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Nonprofits: How to Switch from Annual Campaigns to Recurring Giving

By February 26, 2019

By: Molly Boncaro, VP of Configuration, Implementation, and Account Management, United Way Worldwide

For nonprofits, moving from annual fundraising to year-round fundraising may sound daunting – after all, asking once a year is hard enough. Increasing the number of “asks” that you make throughout the year may provide some incremental increase in donations, but it can also cause donor fatigue and email opt-outs. Fortunately, switching to year-round giving is not about asking for donations year-round. Rather, it’s about changing and enriching the entire experience for everyone involved.

While it may go without saying that more donations are better than one, there’s actually a little more to it than that. According to a 2017 study, recurring donors have an 85–95% long-term retention rate, compared with the average donor retention rate of just 45%. So getting small, recurring donations or engagement from one person throughout the year, as opposed to a large donation at the end of the year, actually doubles the chances that that person will donate again next year — and the years following.

Calendar to inspire year-round giving

Why Annual Campaign Must Evolve

In case that’s not enough to convince you to make the switch, there are also some compelling reasons that suggest the time for annual campaigns is over. United Ways have been running annual campaigns for 130+ years, so we are intimately familiar with just how big of a transformation this is. In 2018, we announced a partnership with to be the exclusive resellers of Philanthropy Cloud. This partnership has indeed transformed our organization, and one of the biggest challenges we face is making the shift from annual campaigns to year-round giving. And while we haven’t mastered it – yet – we are well on our way. During this process, we’ve seen first-hand just how outdated annual campaigns are.

Here are our top three observations:

A major disconnect. In an annual campaign environment, donors are cut off from the specific actions nonprofits are taking throughout the year in that specific location. Donors receive a request to donate to an organization, and they may have no real insight into what that organization is doing or has done throughout the year. Instead, the request is tied to the donor’s general perception of what the nonprofit does, such as feeding the hungry or providing relief after a disaster. That is not the same (nor as powerful) as learning that the local food pantry has seen a 15% uptick over the past month, for example, due to a cold snap that wiped out paychecks, which had to go toward heat instead of groceries. This type of detail, combined with timing and a personal experience to which the donor can relate (they probably suffered through that same cold snap), connects the donor to the cause in a way that simply does not exist with a traditional year-end campaign.

Need to respond to emergencies. Our 24-hour news cycle means donors respond best when there’s a sense of urgency. Annual campaigns lack urgency and instead play on a “giving spirit” that is typically tied with the holidays. The holidays will always be a good time for gala fundraisers for exactly this reason, but having a system in place to quickly act on urgent needs is also vital. Additionally, when it comes to disasters, employees are likely to know someone or have co-workers impacted by these unfortunate events, and may want to contribute immediately.

More than ever, it’s important to provide real-time opportunities for people to act. Case in point: United Way recently launched the United for US Fund to help federal workers during the government shutdown in January 2019. Within a few hours of publishing that page, more than 1,000 individuals had made a pledge. People understood that the need was urgent. By December 2019, the shutdown will have been long-forgotten and replaced by a number of other needs. In this way, we were able to raise funds for a very specific cause at a specific time, and people donated money that they would not likely have donated otherwise.

Employee engagement. Corporate HR departments are looking to put the employee at the center of their work experiences. Providing them with giving and volunteering opportunities that suit them can actually help improve employee retention — a key metric for HR professionals. In addition, employees want their companies to care about social issues, and they’re looking for ways to get involved. All they need are opportunities to do so. Consider asking your contacts in corporate HR: What events do they do for Chinese Lunar New Year, for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, for Veterans Day, etc?

How to Shift from an Annual Pledge Drive to Recurring Giving

So how do you shift from asking for funds at the holidays to creating an ongoing engagement with donors? There’s not one easy way. It will start with changing the minds and habits in your own organization. But we can offer some helpful advice for making the switch:

1. Get buy-in to change the mindset. It’s important to get the buy-in from all of the key stakeholders, both within and outside of your organization. Corporate executives, your community leaders, other nonprofits, volunteers, ambassadors, and so on. The more support you get from outside of your organization, the more your nonprofit can build out a trusted brand and foundation in the community.

2. Create and share content regularly. You need to create the sense of an ongoing relationship with donors, which requires letting them know what’s happening. Be sure to have a mechanism in place to tell donors about not only the issues and needs in your community, but also upcoming events, volunteering opportunities, and giving campaigns. Finally, use this same mechanism to share results from past efforts, so donors can see that they made a difference

3. Create a content calendar tied to different events throughout the year. Consider creating giving- and volunteering-related content tied to major holidays significant to the country where you work, as well as international days and observances, as well as months like Black History Month or seasons such as back-to-school and homecoming. You could even include big events such as the Super Bowl in your content calendar.

4. Get your data together. Your data from various programs, donors, websites, and tools isn’t doing you much good if it’s not working together. Expecting you data to work for you when it’s living in separate silos is like swimming upstream. You might make some progress, but it’s not an efficient use of your time. offers Nonprofit Cloud, which can help connect your programs to your marketing materials, and personalize communications.

5. If you work with companies for giving or volunteering, ask them what they want to achieve. By aligning your content and campaigns with your corporate partners’ goals, you may be able to spark extra enthusiasm. Many CSR professionals are heavily involved in employee engagement and strive toward matching their goals with employee-held values. If this is the case, your alignment will reap even bigger rewards.

6. Make recurring donations easy and accessible. Whether you’re working with a corporate partner who can offer a steady payroll deduction or are looking to get recurring donations through your own website, make sure you lower the barriers to people who wish to give frequently. Some giving platforms, such as Philanthropy Cloud, have this capability built in, so it behooves you to encourage adoption of a philanthropy platform with your corporate partners.

An example of an online giving page for disaster relief
An example of an online giving page for disaster relief

7. Create meaningful volunteering experiences. The best way to create long-term donor relationships is to provide memorable, meaningful experiences. Make sure the volunteering opportunities you create are well-organized, engaging, and fun. It’s also important to ensure they are properly staffed by individuals who can share why the hours being donated have an impact in people’s lives or communities.

8. Use marketing automation to nurture donor “leads.” Nurturing leads through marketing automation is a business tool that essentially equates to automatically sending emails to prospects at certain intervals and trigger points to keep them coming back for more. Nonprofits can do this, too, but many don’t. Learn about marketing automation for nonprofits and then set up your own email journeys (also known as workflows). For instance, you can create an email journey for a one-time volunteer to invite them back to other volunteering events, or follow up with donation requests specific to their volunteer interests. Make sure not every email is a request, though. Keep the journey going with ongoing updates about the causes they’re interested in.

Start Engaging Donors Year-Round

For your nonprofit, keeping donors engaged year-round can provide your organization a steady cash flow and the opportunity to grow. United Way and have partnered to turn regular employees into citizen philanthropists with Philanthropy Cloud. Read more about our partnership by downloading our partnership fact sheet.

Learn more about United Way’s partnership with Philanthropy Cloud.


About the Author
Molly BoncaroMolly Boncaro is VP of Configuration, Implementation and Account Management at United Way. Molly works with companies using Philanthropy Cloud and likes to share best practices on how nonprofit fundraising is evolving. Her areas of expertise include nonprofit management, fundraising, marketing, CRM, event planning, strategic planning, and volunteer management. Connect with her on LinkedIn.