Today, many nonprofit organizations round out their annual and major gift efforts with programs focused on planned giving. Implementing a planned giving program can be an effective way to diversify revenue streams and move donors along a continuum of commitment to your organization similar to the one shown below.

Recently, CCS partnered with Holocaust Museum LA (HMLA) to design a planned giving program that will be rolled out to a select cross-section of donors in the near future. HMLA felt it both important and relevant to increase emphasis on planned giving, particularly because the concept of honoring legacy is a central theme in their mission to “commemorate those who perished, honor those who survived, educate about the Holocaust, and inspire a more dignified and humane world.” Holocaust Museum LA CEO, Beth Kean, said, “With an aging community of survivors, we had long wanted to create a proactive planned giving program to offer families opportunities to make an enduring, meaningful gift that will impact future generations. We just didn’t know where to get started. After CCS helped us launch a successful capital campaign, we knew their team of strategic fundraising experts would be the perfect partner to guide us on a legacy program.”

Many of the volunteers at the heart of the Museum’s programming are Holocaust survivors now in their 90’s. Others have parents, grandparents, or other family members who escaped or perished during the Holocaust. Couple this history with statistics on the alarming increase of hate crimes and extremism in our society today, and the need for HMLA’s work to endure is evident. A successful planned giving program provides a unique opportunity to quickly scale an organization’s endowment as well as meet more immediate cash needs. At HMLA, such a program will help ensure that the Museum’s vital work continues in perpetuity.

In order to develop a planned giving program tailored to the Museum, CCS conducted a gift planning assessment and first sought to understand the attitudes about and proficiency with planned giving that exist within HMLA’s universe of donors. HMLA’s unique legacy-focused culture combined with the Jewish concepts of tzedakah and tikkun olam – moral obligation to give charitably and to repair the world – suggested that such a program would flourish at the Museum; however, it was important to see this intuition confirmed by data. Thus, we worked with HMLA to isolate a strong set of planned giving prospects and invited them to participate in a survey that gathered qualitative and quantitative data related to donor satisfaction, engagement, and interest in planned giving. What we learned about this community was encouraging and provided us with the basis for developing the materials, events, and messaging that now compose HMLA’s planned giving program.

The program was designed to start small and eventually grow into a more robust operation as HMLA expands its staff and expertise with various gift planning vehicles. Initial focus was placed on developing the following materials:

  • Prospect matrix – This database grew out of the planned giving survey, wealth screening analysis, and other data analytics work. A significant list of potential planned giving donors was created and then prioritized for cultivation. Strategic outreach activities were designed to correspond with various prospect groups. For example, a follow-up email was designed to announce the planned giving society, and multiple versions were created with text befitting survey participants, current planned giving donors, or those in the survivor community.
  • Preliminary brochure – A brochure featuring donor testimonials was designed for digital and print use to introduce the planned giving program. The brochure includes a QR code and website URL that enable donors to sign up to learn more about the program. A separate list of planned giving vehicles and their benefits was developed to accompany the physical brochure and serve as a donor takeaway at meetings and events.
  • Recognition and benefits – CCS worked with the Museum team to conceptualize Enduring Truth, a legacy society for planned giving donors. Benefits of membership include special listings and the chance to participate in legacy society luncheons, planned giving seminars, and planned giving salon events. CCS also reviewed and updated HMLA’s gift acceptance policies to adhere to current standards and support a greater organizational focus on planned giving.
  • Planning calendar – An annual calendar of planned giving communications and events was created to ensure that donors at various stages in the pipeline are being cultivated and stewarded at an optimal cadence.
  • Branding and messaging development – A concept note for a digital planned giving newsletter was developed to welcome new legacy donors, celebrate milestones, provide advice from featured financial experts, and spotlight events and exhibits at the Museum.
  • List of experts – A list of financial planners, CPAs, estate attorneys, and other experts was compiled. During the course of the project, many of the individuals listed were engaged to review materials and plans and provide feedback to the Museum. In the future, these individuals may be featured in the newsletter or invited to speak at seminars and other planned giving-focused events.

Creating the simple tools above as well as the talking points and communications plan to introduce them to potential donors were foundational steps in crafting what will undoubtedly be a strong planned giving program at Holocaust Museum LA. CCS looks forward to our continued partnership with HMLA as they embark on implementing and growing their planned giving program for the benefit of their donors and mission.

If you have questions about exploring gift planning work at your organization, please contact

In 2016, Michael Waldman, the visionary CEO of St. Paul JCC, sought CCS Fundraising out as a partner when the fundraising slowed on their Capital Campaign. The multi-million-dollar campaign was initiated to reimagine spaces, including a state-of-the-art performing arts center, aquatic center, fitness facilities, and a cultural arts wing. Together, the JCC and CCS created a plan to move the needle upwards from $7 million. By the end of 2017, more gifts were secured than imaginable, reaching $15 million. By the end of 2018, the total surpassed $16 million and membership had grown by 600 families. Today, the JCC is stronger than ever, having merged with another local JCC to form the Minnesota JCC with Michael at the helm. Brooke Laskin, Vice President at CCS, caught up with Michael Waldman to reflect on their partnership, Michael’s leadership, and the role of Jewish values in philanthropy.

Brooke: Can you believe it’s been more than five years since we worked shoulder-to-shoulder?

Michael: It’s flown by and the last pledges are being paid this year. We were fortunate that more than 99% of the funds pledged came to fruition!

Brooke: What an impressive rate of return. What do you credit it to?

Michael: Our donors, our friends, our community, our Jewish values. We are fortunate.

A child enjoys swimming at the JCC.

Brooke: Let’s talk a little about Jewish values. Like many, I learned how to swim at a JCC as a preschooler, but I also learned about the Jewish values of tzedakah (giving back) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) as a JCC preschooler.

Michael: These values are all about philanthropy – making the world a better place and doing acts of charity. We teach this early on at our early childhood centers, two camps (Butwin and Olami), and through our youth programming. What’s unique about the JCC is that we are guided by Jewish values and our campers and preschoolers are both Jewish and non-Jewish. We program through a Jewish lens, and create accessible ways for our youth to experience the act of giving on a local level to help them see what is right in front of them and then help them connect what they learn to a more global perspective. For example, why is it important to give to food banks? We didn’t just do a canned food drive to reach a goal and have pizza party– we did it because someone is going to eat those canned goods who otherwise may go hungry tonight. It’s important for kids in our community, who may never know what it is like to be hungry, to understand early on how to be better citizens of our community and world. While these are Jewish values, they are ultimately human values that relate to us all.

Brooke: Tell me a little about how you carry out these values in your own home and how they have been passed down from one generation to the next.

Michael: I looked at what my grandparents and parents instilled in family about giving back. While they didn’t have a lot of money, they still gave financially and through gifts of time. Today, my parents talk to my own two sons and their other grandchildren about giving annually. They tell each grandkid to research a nonprofit and they donate to the places the kids recommend. The giving has shifted from the zoo, to homeless shelters, to Alzheimer’s research, to cleaning up the ocean – whatever is on their minds as they grow up. It’s more than a teaching moment – it’s never been a question of why philanthropy is important because it is so ingrained.

A group of adults take part in a Zumba class at the St. Paul JCC.

Brooke: A passion for fundraising runs in your family!

Michael: My father was a social worker and, as he took on the role of an agency executive in the 1980s, that came with the role of fundraising.  He started a comedy event at Jewish Family and Children’s Services to raise money, which was novel at the time. Today he is 81 and has retired three times. He keeps restarting at places to fundraise and is now helping a local Jewish overnight camp. He loves it and I am inspired by him.

Brooke: The JCC has persevered through a lot as a result of COVID. How have you adapted and grown as an organization?

Michael: We saw a growth in annual giving as a result of COVID. There was recognition of what the JCC means to people who are marginalized, such as those with disabilities or the elderly. Without the JCC, many were isolated from the community with no connections other than our staff that did outreach. For example, we adapted our programming so that, rather than having people come to the JCC for their meals, we delivered it right to them and created a kosher drive-through. On the fundraising side, we would never have asked people for money by Zoom before COVID, but now we find we can connect with more people more often using technology, and that is a good thing. That said, it’s still not the same as sitting at the table with someone or catching up in the parking lot after a board meeting. But we have found meaningful ways to continue to move relationships forward.

Fast forward to now, we had a $1.5 million deficit this year because we’ve dropped a main source of revenue as a result of the pandemic – membership. People weren’t coming in person. Less members means less classes, less campers, less personal training, and more. We dropped from 3,700 membership units to 1,400 during the pandemic and are now back up to 2,700. We set up the Gesher Initiative to bridge the difference. Gesher means “bridge” in Hebrew. Generous people who understand that the JCC must get through this are stepping up.

Brooke: How did combining with another JCC during COVID play into this all?

Michael: We had been exploring a combination effort ahead of the pandemic and we had a strong theory that combining would have both a positive programmatic and financial impact. Obviously, no one knew COVID was coming, but our hypothesis proved to be accurate—when resources got tight, we found important opportunities to be more efficient together. Significant planning and work by dedicated leaders had occurred ahead of the pandemic, and we were fortunate that the timing lined up.

Brooke: Any advice to other organizations considering merging?

Michael: Start with an open mind. Start by saying, “We think there might be value in combining. Let’s see if this is true.” It is critical to weigh all information and not solely focus on the financial aspect. The first step was asking, “Should we merge?” Then the next step was, “How?” We explored many different options and structures. In the end, we wound up forming two new entities—an operating JCC and a separate foundation that holds our endowments and real estate assets.

Kids in a JCC program smile for a group picture in their life jackets.

Brooke: It’s been awhile since I worked on your case for support. What’s your latest pitch?

Michael: Just as it’s always been—we change lives in ways large and small. We’re more than a place to exercise—we are a community. The purpose of the case is to help people understand that it’s all about what we do with revenue—through summer camping; early childhood education; supportive services; Jewish art, culture and enrichment; and of course, health and wellness, we ignite the human spirit and transform lives every day in ways big and small. We invest your money back into the community through scholarships, meal programs, programs for people with disabilities, and more. Everything we do is interfaith and welcoming to all that share our value of inclusion, and everything we do is done through the lens of Jewish values and culture. What other organization fights antisemitism by bringing people of all faiths together to have fun?

Brooke: I’m a JCC champion and I hope my annual fund gift, combined with other friends, will help the J persist for generations to come. Thanks for catching up, Michael.  

This interview was adapted and edited for online article format.

More Insights


Building a Culture of Philanthropy

“Culture” is ubiquitous, although that does not mean it is easy to define. Instead, “culture” presents a challenge when we try to change it without buy-in from essential stakeholders. Understanding that every organisation has a particular culture, whether or not stakeholders acknowledge it, is crucial in formulating a fundraising strategy.

November 24, 2020

CCS Philanthropy Pulse

The CCS Philanthropy Pulse survey report provides a window into the fundraising practices of almost 900 organizations based on data collected in late 2021. Check out both our main report and sector-specific spotlights for Arts & Culture, Health, Higher Education, Human Services, Independent Schools, and Religion.

January 25, 2022

Donor Advised Funds – or “DAFs” – have firmly established themselves as a philanthropic vehicle in the donor toolbox. A recent special report from the Giving USA Foundation and the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy highlights that “total grant dollars from DAF-sponsoring organizations … nearly doubled from 2014 to 2018.” In 2019, grants from DAFs represented 6.1 percent of all dollars given to charitable organizations – up from 3.8 percent five years earlier – and have experienced a 90 percent net growth in grant dollars from 2014-2018.

In this two-part article, we will unpack:

  1. The DAF ecosystem: how money moves through the system and the unique roles each type of sponsoring organization plays within that system.
  2. The two DAF donor types: known and unknown. We will define DAF donor personas and outline strategies to engage each persona and increase investments in your organization more deeply.

“As DAF grantmaking continues to grow, it’s important for charities to understand how DAFs work and why donors use them. From what we’ve seen – both in our own work and elsewhere in the field – DAF donors seem to grant similarly to the ways highly affluent donors always have. DAF donors are likely to be similar to an organization’s other wealthy donors, with maybe a marginally greater desire for convenience or anonymity, and so similar fundraising strategies should be applicable,” said Jon Bergdoll, co-author of the report and Associate Director of Data Partnerships at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.

Part 1 – The Donor Advised Fund Ecosystem: How Do DAFs work?

To take advantage of this massive pool of charitable opportunity, veteran, green, and aspiring fundraisers across all sectors must understand not only what a DAF is, but also how the DAF ecosystem operates. Knowing who the stakeholders are within that ecosystem, and their roles and motivations, enables fundraisers to design strategies targeted at DAF donors that will help drive philanthropic revenue to their organization’s mission.

How a DAF Operates

Note: lines indicate the flow of cash.

A chart showing how a Donor Advised Fund operates by showing the relationship between a Donor, their Donor Advised Fund that is operated by a sponsoring organization, and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
  1. The donor contributes to a DAF of their choosing. A DAF is operated by a sponsoring organization: a public charity that establishes and maintains the DAF. Depending on the type of sponsoring organization who maintains the DAF, donors may transfer any number of asset classes to the DAF (e.g., cash, appreciated securities, cryptocurrency) and make the DAF a beneficiary of a trust, will, or insurance policy.
  2. The donor receives an immediate tax benefit at the time the donor transfers assets to the DAF (e.g., income tax deduction, capital gains tax avoidance). The donor’s assets will be invested while in the DAF with the goal of growing the donor’s philanthropic capacity, much like a typical investment portfolio. Depending on the type of DAF and the donor’s relationship with the sponsoring organization, the donor may have influence over how their contributions are invested and grown within the DAF.
  3. Once the donor contributes to a DAF, they have officially made a charitable gift and no longer have control or ownership of the contributed funds. Rather, the donor will have advisory rights to recommend that grants be made from the DAF to a qualified charity of the donor’s choosing. DAF policies differ and may affect the timing of gifts, the amount of a gift, and the nonprofits that are allowed to receive grants.
  4. Since the nonprofit grantee receives the actual gift from the DAF, not the original donor, the nonprofit grantee may or may not know the identity of the original donor. By their very nature, DAFs are a convenient way for donors to remain anonymous or difficult to identify (intentionally or unintentionally) through traditional research, which may present challenges to a nonprofit seeking to cultivate relationships with DAF donors and grow their fundraising revenue.

Donor Advised Fund Ecosystem Stakeholders

With a baseline knowledge of how assets travel through the DAF ecosystem, we will now take a deeper dive into the distinct stakeholders that drive this ecosystem. When building your nonprofit’s fundraising strategies, consider the unique characteristics of each stakeholder and design targeted approaches to best leverage the opportunities DAFs present.

Tip: It is recommended that you research the DAF organizations that donors give through to your nonprofit and/or that your donor prospects utilize as their giving vehicle to better understand how your mission and work align with the policies and goals of the sponsoring organization. Armed with that knowledge, you can tailor your communications and show how your nonprofit will help the donor and the sponsoring organization meet their philanthropic goals.

Sponsoring Organizations

There are more than one thousand sponsoring organizations and over one million donor advised accounts in the United States as of 2020. There are three main types of sponsoring organizations with different goals, motivations, and often different policies and regulations: National/Commercial, Community Foundations, and Single-issue Charities. Within each subgroup, individual sponsoring organizations may have additional policies that are unique to that organization.

National or Commercial

ExamplesFidelity, Schwab, Vanguard
Market Share61% of DAF grant dollars
CharacteristicsIndependent organizations often affiliated with a financial institution that typically provide a broad and national approach to grant making.

Single-issue Charities

ExamplesCatholic Foundation, Jewish Federation, Stanford University
Market Share13% of DAF grant dollars
CharacteristicsOrganizations with a targeted mission or philanthropic goal focused on a singular issue. Many university DAFs and DAFs housed at established nonprofits are considered single-issue charities.

Community Foundations

ExamplesSilicon Valley Foundation, New York Community Trust, The Chicago Community Trust
Market Share26% of DAF grant dollars
CharacteristicsNoncommercial entities that are created for and by individuals within a geographic region, often with local expertise and insight into community needs.

Part 2 – Donor Personas: What Motivates DAF Donors? How Can I Fundraise from DAFs?

DAF donors are typically motivated to give through a DAF for several reasons, with three of the most common reasons being: (1) more control over tax benefits; (2) ease of the experience; and (3) ability to make secure, longer-term plans.

1. Tax Benefits

A donor receives tax benefits at the time they transfer assets into a DAF and not when a grant is made to a nonprofit from the DAF. Donors can decide when the tax environment is most advantageous to them and their financial plans. Donors can also avoid capital gains tax liability by deducting the full market value of their contributed assets (versus any gains they may make from selling those assets in the open market).

Donors who invest in cryptocurrency and seek to make a philanthropic investment with revenue generated from their crypto investments may find DAFs appealing as well; because the crypto market is so volatile, the donor can decide to transfer crypto assets into a DAF, and at an opportune time suggest a grant from their DAF to a charity of their choice when they are prepared to make that decision. In this way, the donor can maximize the amount of their philanthropic investment and mitigate any risks associated with the volatile crypto marketplace. There is more predictability and control over financial planning for many donors when using a DAF as the preferred method of giving.

Tip: While tax benefits are a motivating factor for many donors using DAFs, tax benefits in general remain a low priority for most donors in their decision to make a philanthropic gift.

2. Experience

Many DAF sponsors offer donors services such as access to online platforms that streamline record keeping and enable monitoring of their total philanthropic impact in one place. Others may offer the ability to research nonprofits, track the growth of their assets within the DAF, influence the DAF investment portfolio, name their DAF, and network with other DAF account holders (DAF accounts can be called “foundations” without having to comply with more strict regulations that apply to formal foundations). Sophisticated DAF sponsors can help donors liquidate assets and assist with complex asset donations. Commercial DAF sponsors may provide a one-stop shop for all of a donor’s financial planning needs (e.g., financial advising, portfolio management).

Tip: Because some DAF donors can influence DAF investments, your nonprofit may have multiple opportunities to benefit. Consider speaking with your DAF donors about recommending your organization as part of the DAF investment portfolio if your organization can produce financial returns.

3. Long-term Planning

As noted previously, a key benefit of using a DAF is asset growth while the philanthropic dollars remain in the DAF. Donors can plan for future philanthropic gifts at a level higher than they may be capable of making today. As a result, donors can better build their philanthropic strategy and vision that includes near, mid, and longer-term impact goals.

Additionally, DAFs can make estate planning a bit more seamless, giving donors the ability to name nonprofit beneficiaries of the DAF upon the donors’ passing. The average age for opening a DAF is 55 (an average that continues to skew younger); these individuals are likely contemplating their philanthropic legacies. Donors with families they hope to engage in shared philanthropy may also find DAFs appealing for this reason; donors can give family members advisory rights to their DAFs and name family members beneficiaries of their DAF, giving their beneficiaries a philanthropic platform that they can use to support their personal social impact goals into the future.

Every donor is unique, as are their philanthropic goals and motivations. However, these common motivators for using a DAF can help inform the way you discuss giving with your donors and prospects who use DAFs and enable new and creative ways to engage your donors in philanthropy.

Engagement strategies for DAF holders likely will not be as straightforward as those for more traditional donors. The complexity of the DAF ecosystem and its built-in anonymity prevents DAF holders from being easily identified as there are no DAF holder lists to tap into or databases to access. Instead, fundraisers need to emphasize:

  • The Unknown DAF Donor – curating your own list of potential DAF donors by determining who within your organization’s network uses a DAF
  • The Known DAF Donor – recognizing the best way to engage with those donors that are already known to use DAFs

Prospecting for the Unknown DAF Donor

While it may be difficult to identify which of your donors or prospects use DAFs, the following approaches are worth considering to help uncover DAF donors and prospects:

  1. Survey your donor base periodically and ask them what their preferred giving vehicle is. Consider asking your donors directly whether they use a DAF as part of their philanthropic strategy.
  2. Work with your Board (and other key stakeholders) – especially those who give through DAFs. Ask Board members to identify prospects they may know who use a DAF. This strategy translates to other high-level DAF donors who can be champions for your mission among their peers.
  3. Create a “ways to give” page on your website that includes a separate section on DAFs and track traffic to that page. Consider sending targeted email outreach to groups of donors that highlight DAFs as a way to give to your nonprofit, and provide embedded links to your website that offer more information on this topic – those who click through are likely DAF donors (or future DAF donors).
  4. Use other marketing technology, such as HubSpot and Pardot, that track an individual’s engagement with you and your content – through your emails, websites, calls, and other platforms – to gather additional data points on activity that may identify them as a DAF donor.
  5. Identify local DAF organizations and review their Board, volunteer lists, and donor roles for likely DAF holders. Develop relationships with these organizations that may then be more likely to highlight your organization and its mission to their DAF holders.
  6. For DAF donors who give to your organization anonymously through their sponsoring organization (it is estimated that fewer than 5 percent of DAF donors give anonymously), send stewardship materials to the sponsoring organization itself. Encourage representatives at the organization to share any stewardship materials and impact reports with that donor. Offer the donor (via the sponsoring organization) opportunities to remain anonymous to the public while engaging with your organization in special one-on-one conversations.

Tip: Many supporting organizations, particularly community foundations, also make grants directly from their operational and programmatic funding. Building relationships with these organizations can support potential grant opportunities with those supporting organizations beyond the DAF holders.

Leveraging the Known DAF Donors

In addition to traditional stewardship best practices, there are strategies you can build into your fundraising plans to fully leverage those donors that you know have and use a DAF. A few baseline recommendations include:

  1. Accurately capture and track all information in your database or CRM so you know who has a DAF (use gift receipts from the sponsoring organizations and insights gleaned from the methods above).
  2. Understand any restrictions and limitations that may exist for gifts from DAFs (e.g., no benefits of value can be provided, recognition is generally okay, allowance of pledges and pledge payments are dependent on sponsoring organizations and evolving IRS protocols/legislation). Educate your team and your board on these factors.
  3. Consider sending DAF-specific appeals, mailings, or impact stories to donors and prospects you know give through DAFs or who you suspect may have a DAF.

There are also certain circumstances in which specific DAF donor persona types can be engaged to maximize philanthropic revenue.

Donor Personas

The Loyal DAF Donor With Capacity to Give More

CharacteristicsYou know they use a DAF, but they give at your lower levels.
Tips for SuccessIdentify the sponsoring organization if possible. Research the minimum investment required and use that figure to help inform your target ask amount.

The Legacy DAF Donor Building Their Estate Plan

CharacteristicsOlder DAF donor whom you want to engage in a planned giving conversation and/or engage their family in your organization’s mission.
Tips for SuccessSpeak to the legacy of their gift and their longer-term impact on your organization. Ask questions to better understand their philanthropic mission and goals. Describe how your work addresses those goals. Invite their family to join in these conversations and attend events.

The Trusted DAF Donor to Turn to in Times of Need

CharacteristicsUnforeseen circumstances happen — such as market crashes, socio-political uncertainty, and public health crises. Because DAF donors have already designated funds to philanthropy, these disruptions have less of an effect on their giving.
Tips for SuccessSolicit DAF donors for incremental gifts, in times of crisis and uncertainty, that can provide your organization much-needed support. As your organization develops its strategic plan, review your DAF donor base (tracked in your CRM), and establish a contingency plan that leverages this group of donors and provides more future certainty.

Symbol KeyNoneLowModerateHigh
Effort: Time and resources needed to execute recommended strategies○○○●○○●●○●●●
Opportunity: Projected return on investment○○○●○○●●○●●●

The Bottom Line

Contributions to and grants from DAFs continue to grow at impressive rates, meaning that DAFs are likely to play an even more prominent role in philanthropy in the future than they do now. Testing and implementing new, targeted strategies that are informed by the DAF ecosystem can position you and your organization for sustainable growth and future success.

More Insights


Building a Culture of Philanthropy

“Culture” is ubiquitous, although that does not mean it is easy to define. Instead, “culture” presents a challenge when we try to change it without buy-in from essential stakeholders. Understanding that every organisation has a particular culture, whether or not stakeholders acknowledge it, is crucial in formulating a fundraising strategy.

November 24, 2020

CCS Philanthropy Pulse

The CCS Philanthropy Pulse survey report provides a window into the fundraising practices of almost 900 organizations based on data collected in late 2021. Check out both our main report and sector-specific spotlights for Arts & Culture, Health, Higher Education, Human Services, Independent Schools, and Religion.

January 25, 2022

Retirement assets continue to grow with $39.4 trillion held in the U.S. retirement market in 2021. By comparison, donor-advised funds (DAFs), which have garnered much publicity in recent years due to their steady increase in popularity with major donors, totaled $35 billion in 2020, three orders of magnitude less than retirement assets.

That bears repeating. There is 1,000 times more wealth in retirement assets than in DAF assets.

And yet, many fundraisers often overlook retirement assets, most of which are growing tax-free in Individual Retirement Plans and employer-based Defined Contribution Plans like 401(k)s, when discussing charitable giving options with donors.

To inspire transformational giving to nonprofits from one of the largest asset classes available, fundraisers should understand how donors might use their retirement assets for both philanthropic impact and personal financial advantage.

This article will explore:

  • The importance of gift planning culture
  • Favorable conditions and trends pointing towards future increases in philanthropic giving from retirement assets
  • Reasons why fundraisers may be hesitant to engage donors regarding retirement assets
  • Best practices for fundraisers to educate donors about the benefits of giving from retirement accounts.

Why Gift Planning Culture Is Important for All Nonprofits

A gift planning culture is an institutional commitment to donor-centric fundraising with an expanded focus on noncash assets. Fostering a culture of gift planning within a nonprofit offers myriad benefits to the organization and its donors. Importantly, it helps nonprofits create a more robust revenue pipeline in the short- and long-term. In many cases, noncash assets and deferred giving options allow donors to make their largest gifts to charity.

A planned gift is any current or future gift, made during a donor’s lifetime or at death, in consideration of a donor’s overall financial or estate planning. These gifts are holistic in scope and make use of all available gift types and both cash and noncash assets to help a donor make a personally meaningful gift.

The vast majority of household wealth in the U.S. (up to 97%) is held in noncash assets like stocks, real estate, art, businesses, and retirement assets, rather than in cash or checking accounts. Fundraisers must become more effective at transforming relationships with donors from transactional conversations about annual cash gifts to communicating the value of giving noncash assets during and after their lifetime. When this dialogue is more common between fundraisers and donors, the nonprofit can realize an elevated fulfillment of its mission in partnership with committed donors. These donors in turn can achieve their individual philanthropic and financial goals.

While gift planning is most frequently associated with helping Ultra High Net Worth (UHNW) donors diversify and maximize their philanthropic impact, it also provides new pathways for charitably inclined people at various levels of wealth by utilizing common assets like retirement plans.

Focus on Retirement Assets: Current Favorable Industry Trends

The current philanthropic landscape reflects strong market gains over the last forty years. One beneficiary of market growth is retirement assets, which have nearly tripled since 2000.

CCS is beginning to see evidence of the iceberg that is retirement account giving. Early evidence of growth in asset-based giving can be seen in the results from CCS’s Philanthropy Pulse survey. More than half of respondents expect their organization to secure more deferred gift commitments in 2022.

Promisingly, a majority of nonprofits we surveyed reported receiving gifts from noncash sources like donor-advised funds (80%), appreciated assets (61%), and bequests (57%).

CCS confirmed further evidence of the impending flood of giving via retirement assets as seen in the frequency rankings above. Gifts from retirement assets by beneficiary designation or IRA-qualified charitable distribution ranked as the fifth most popular gift type. This is higher than trusts, annuities, and life insurance. However, nearly double the number of survey respondents receive gifts from DAFs (80%) as compared to gifts from retirement plans (46%).

The frequency of gifts from retirement assets compared to DAFs in this survey highlights untapped opportunity in light of the value of these assets in the United States. While DAFs could indeed be funded with retirement assets, there remains remarkable potential for increased giving directly from retirement plans, from donors of varying capacity.

Even as CCS gained valuable insight from the nonprofits surveyed about positive shifts towards gift planning, results also showed untapped potential for nonprofit organizations to increase charitable giving from all types of noncash assets, including retirement assets.

Though the environment is promising for further diversification of donation-relevant assets, it's clear many nonprofits struggle to normalize and integrate noncash asset giving. So, how do fundraisers overcome barriers to engaging donors in gift planning conversations?

Addressing Fundraiser Hesitancy to Lean into Gift Planning

In CCS’s decades of experience, we have seen a few main reasons fundraisers are hesitant to lean into gift planning discussions with donors:

  1. The nonprofit’s gift planning culture is underdeveloped and under-resourced.
  2. The potential complexity of a planned giving strategy deters fundraisers who lack confidence in this type of fundraising.
  3. The supporting systems and operations, including gift acceptance policies and database utilization, often need review and refinement.

Unsurprisingly, CCS’s Philanthropy Pulse survey results confirmed gift planning is the area in which fundraisers have the lowest self-assessed expertise. Nearly two-thirds of responding organizations (65%) felt that their fundraising staff members were only somewhat or not at all knowledgeable about gift planning.

Addressing these issues is relatively simple, though not easy, just as culture change is simple to understand and difficult to implement successfully. Ultimately, nonprofits will need to invest time and money in various mechanisms to institutionalize their gift planning culture.


  • Leadership and staff training on the importance of gift planning culture and defining a role for everyone in this holistic method of fundraising
  • Consistent fundraiser professional development that includes conference attendance, webinars (many of which are free), reports and books, external speakers, etc.
  • A formal assessment of the nonprofit’s gift planning culture and systems to identify areas of strength, opportunity, growth, and development
  • Regular opportunities for fundraisers to convene and discuss planned giving strategies for specific donors at all stages of engagement

Taking a few hours per year to educate frontline fundraisers and nonprofit leaders on the basics of securing retirement assets as charitable gifts offers a win-win for both deepening relationships with donors and capturing a greater share of wealth held in noncash assets to impact an organization’s mission. Nonprofits can leverage gift planning to help donors act in their own best financial interests, whether that be mitigating tax burdens or providing an income stream, which positions organizations as impactful partners in their donors’ lives.

Growing Gift Planning with Donors

When organizations commit to building or deepening gift planning culture, it is important to bring donors along on this journey simultaneously. The Giving USA Foundation confirmed nearly half of donors with bequests (40%) learned of such estate planning options from a nonprofit, as opposed to their financial advisor or estate planning attorney. Therefore, fundraisers have an incredible opportunity to shape how a donor views their organization relative to their financial and philanthropic potential.

The CCS Gift Planning Practice Group suggests these quick tips and actionable steps for fundraisers to consider when exploring retirement plans as a giving vehicle with their donors.

  1. Common retirement assets like IRAs and 401(k)s can be given to an organization during the donor’s lifetime or as part of an estate plan.
  2. Any person at age 70.5 can gift up to $100,000 from an IRA to a qualified charity and have that amount satisfy any Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). This gift will not be treated as a taxable distribution.
  3. The new age at which individuals must begin initiating RMDs is 72. This change went into effect with the SECURE Act, signed into law in December 2019.
  4. Donors who inherit an IRA must take distributions, even if the donor is not yet of retirement age. Donating those funds could help the donor avoid increased income tax liability and gain a charitable tax deduction.

Actionable Steps

  1. Always encourage donors to consult with a tax expert when considering any proposals or gift requests to ensure the donor understands their tax liabilities and potential savings.
  2. Identify potential and current donors who are 70.5+ years old, are currently giving from an IRA, or who may have inherited an IRA for a targeted conversation.
  3. Plan messaging to donors early in the new year to let them know that your organization accepts gifts from retirement plans. This benefits the donor in two ways:
    • The donor can avoid the IRS penalty if the distribution deadline was missed.
    • The donor can capitalize on investment gains such as higher-yield dividend payments that generally occur at the end of Q4 (December 31st).
  4. Ensure your organization’s EIN and other details are easily accessible on your website.
  5. Build in giving from IRAs and other retirement plans into conversation talking points and proposals.
  6. If a donor wants to leave either a specific dollar amount or a percentage of the total assets of their retirement plan to your organization, they first need to check with their plan administrator to ensure that such a beneficiary designation is allowed.

What’s Next?

With a reasonable investment of time and strategy, many more nonprofits can strategically expand their opportunity to secure these simple yet impactful gifts of retirement assets.

On March 29, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives passed SECURE 2.0, and it’s expected that the U.S. Senate will act on this bill in the coming months. The Senate is basing its bill on the Retirement Savings and Security Act of 2021, so between the two drafts, it is possible there will be significant changes to the funding and disbursement of retirement accounts. Of particular interest to fundraisers is the potential to increase the age of Required Minimum Distributions from age 72 to 75 over the next 10 years.

This piece has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal or tax advice. Individuals should consult their lawyer, accountant, or tax advisor with regard to such matters.

Exploring gift planning?

If you or your fundraising team is looking to increase your knowledge, planning, and execution in gift planning, CCS Fundraising offers a wide range of services to meet your needs and interests.

Meet the Authors

This article was written by members of CCS’s Gift Planning Practice Group.

Anne Thomas

Anne Thomas

Assistant Vice President

Dominic Pepper

Dominic Pepper

Senior Vice President

Christopher Dake

Christopher Dake

Vice President

Christianna Luy

Christianna Luy

Vice President

M. Angel Flores

M. Angel Flores

Senior Vice President

At CCS, we often hear from our nonprofit clients that gift officers have little interest in considering small donors as potential major gift prospects. At first glance, the chances seem slim that a donor who just gave $50 will go on to give $50,000. However, upon closer analysis of an organization’s donor data, we often find that a meaningful number of major donors started out by giving a gift under $250.

CCS has developed proprietary coding to analyze the major donor pathway and discover how small donors were converted to major donors in the past. The charts below demonstrate the results of a recent major donor pathway analysis we completed with a human service organization, which answered three key questions:

  1. How many of the organization’s major donors started out as smaller donors?
  2. How long does it take to convert a small donor to a major donor?
  3. What is the relationship between the size of the donor’s first gift and the time it takes to convert to a major donor?

How Many Major Donors Started Out Small?

This human service organization defines a major gift as a donation of $25,000 or more. Upon completing our analysis, CCS found that among the organization’s 732 major donors, 213 started with a first gift of less than $250. That means that almost 1 in 3 major donors were acquired as rather small donors.

This chart demonstrates that smaller donors should not automatically be ignored as potential major gift prospects if other evidence suggests that they could upgrade to the major giving level.

How Long Did It Take to Convert Small Donors to Major Donors?

The following chart shows how many years it took for each of the 732 donors to start giving at the $25,000+ level. We learned that it can take quite some time for small donors to convert to major donors:

  • Approximately 48% of today’s major donors took at least five years to start giving major gifts
  • Approximately 33% took at least 10 years
  • Approximately 7% took more than 20 years

There are many reasons why it may take small donors years to start giving at a higher level. Some donors may have taken years to generate enough wealth to make a major gift. Others may have had the capacity for major giving earlier but were not yet solicited. Fundraisers may interpret this chart as evidence that major gift asks should be made sooner for some compelling prospects, looking to “slide this chart to the left.”

What Is the Relationship Between the First Gift Size and the Time It Takes to Give a Major Gift?

In our analysis, CCS found that the smaller a donor’s first gift, the longer it took for them to give a major gift. Nevertheless, 1 in 10 donors who converted to a major donor within three years started with a gift of $100 or less.

This analysis proves that this human service organization had small donors with major gift potential. The next question is “which of today’s small donors are the most likely to become major donors, like the 200+ who did so in the past?”

To understand which small donors have the potential to convert, CCS pairs major donor pathway analysis with predictive modeling. Predictive modeling uses a variety of donor characteristics to forecast which donors are likely to give a large gift to the organization, resulting in an actionable list of prospects for gift officers to further qualify and cultivate.

As a result of understanding how small donors can become major donors, nonprofits can uncover new prospects for making transformational gifts.

Want to start a conversation?

CCS Fundraising's data analytics services help nonprofits elevate their major giving strategy.

More Insights


How Predictive Modeling Can Help Nonprofits Identify New Major Gift Prospects

CCS’s Senior Data Scientist John Sammis explains how a nonprofit can use predictive modeling to unearth new fundraising potential in its donor database.

January 26, 2021

Optimizing Major Gift Portfolios Using Predictive Modeling Scores

Major gift portfolios determine where relationship managers’ time and energy will be focused. How can nonprofits make sure they’re focusing on the right donors?

June 4, 2021

The total long-term debt of the U.S. nonprofit sector is estimated to lie between $440 billion and $550 billion. Nonprofits spend over $20 billion each year on interest.

If your organization has debt to address, you’re not alone.

A campaign that includes debt reduction as a priority can feel different from more traditional campaign targets like new construction, endowment, or programmatic growth.

The good news: debt-reduction campaigns use the same tried-and-true fundraising fundamentals.

However, there are key differences in an organization’s approach to the case for support, campaign leadership, donor prospecting and stewardship, and the overall campaign timeline and plan.

Below, we outline tried-and-true tenets to keep your debt-reduction campaign on track, while also incorporating 21st-century considerations for donors in today’s philanthropic landscape.

Making the Case

Don’t bury the lede

You may feel an impulse to include debt reduction within a larger campaign. While this approach is useful in certain circumstances, a debt-reduction campaign can stand on its own. Be transparent in materials and conversations about the amount of debt incurred, the campaign’s overall financial goal, and other metrics underpinning your organization.

Look forward, not back

Focus on the future. This is not the time to blame others for why your organization may be in this situation. Proactively demonstrate how debt has strategically paved the way for growth. Describe, in detail, how retiring debt will ignite a new era of achieving your mission.

Quantify the impact

Articulate the annual fiscal burden of servicing the debt—and just as critically, how you will be able to invest that capital into your programs and community served once the debt is retired.

Keep it polished

Debt-reduction campaigns can be perceived as lacking glamour. However, without a new building or other elements to showcase in donor materials, it’s even more critical to create polished, visually appealing materials. 21st-century donors are sticklers for visuals and design. Use photos that make your impact tangible; keep text crisp and distilled.


Lead by example

Finding supporters who can not only make a gift, but who also have the capacity to influence others, is key to any campaign. Donors with outsized social sway often play a particularly pivotal role in debt-reduction campaigns. Early prospects may not necessarily be your largest donors; rather, look for those with the power to excite others.

Build buy-in

An in-depth understanding of the case is key for both external and internal stakeholders. Ensure finance staff and others are engaged early to lend input on the campaign’s messaging, vision, and roadmap. Deliberate early work here often reduces headwinds down the road.

Involve entrepreneurship-fluent leaders

Consider: how many of your board leaders have run a business or public entity that has leveraged financing to grow? These leaders can play a particularly powerful role as advocates who understand first-hand how debt drives growth and innovation, but also must be responsibly managed. Allies equipped with financial fluency are essential for building credibility and ensuring everyone on your campaign cabinet has the confidence and lexicon to radiate confidence regarding the campaign’s efforts.


Focus on the “right” donors

An important basic fundraising best practice is ensuring a bespoke approach for each donor. This is essential for a debt-reduction campaign. Aligning donors with the right case elements, the right solicitor(s), and the right moment will set your organization up for success. Keep in mind that this campaign may not be for every donor—and that’s okay.

Anchor prospecting in data

Finding the right donors is key. Ensuring a request of the appropriate amount is equally as important. CCS’s Feasibility Study and Data Analytics offerings can provide a comprehensive approach to building out a prospect list. Benchmarking each donor’s giving pattern at your organization and other nonprofits in your region and/or sector is also helpful. Fundraising is both an art and a science—these steps will ensure an intentional, data-driven approach.

Future-focus, future donors

While a debt-reduction campaign is rarely effective at cultivating a significant number of new prospects, it can help you hone a conversation focused on the future. Donors should reflect multiple generations of support and spheres of influence; don’t automatically write off Millennial and Gen Z supporters as potential campaign contributors.


Be candid

By being honest and open about the decision-making process leading up to this point, sharing the impact of making a change, and explaining that clearly, the right donors will understand the importance of this moment.

Set a timeline—and stick to it

Without a building or major program launch to chart a timeline, spurring donors to act, and act now, is key. Consider leveraging matches and challenges to play an even more prominent role in order to drive donors to act.

Take a balanced approach

Equip leadership, major gift officers, and other donor-facing staff with both tangible data and qualitative stories that project positive urgency for the Case.

Celebrate your success

Your plan should absolutely include a public celebration as part of the endpoint of your campaign. Without a building to open or a new program to launch, it’s critical to give your leadership, staff, and community a well-deserved victory. A “burn the mortgage” party is always a motivator!

With the above considerations, we’re confident you can take the steps needed to begin, or re-charge, your debt reduction campaign.

Considering a campaign?

With 75 years of experience, CCS stands ready to serve as your partner in reaching your goals.

As the summer break approaches, and with it the conclusion of the annual fund, it is a moment to take stock and evaluate your achievements this year. It is also a critical juncture at which to put in place strategies to ensure you realize even greater success in the year ahead. Those schools which see most progress with their annual giving programs are those that keep up activity throughout the quieter summer months.

Analyze the Past Year

Undertaking a detailed assessment of giving trends (for example, donor acquisition and retention, or alumni and parent giving) for the past year will help you form a comprehensive basis from which to build out your annual fund strategy for the year ahead. It is crucial to truly understand:

  • Your donor pipeline: where have you had the most success moving donors through your pipeline to higher giving levels?
  • Campaign success: what messaging, appeals, and engagement strategies have inspired greater philanthropy and secured the greatest number of dollars? Can you identify the ROI for each appeal to help create efficient and effective strategies?
  • Staff resource: has the time your fundraising team invested in managing your donor segments realized the returns you had projected?

While it may be easiest to launch the next annual campaign with your existing formula, this approach will inhibit your capacity to fully reach the depths of your donor pool. Conducting an honest analysis to answer the questions above will reveal where changes, even small ones, could inspire even greater philanthropic support.

Exemplary annual giving programs take the time to refresh (or create) differentiated strategies for their varying constituent groups. Considering the messages and communication channels which resonate most strongly with your recent and more distant alum, parents, past parents, and friends will serve to hold them close to your mission year after year.

Over time, your prospect pool both grows and changes. Younger alums differ from older alums in their philanthropic behavior and ambitions, as do parents and past parents. A frank assessment of your staffing allocation can shine light on whether you are focusing your resource in the most effective way to reflect each constituent group’s current needs and giving behaviors and foster their philanthropic relationship with your school most effectively.

Summertime Stewardship

The summer break also presents an opportunity to focus on donor stewardship. In addition to communicating to your entire donor community at yearend the impact of their giving, ensuring specific donor segments are given individual consideration will garner future value. New donors can be warmly welcomed to your philanthropic community with additional touchpoints to carry them forward into your retained donor pool. Donors celebrating notable giving anniversaries can be personally acknowledged with extra touches to those received at the time of their gift. Taking stock of your community to identify those donors whose giving merits thoughtful stewardship during the summer months will generate lasting goodwill.

Giving Society Strategy

An engaging set of giving societies will have a demonstrable impact for any annual program by developing a pipeline of major gift prospects and holding existing ones close. To fully maximize their potential requires thoughtful strategic intention behind a donor’s entry to your threshold giving society and their journey through higher levels. The summer months are an ideal time to review the pipeline for your first tier giving society and to consider:

  • Do you have a clear set of top prospects who will be invited to join this giving society in the coming year and a plan for their cultivation?
  • Which donors will be invited to move up to the next tier giving society and how will you compel them to do so?

Crafting a strategy which answers these questions will provide you with a series of messages and actions to implement over the coming year to ensure your future major donors are kept close to your school and its mission.

Confirming Your Campaign Goal

How do you arrive at your annual fund campaign goal each year? Is it based upon analysis of your donor pool’s giving potential and historical giving behavior or is the gap between the operational budget and expected tuition taken as the figure for the annual goal? By necessity, many schools take the latter path. Yet, collaboration between finance and advancement teams to determine a campaign goal which accounts for both institutional need and pipeline potential can result in greater understanding, and support for, the work of the development office. Thoughtful goal setting of this kind can also help to avoid short-termism in fundraising efforts wherein major gift officers prioritize securing a gift now over cultivating a donor for a larger gift in the future.


Each year of an annual fund campaign is deeply interlinked. Amplifying the collective value of each year’s annual fund efforts requires sophisticated data analysis of donor behavior coupled with thoughtful and active management of the prospect pipeline in response to the trends identified. The upcoming summer break is your moment to start planning.

More Insights


Perspectives on Philanthropy: Giving USA 2022 Release Webinar

CCS Fundraising is proud to partner with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy on this webinar marking the June 21 release of Giving USA 2022: The Annual Report on Philanthropy.

June 21, 2022

The CCS Philanthropy Pulse: What Does the Data Say and What Does it Mean for Independent Schools?

How are schools approaching fundraising this year? And how does it differ from years past? View this webinar recording to discover key findings from a recent survey of over 130 schools.

Spring 2022

Over the past two years, COVID-19 has highlighted the magnitude of social and economic disparities while racially-motivated violence has sparked a national conversation about justice and structural racism.

In 2020, nonprofits and philanthropists propelled the important effort to address these disparities by investing in long-term systemic solutions to advance equity and wellbeing for all Americans. According to Candid, donations have surged to $8.8 billion for racial equity and $13.6 billion to COVID-19 relief efforts in the US to date. 

Two years later, change-makers continue to examine and question the large-scale and long-term systems that impact our daily lives and disproportionately disadvantage some communities in the US.


The term “systems” can be nebulous or even ominous. The systems that surround us are intentional or unintentional, formal or informal practices that dictate how something is done. Systems include health, legal, education, and many more seen and unseen. Interconnected, they tether us together in a web that forces us to interact with their structures.

Today, the systems we inhabit help some people to thrive, while leaving many others behind to struggle and suffer based on race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, location, and other human and societal differences. Systems change has therefore become a term that is widely used by the nonprofit and philanthropic community to refer to social impact initiatives for societal equity and improvement.

To change a system first you must find its shape, scope and reach, and you must name it.


In the systems that dictate health and wellbeing, a gulf exists between individuals and communities that have access to the essential conditions needed to live healthy lives and those who do not. These essential conditions include security, access to education, meaningful work, housing, a clean environment, and reliable transportation. Absence of these humane circumstances increases the demand for emergency services like acute care for illness or injury, addiction and recovery services, criminal justice, violence, and emergency services, environmental clean-up, unemployment support, food services, and shelter for the un-housed.

Changing systems that are inequitable and exclusionary will have positive long-term societal, and financial rewards. It will also require investment in time, talent, and money. Now more than ever, we need to build a future where nonprofits and funders work together to address the conditions required for equitable health and well-being.


1. Focus on foundations. 

Charitable gifts made by individuals are essential for nonprofits, however nonprofits seeking financial support for programs that initiate systems change should consider approaching foundations first. There are an estimated 85,000 grantmaking foundation in the US, and in 2021 their giving totaled over $88.5 Billion. Public, private, and family foundations are pursuing nonprofit partners using terms such as civic participation, democracy, human rights, human services, and community and economic development to identify the types of programing they wish to fund.

2. Name interconnected problems.

Social problems rarely exist in a vacuum. Addressing systematic inequity requires untangling layers of complex contributing factors. Factors that lead to social problems include gender, race, education, geographic location, ability, occupation, immigration status, religion and more. Because the struggles faced by many communities intersect, nonprofits seeking systems change foundation funding need a well-written case statement that streamlines the problems and provides clear strategies for the positive impact they will wish to have in solving them.

3. Investment equals invention.

Foundations and funders everywhere have a chance to be cutting edge investors in co-creating a new and more equitable future. Crafting thoughtful proposals and grant applications that outline opportunities for invention is critical for nonprofit fundraising success.

Partner with CCS to gain innovative fundraising strategies.

CCS Fundraising is committed to working with nonprofits to:

  • Identify and cultivate relationships with funders poised to make meaningful change,
  • Craft thoughtful case-statements to convey program value,
  • Brief foundation decision makers in direct conversation, and
  • Guide leaders through the proposal and grant writing cycle that leads to funding.

Philanthropy will play a critical role in ensuring systems evolve into something more equitable and beneficial for all of us.

More Insights


Perspectives on Philanthropy: Giving USA 2022 Release Webinar

CCS Fundraising is proud to partner with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy on this webinar marking the June 21 release of Giving USA 2022: The Annual Report on Philanthropy.

June 21, 2022

Considerations for Next Year’s Annual Fund

Summer break presents an important opportunity for schools to learn what strategies to put in place at the conclusion of an annual fund to build on donor momentum for the year ahead.

April 6, 2022

March 2022 marks two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. This marker provides a natural point for reflection for nonprofit boards to assess how they have reacted to a changing environment and how they can proactively plan for their organization’s future.

CCS has recently published insights on developing board benchmarking reports and integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices into board activities. In this article, we will discuss four areas where we have seen cause disruption for nonprofit boards in recent months:

  1. Job market turbulence
  2. Budget reallocation
  3. Continued virtual operations
  4. Antiquated procedures and materials

In each section, we provide a set of questions designed to generate reflective discussions for nonprofit boards as they seek to optimize their operations.

1. The Impact of Job Market Turbulence on Creating Board Fatigue and Vacancies

The Great Resignation occupies the minds of many board leaders. Board members may be dealing with understaffed teams at their place of work or they may be on the move themselves. This turbulence can make board participation a lower priority and can lead to vacancies in boardrooms as individuals grapple with the Great Resignation.

As the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) writes, “highly effective trustees are a prerequisite for a highly effective board.” When considering your board’s stability, ask:

  • Do you find trustees are preoccupied with external pressures?
  • Are there multiple vacancies on your board? If so, why?
  • How recently has your board reviewed its onboarding and mentoring processes?
  • How effective is your nominating committee at staying true to institutional priorities?

2. The Drain of Budget Reallocation on Fiduciary Management

Many boards have needed to play catch-up with budget allocations due to the unforeseen financial stress of the pandemic. After two years of organizations’ expenses being dominated by pandemic concerns, boards need to recalibrate what expenses will be critical and enduring and what fundraising goals will be relevant in the next year and beyond.

Moreover, boards need to be ready to meet these fundraising goals. When asked to rank 18 areas of board responsibility in terms of importance, 70% of chief executives ranked fundraising as very important. Fundraising was prioritized over a board’s ability to think strategically, guide the direction of the organization, possess knowledge of organizational programs, and other factors.

Understanding the goal that your organization is working towards will help a board stay the course when it comes to budget allocations and fundraising. As your board reevaluates the budget, key questions to consider include:

  • Is your board ready to embrace the new reality of what is feasible in this environment?
  • Is your board informed and comfortable asking for gifts?
  • Does your board feel connected to the community your organization is serving?


Addressing board vacancies and budget priorities must be balanced with engaging current board members. There is no doubt that video conferencing has made us all more accessible, but more meetings do not necessarily translate into better efficiency or stronger connections. Even prior to the pandemic, a study found that 71% of senior managers claimed that their meetings tended to be unproductive and inefficient—common traps were meetings that are too frequent, poorly timed, or badly run. Planning for meetings, communicating goals, and clearly outlining roles are undervalued tools that determine the success of a meeting.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, many people are growing fatigued of Zoom. With the advent of hybrid meetings, boards need to rethink engagement strategies to inspire board members’ participation. We’ve seen boards get creative with these engagement strategies—for example, the board of a large public university invited their marching band to spice up a recent board meeting.

Even if you don’t have a marching band, you can still inject board meetings with more energy and inspiration! Consider the following questions to ensure that meetings and other operating policies promote board engagement:

  • Do board members understand their roles post pandemic?
  • How comfortable is your board with changed procedures and expectations?
  • Is there consensus around the new norms for meetings and events?
  • Have trustees tried new ways to socialize in place of in-person informal gatherings? 

4. The Ineffectiveness of Antiquated Procedures and Materials

Upheavals in how we operate may require that institutions stop and evaluate the mechanics of their board. Yesterday’s board playbook may no longer be sufficient; procedures and manuals need to be reviewed and potentially revised.

It is likely that recent challenges have exposed vulnerabilities in board operating structures. To get started on bringing procedures and materials up to date, questions to consider include:

  • Is there a current crisis management plan in place?
  • Does the succession plan need to be reevaluated?
  • Are fact sheets up to date?
  • Has the mission of the board shifted?
  • Do board manuals need to be revamped?
  • Should board recruitment be updated to keep track with DEI efforts?

A well-functioning board is essential to helping a nonprofit achieve its mission. It’s worth the extra attention and investment to ensure that your organization’s board is optimized for today’s world. With careful consideration on these four areas, board chairs and staff leadership can improve the board’s operations, feel more in control during unpredictable times, and bring more satisfaction and sense of purpose to their board.

Want to start a conversation?

CCS Fundraising helps nonprofits craft individualized approaches and actionable next steps for enhancing their board performance.

The first article in our annual fund series gave an overview of the critical role that the annual fund plays in a school’s financial sustainability and provided several best practices for your school’s fundraising strategy. In this article, we will dive deeper on a subject discussed in that article: leveraging collaboration across campus to drive institutional alignment and maximize annual fund performance.

Effective communication and coordination across development, finance, curricular program, and enrollment teams is crucial for setting appropriate goals, developing compelling themes for annual fund appeals based on your school’s needs, and creating and executing effective engagement strategies across your donor base.


Involving voices from across your school’s key teams and functions is essential in setting appropriate yet aspirational targets for your annual fund performance. For example, if either a development or business office sets annual fund goals in a vacuum, they risk missing out on crucial context that should inform strategic decision-making.

While development teams understandably have the clearest picture of historical giving trends and recent fundraising performance, they can get a deeper understanding of the school’s overall financial needs for the coming year from the Head of School. Conversely, business offices might have a firmer grasp on the school’s financial metrics but are less aware of the capacity of the school’s donor base, prospect potential, or the realistic growth plan for the development team.

Fostering open communication and dialogue between these teams helps to build a collective understanding of goals and strategy, as well as a shared sense of ownership of results and performance. Schools should prioritize the establishment of processes for regular communication and sharing of relevant information to promote understanding of both the school’s overarching approach to its annual fund strategy, and teams’ individual roles in setting financial targets. Consider:

  • Weekly or bi-weekly meetings with administrative leadership to discuss fundraising progress
  • Monthly reports to the CFO
  • Quarterly progress reports
  • Space on Board meeting agendas to present fundraising priorities and progress towards stated goals
  • Including administrative leadership in development committee meetings for continuity between departments

Developing the Annual Fund Theme(s)

This need for collaboration and communication is also a key component for creating a compelling theme for your appeals. An effective case for support not only resonates effectively with donors but also addresses the most important programmatic and operating needs of the school for the year. Building a set of funding priorities that effectively accomplishes both objectives should not fall on the development team’s shoulders alone.

Development teams should engage with faculty and program staff to learn about exciting new priorities for the coming year. Marketing and communications teams should be engaged to promote alignment between the year’s fundraising theme and broader marketing strategies surrounding the framing, language, and focus of a message. While development staff have the most complete sense of what priorities will resonate most with the school’s donor base, coordination across campus to gain broader perspective on the needs of the school will enhance the annual fund theme and ensure that it addresses the school’s needs and priorities for the coming year.

Annual Fund Priorities Without CollaborationAnnual Fund Priorities With Collaboration
Financial AidHigh quality affordable education for all
Professional DevelopmentAttracting and retaining premier educators
Diversity, Equity & InclusionMission meeting the moment
Area of greatest needSustainability through endowment
Other / ProgrammingRobust athletics, arts, and STEAM

Donor Engagement Strategies

Finally, effective collaboration can also play a vital role in designing creative, successful donor engagement strategies. Engaging new families around philanthropic support is a key challenge for many schools year after year. Development teams can and should work with enrollment and admissions to find innovative ways to help new families feel welcomed and integrated into the school community, while emphasizing and highlighting the important role that development and fundraising revenue play in the school’s success.

Similarly, development teams can coordinate with alumni relations staff to design more effective engagement strategies for graduates across different age groups. Making sure that your development office has a strategic approach to maintaining relationships with this vital constituency is critical to promoting a culture of philanthropy. Frequent and proactive communication between these groups can boost donor engagement and provide opportunities to grow the annual fund sustainably and effectively.


Collaborating across your school’s teams creates greater alignment on the goals, priorities, and tactics that underpin the success of your annual fund year-over-year. This coordination of planning, messaging, and execution will equip your development team with the resources it needs to tell the school’s story effectively and to help donors across various constituencies understand the role that the Annual Fund plays in the school’s financial sustainability. Further, embracing this collaborative mindset helps to promote a shared internal understanding of the importance of development. In this way, development can come to be thought of more as an institutional priority and can be integrated more intentionally to advance the school’s broader strategic planning.

More Insights


Perspectives on Philanthropy: Giving USA 2022 Release Webinar

CCS Fundraising is proud to partner with the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy on this webinar marking the June 21 release of Giving USA 2022: The Annual Report on Philanthropy.

June 21, 2022

Considerations for Next Year’s Annual Fund

Summer break presents an important opportunity for schools to learn what strategies to put in place at the conclusion of an annual fund to build on donor momentum for the year ahead.

April 6, 2022