough to start an endowment.

One of the arguments I hear is that some public schools are more affluent than others. Well, whether your base is affluent or not, every school has successful graduates, and most of them will reflect back on high school as an important part of their success. No matter how much your school has changed since they graduated, it's still their school, and they'd like to see your program do well.

Any donor, large or small, is worth pursuing. To identify people with the potential to be large donors, work with leaders from each of those five reunion classes. Ask them, "Which of your classmates have done really well?" You might get 40 or 50 names out of that, and once you have the names, you can start reaching out.

These are the people who are going to be the base of your annual fund, but you can't expect them to go from zero to $1,000 overnight. A lot of them will give you something, but they're going to be guarded until they see you're able to steward their money. First, they'll give you a modest amount and watch what you do with it.

From there, it's your job to prove they're making a difference. You want to convince them? Bring them to your school, show them where their donation went, and give them a chance to talk to the athletic director. That's how the relationship grows. The closer you bring them to your program, the more they'll identify with your mission. The more they identify with your mission, the larger their gifts will grow.

While you're working on the larger donors, don't forget everyone else. Big donors start as small donors, so if you're thinking long-term, grassroots is the way to go. No matter the size of their contribution, you need to thank people for their gift and reinforce the connection to your program. Each donor needs a personal approach, and that takes a lot of hard work.

Volunteers are extremely helpful in working a campaign, but there's so much work to do, and it's so time-consuming, that it helps to hire a professional fundraiser. By hiring a pro--or two--you have someone to create a strategy, coordinate all your efforts, and maintain a database of every ask and every gift.

It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to give volunteers the support they need. You can't run an effective grassroots campaign without a strong group team of volunteers, but you need a pro to keep everyone on target. That's well worth paying for, because with all the volunteer turnover from one year to the next, you need someone to provide consistency.

Do that with each of your reunion classes, and over time, you'll build a history of annual giving. Start small--you might be planting seeds for a while. Then, once your annual fund takes root, you'll be ready to launch a major campaign.

Mal Scanlan recently completed a $12 million fundraising effort at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, Minn., and is currently in the silent phase of a $30 million capital campaign. is brought to you by a recognized and established name in the school athletics arena, MomentumMedia—publisher of Athletic Management, Coaching Management and Training & Conditioning magazines.