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Production vs. Interpretation: How to Evaluate Your Annual Giving Results

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on the importance of data in institutional advancement operations. Here, Diana covers what metrics are key in measuring the effectiveness of your annual giving program. Bookmark our thought leadership page today for future posts from our thought leaders on fundraising, research, corporate social engagement and communications.

It’s that time of year again. The end of the third quarter, a time when annual fund directors are scrambling to evaluate the success of their individual giving programs. They’re hustling to shift gears in order to make the “year-end” a whopping success. Directors are busy running LYBUNT and SYBUNT reports and phone calls are being made as part of the “year-end push.” End of the fiscal year mail appeals and e-appeals are being crafted and the success of prior appeals are being evaluated to determine which way to steer the boat.

All of this not only requires the production of reports, but the analyzation and interpretation of the data within them to make educated decisions on how, where and when to turn the bow of the boat. To know whether or not to baton the hatches, start paddling faster, heave ho, or simply tac the sail in a new direction, so that one “closes-out” the year in true Gatsby-esque style, a director needs certain information.

A director needs data in order to evaluate whether or not their programs have been successful; they need to determine which mailings have received gold stars and which ones have tanked. By determining which programs, mailings, e-appeals and communication channels have been successful, the director may shift his or her fourth quarter strategy to ensure the success of the annual giving program by creating new strategies based on the data, which will enhance communication and build a more robust end-of-year push.

Data is crucial in determining the true performance of annual giving and major gift programs. Anyone can press a button to run a report, look over a spreadsheet, or memorize how many new donors were acquired as a result of the last appeal. This doesn’t mean the person is analytical; it means they know how to run a report and parrot back the results.

Let’s look at three ways in which central tendency data can be evaluated through the context of mean, median and mode. When it comes to measuring results, people are most familiar with mean. Mean is the average, it is the sum of, and some directors use it to measure the average gift size. One pitfall of using this metric to measure your results is that it doesn’t provide an accurate representation of the average gift amount and numbers can be skewed by one large gift. For example: If your annual fund raised $650,000 last year from 1,200 donors, your average gift per donor would be $541.66 ($650,000/1200). However, one donor may have made a large gift of $300,000, which would inflate the mean.

Median is a metric that is used when directors calculate a donor’s central tendency to give, it is the middle value number and is useful to paint an accurate picture of typical giving patterns. The numbers are arranged in either descending or ascending order for interpretation. For example, five gifts come in through a direct mail appeal today. The gift amounts are $65, $80, $125, $175 and $500. The median (or middle number) is $125. This is significantly lower than the mean gift of $189. Since outlier gifts can be common in annual giving programs, calculating the median is one way to paint a more accurate giving pattern within your program.

Mode is the number that occurs most frequently in a value set. Understanding where the distributions of gifts tend to cluster can be helpful when determining the “ask amounts” that go into specific appeals or online giving forms. For example, you receive six online gifts today in the amount of: $25, $50, $50, $50, $300, $475. The mode is $50 because it occurs the most frequently. Being able to see these clusters will help you come up with ways to develop the “ask amounts” on your online giving forms and help shape strategy.

These three measures of mean, median and mode offer development professionals the tools needed to evaluate performance of their annual giving appeals and provide context to understand and compare a wide range of outcomes that will help determine whether your program is successful or if you need to hunker down.

Data-driven metrics help us make informed decisions and shape the incredible work we do daily in development. But, also remember that philanthropy is a very heart centric activity. With that in mind, I’d like to leave you with a quote by Miriam Beard who said, “The results of philanthropy are always beyond calculation.”

To learn more about Changing Our World and how we can assist your institution with data analytics and other fundraising strategies, visit or contact Diana directly at [email protected].

About Diana Curran

As a Director at Changing Our World, Diana Curran brings ten years of experience as an administrative and development professional in the nonprofit and higher-education sectors to her to her position at Changing Our World.