Giving Societies: The Field of Dreams Myth

giving societies- the field of dreams myth

“If you brand it… they will come.”


There is no magical key to donor engagement.

If you brand it, they won’t come.

Or, at least, it doesn’t guarantee that they will. Giving societies can be an amazing way to engage donors, to make them feel part of a community. There are some giving societies out there that are so strong and full of engaged donors, so it’s a great “tool” in fundraising.

However – it’s not always the right tool. And again, it’s not a magical key.

Let’s say you’re starting a mid-level giving program.

A lot of organizations start the process with a giving society. They create a name, a brand, letterhead, and a great brochure.

And then they sit back and wait for the donors to join the club!

And they wait… and wait… and wait…

And the donors don’t come.

Too often as fundraisers we’re motivated by what makes most sense to us internally. By what’s easiest administratively. By what seems like a quick, cheap strategy.

“We can’t feasibly call all our donors and find out what they want and need. But it’d be really convenient to have a name to refer to our mid-level donors as, so let’s call them the 1986 Society. The donors will identify with that!” 

This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, written by a total heroine of mine: RuPaul Charles.

You can call me he. You can call me she. you can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don't care! Just as long as you call me.

That’s RuPaul’s attitude towards what pronouns you choose to refer to him with. The truth is that he doesn’t care! What he cares more about is that you call him! Acknowledge him!

Donors are the same! We spend too much time thinking about the “other stuff” – the giving societies, internal naming conventions, letterhead – and not nearly enough time acknowledging the donors themselves.

And maybe if we spent more time on that, we’d find out more about what the donors actually want.

Maybe they DO want a giving society, a group to be part of. A sense of being a VIP. Access to behind-the-scenes at your charity.

Or maybe they DON’T want a giving society. Maybe they won’t identify with a separate, special brand. Maybe they’d prefer you spent more time on the mailings they receive; add more content, give them more giving opportunities that inspire them.

The truth is we can’t know until we ask. And donors love to be asked!

Don’t look for the easy way out.

Give your donors the #donorlove they deserve!

Call a donor today to find out what they do and don’t want from you, and let me know what you find out!


Sign up for my email list and get a FREE E-BOOK on mid-level donors!

Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising for over nine years. Click here to learn more about Maeve.

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Giving Societies… What Gives?!

I am in program analysis / program planning mode for my Leadership Giving program in my new role, and with that comes a lot of thought and reflection… what is a leadership gift? What makes someone a leadership donor? What needs to happen in order for me to consider moving a donor into major gift territory?  I find the process energizing and exciting, but it brings up some tough questions.  One of those tough questions is:

Do donors care about giving societies???

As I plan the year ahead for the Leadership Giving program, I’m considering whether it would be effective to create a concrete leadership-level giving society.  The thing that makes this consideration tough is whether giving societies only mean something internally and the donor doesn’t really care.  Would a giving society strengthen a culture of philanthropy?  Would donors who make it in the society care, and really identify as part of that society?  Would a society make someone stretch their giving to a new level so that they can be part of something?

When giving societies are effective (because sometimes they really are), why are they effective?  Is it when they’re really established and have been around a while?  Is it when being at a certain level means certain perks, like invitations to events and/or some kind of tangible benefit like a pin or a special name tag?  Does the giving society have to equal some kind of prestige?

If a giving society has to be well-established in order to mean something, then is it in our best interest to start them if it will take such a long time to establish them?  Will it be worth the time and resources to push on until, say, the 20-year mark where it starts to mean something?

Or do people care about these things any more? Do giving societies promote giving and/or a culture of philanthropy, or do we just like to think they do? Do we like it internally because we have an easy way to refer to certain levels or giving and certain donors?

Regardless of all this, can we still refer to a group in a specific way in mailings? For example, whether there’s a society or not, can I refer to my donors as leadership donors in a direct mail piece? If they don’t already identify with that label and there’s no concrete giving society, can I still use it to give them a sense of their being special?


What do you think??? Are giving societies worth our time and thought?


Written by Maeve Strathy


Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past seven years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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Mid-Level Gifts

Happy New Year!!!  I hope that everyone enjoyed a lovely holiday season and that 2014 is off to a good start for you.  I am a person that really enjoys the promise a new year brings – opportunities for fresh starts, recommitting to goals, reflecting on the accomplishments of the last year, and considering with excitement the year to come.  Bring it on!

But on a totally unrelated note, I’d like to talk briefly about mid-level gifts.  When I attended the 2013 CCAE National Conference last June in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I attended a session on mid-level gifts.  These gifts, categorized differently by different organizations, are becoming a bit of a hot topic in fundraising.  We keep our annual funds running smoothly (they are the life-blood of our organizations, after all), and we focus our attention on those ever-important major gifts, but what about the area in between???  What about those people who are giving (or have the capacity to give) year after year in, for example, the $5,000 – $25,000 range?  These are meaningful gifts, making a measurable difference for your organization.  Are they getting attention?  Do you know anything about these donors?  Are you stewarding them?

What do we know about mid-level donors?  Some of the things I’ve learned from colleagues, at conferences, and in my own experiences, are that these donors don’t necessarily know the difference they’re making through their gifts.  They give loyally and consistently, and aren’t asking for much in return.  There’s not much of a culture built around these gifts.  6-figure and up gifts often have more fanfare – naming opportunities, receptions, gift agreement contracts, and expectations from the donors, but mid-level gifts don’t have that.  I’m not saying they should, but perhaps mid-level donors should have a bit of a community built around them.  I talked about a culture of philanthropy in my last post of 2013… perhaps there could be a culture of mid-level giving…

What would a culture around mid-level giving mean?  Well, it could mean that mid-level donors know that they’re mid-level donors.  They have “chinned themselves up”, to borrow a term from my current Executive Director, to a larger gift than the average annual donor, because they have the capacity to, and the passion to.  Their gifts are making a significant impact on your organization, and they ought to know it.  Perhaps this group of donors could have a name, and a way of being recognized, like an annual cocktail party.  Maybe instead of just passively watching those larger gifts come in, you could meet these people face-to-face; get to know them, have them get to know you, understand where their passion lies at your organization, and then let all that information simmer so that when the right project comes along… they could be the major donor.  

But don’t get me wrong, it’s not only about the donor pipeline.  Yes, these mid-level donors have the potential to be major donors down the line, but they’re also incredible just as they are… and we need to make sure they know it!


Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in educational fundraising for the past 6 years.  Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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Guest Post: 3 Reasons Your University Should Have a Giving Circle (And How You Can Start One)

Enjoy this post by What Gives???’s first guest blogger Sharon Lipinski, Founder of Change Gangs.  Read more about Sharon and her amazing organization by clicking here.

What Is a Giving Circle? 

A giving circle is a form of shared philanthropy. The only defining feature of a giving circle is that members pool their donations into one large fund, and as a group decide how to disburse that money.

3 Reasons You Want a Giving Circle
A giving circle can help you:

  1. Deepen relationships with donors.
    A giving circle gives alumni an “insider” view of what’s going on at the university.  Many alumni already support the university in different ways; they may be buying tickets to the games, donating to their specific colleges or even donating directly to the university. But when they’re part of the giving circle, they have a deeper understanding and information about how the university works and they get to have a say in how their gifts to the university are spent.During the course of their membership in the giving circle, some members may become very interested in a particular program or department and give additional funds. They may get involved in capital campaigns. Because they are more emotionally involved in the university and donating to the university is an active part of their life, giving circle members often support multiple areas of the university.
  2. Fund projects the university can’t or doesn’t fund.
    The university’s funds are limited and as much as they’d like to, they can’t always fund all the worthwhile programs. A giving circle can fill in the gaps and fund the new, the untried, the small, and the otherwise overlooked but valuable endeavors.  It’s even possible that the giving circle’s grants allows a project to grow into such a valuable program that the university takes over funding it.
  3. Raise more money.
    Giving circle members are emotionally involved in donating, and donating to the university becomes part of their identity. As the relationship deepens, the amount of money a giving circle member chooses to donate can increase.  In addition, because members are exposed to programs and faculty they may not otherwise know about, members can get excited about supporting those individual programs and donate above and beyond their giving circle contributions.

How Would a Giving Circle Work At My University?

Starting with your most active alumni and inviting them to be a part of the university’s new giving circle that will support programs within the university. You may choose to focus on women or science programs, but you can choose to support any university program.

These new giving circle members make an annual donation into the giving circle’s fund. Perhaps the starting donation is $500 and there is a second tier for “president’s circle” at $1,000. If an alumnus has graduated within the last 4 years, they could donate $250 a year. The tiered giving structure can encourage higher levels of giving while still making it accessible to everyone.

Once per year, you notify departments, faculty, and student organizations that grant money is available and how they can apply. You review the grant applications with your giving circle (maybe a few members volunteer to review the grant applications), and the applications meeting your giving circle’s requirements go on to the next round.

The remaining applications are then researched a little more in-depth. Maybe a giving circle member will visit the department or have a call with the faculty member to get a better understanding of the project. The notes and applications are uploaded to a website and emailed to members who then vote online for which projects they’d like to fund.  The project(s) with the most votes receive the giving circle’s funds. Because the grant process is finished up on-line, alumni who no longer live in the area can participate.

You organize a ceremony to award the funds where alumni mingle and hear from the winners and past winners about what they’ve done with the funds and what the funds have done for them. This allows members to connect with other alumni and hear about the difference they’re making first hand. As a result, their membership in the circle and relationship with university feel even more rewarding.

Next year, you start a direct mail campaign to invite more alumni and your current members introduce you to other alumni you can invite. As you grow, so does your relationship with your alumni, the amount of money you’re collecting, and the impact you’re making on the university.

How to Start a Giving Circle
Download the Start A Giving Circle Guide for the 4 steps to starting your own giving circle.

Also, review the articles and interviews at Giving Circles Help to learn from people around the country who are already running giving circles.

Giving circles are infinitely adaptable and flexible, so be creative and design a giving circle that works for you and your university.


Written by Sharon Lipinski
Founder of Change Gangs, Virtual Giving Circles
You can connect with Sharon via:
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Who to include…???

My five or so years in “the biz” of fundraising has led me to believe that who to include in the annual report is a hot topic.

Paper isn’t cheap, so you want to use the pages of your publication wisely. On top of that, the annual report is much more than a report – it’s a tool. It’s a tool to encourage those who gave to give again; those who didn’t give to give; and those who gave some to give more.

With all that in mind, what do you do?

My personal opinion, for what it’s worth, is to include everyone.

Yes, absolutely there are limits to this, but if you can – include everyone.

As a young person, I focus a lot of thought, research, and attention to young people and their capacity to give, their knowledge of philanthropy, and what drives them to make a donation.

So when I think about the annual report, I think about a young alumnus (in the case of educational fundraising). I think about a young alumnus making a gift of $25 and thinking, “This is all I can manage at this point. I hope it can make a difference.”

And of course, if the alumnus told that to us fundraisers, we’d say, “Absolutely it makes a difference!  Every dollar counts!”  But then what if they look at the annual report and see that only people who made gifts of $1,000+ are listed? What will they feel about their $25 gift then?  Will they think it matters?

And, of course, this doesn’t only apply to young donors – it applies to anyone under that $1,000 mark.

Yes, the idea of excluding those who gave under $1,000 is to encourage them to give that bit more to get them in the report. But let’s look back at what I said the annual report is a tool for: to encourage those who gave to give again; those who didn’t give to give; and those who gave some to give more.

How do we encourage those who gave to give again?  We recognize their gift by listing them in the report.

How do we encourage those who didn’t give to give? We show every single gift from $0.01+ in the report so that those who didn’t give see that they’ll get recognition no matter what they give.

How do we encourage those who gave some to give more? This is the only one for which perhaps only including gifts of $1,000+ encourages giving. But there’s another way – we all have them – giving societies. The donor who gave $1-$999 could easily be encouraged to give more when they see if they give $1,000, they’ll be part of another society. No, it’s not a surefire way to encourage a larger gift next year, but it could work.

Or – here’s a thought: On the topic of young donors, do we create a lower threshold of giving in order for this group to get listed in the report? Make it relative to age and stage? It’s something to consider.

But as far as I can see, you can’t lose by listing every gift in the annual report.  What do you think?  Do you passionately disagree?  Share your thoughts!  I can’t wait to see the debate!

Written by Maeve Strathy

Maeve is the Founder of What Gives Philanthropy and has been working in fundraising since 2007.

Click here to learn more about Maeve.

Connect with Maeve via:
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