What We Learned From Our First Two Giving Days

September 27, 2016

What We Learned From Our First Two Giving Days

tag higher education
What We Learned From Our First Two Giving Days

Before my first giving day, I was very skeptical. I thought they were just the hot new trend in annual giving. Now, after experiencing a successful giving day, I understand what people were so excited about.

When we hit our goal on giving day year two, my team and I were jumping up and down screaming. It. Was. Awesome.

But let me back up a little bit…

In year one, we didn’t make our goal. We weren’t even close actually. Our goal was 1,000 donors. We had less than 400 in more than two days.

Our first mistake

Here was our first mistake: listening to a vendor who insisted that we could hit 1,000 donors. They said that other schools, with donor bases smaller than ours, did it, and we could too. We knew that the culture of giving at our school wasn’t there, were skeptical and nervous about the goal, but we went for it anyway. You know your audience better than anyone. Trust your gut.

Our biggest mistake

More than anything else, I attribute our results (or lack thereof) to a theme that was too hard to understand. Our first giving day theme was very complicated and confusing – not easily grasped in 2 minutes, or really 30 seconds, which is the amount of time you have to grab someone’s attention.

I tell my team: think about a person in the mid-west, sitting in her cubicle, quickly checking Facebook or her personal email mid-day. That’s who we’re trying to reach. And we need her to understand what we’re doing and what we want her to do in about 30 seconds.

And one more…

In year one, we didn’t do a lot of pre-marketing. We sent a postcard that said “Something big is coming” that hit a week or two out. Two days before, we sent an email with the same thing. But it didn’t tell people what the big thing was. There wasn’t enough lead up. They weren’t prepared to make a gift.

How we fixed our mistakes

In year two, we had a more reasonable goal and simplified our theme dramatically. We kept it kind of cute: Get Clawed to the Ball – a nod to the student tradition of the Founders Day Ball and how difficult it can be to get tickets. But the giving language, and the point, was very simple: If we get 400 donors by 7:00 pm on 2/25, Clawed will be dancing like it’s the Founders Day Ball because we’ll get $50,000 for AU students.


That’s the biggest thing you need: a very simple, straightforward call to action. More than you need a game or something catchy or cute, you need something that people will understand quickly.

We also did a lot of pre-marketing in our second year with weekly emails explaining giving day and the case for philanthropy.

Now what?

In year three, we’ll up our goal incrementally. We’ll keep our marketing super simple, but we’re looking to add an additional challenge or two. We’ve brought on a larger, cross-functional team to help us plan and ongoing meetings have already begun (giving day is in February).

One that will remain the same? We’ll be jumping up and down and screaming when we hit our goal. And it will. Be. Awesome.

What we learned

Keep it simple. Simple theme, simple marketing.

You know your audience. Do what will work for your audience (not just what a vendor tells you to do or what other schools are doing).

Do the education beforehand, both internally and externally. Tell your people what’s coming, what you want them to do, and why you want them to do it.

About the author

Joanna Platt is the Associate Director of Annual Giving at American University in Washington, DC. Her gift is seeing the best in others and she uses that skill in her annual giving role to tell stories that make people feel good. Outside of work, she is a life and relationship coach.