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It’s your anniversary! Who cares?
By Rick’s StraightTalk / January 22, 2016

Hardly anyone, but here are 9 ways to get them to

I begin a lot of my work sessions asking, “Who cares?”. Not to be mean, just to provoke attendees to think of their “consumers” more often.

When the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut (now serving all eastern Connecticut) was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary, then-President Alice Fitzpatrick asked me how to get the most out of it.

“Well,” I said, “who really cares that it’s your – or anyone’s – anniversary?”

Take this personally. You, your parents, or someone you know is about to celebrate a landmark anniversary: silver, gold, platinum, you name it.

Let’s assume the partners care. “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” they sing to one another. They talk, they cuddle, they go on vacation.

Their children think, “Wow, they’re ancient!” or “How did they last that long?” or “When’s the party?” or, one hopes, “That’s wonderful, and a model for us.”

The couple’s parents and siblings remember the wedding fondly (or not).

Friends? Well, most of them probably weren’t around at the time. Good for you, they think. Happy to come to the party but it’s really your party.

Cousins, aunts, uncles, the WalMart manager, the stranger driving past your house? Do they really care about the anniversary of your wedding? Enough to bring you a new toaster?

And what does that mean for your nonprofit or foundation?

Why do we expect people to care?

However close your universe of colleagues, donors, board members, and even clients, anniversaries quickly lose their gravitational pull as you move outside the hot inner core.

Senior staff will probably care the most, especially the long-timers. After all, we live here all day long, week after week, year after year. Plus, we hope news of the anniversary will encourage people to bring “gifts” of money, influence, and long-awaited recognition.

Board members may care, at least the founders who remember the good old days. The new board members? Not so much.

Once you get past the inside players, who? Your clients? Your funders? Your grantees? Your fellow nonprofits and foundations? They will congratulate you and many will come to the party, but what is it exactly they should feel so excited about?

A lot, it turns out, if you plan your anniversary conscientiously.

You have to tell people why your anniversary is important

Despite my cynical questions, Alice and her great crew invited me to coach them and their board through their anniversary for the next 14 months. CFECT’s anniversary did mean a great deal to certain people, I told them. We had a year to tell them what that importance was.

Honesty is a good place to start. I ask, what do nonprofits really want from anniversary celebrations? In the five I’ve mentored, the answers were one or both of two objectives:

  1. Raise money, for announced programs, expansions, or endowments and/or
  2. Increase recognition of the organization to improve fundraising, ability to win contracts, successfully advocate for issues, etc.

But why should someone – a donor, a consumer, a board member, another nonprofit – care about another nonprofit’s anniversary. Depending on the nonprofit’s mission, I can name five steady reasons:

  1. Longevity. We’ve become a stable resource, for the good of the community.
  2. We share a boatload of achievements. Thanks to you (colleagues and supporters), we’ve achieved a long list of successes.
  3. We’re taking time to celebrate those who built the foundation. A perfect time to recognize the founders, original board members, longtime donors. Build up that legacy society.
  4. You’re part of a cool group. Look who’s around the room; you’ve hitched your star to an influential organization.
  5. We’re renewing our passion. Hear an old dog roar. What better time than a nice, ripe anniversary to report that we haven’t lost the swing in our step. In fact, we’d like to take this opportunity to announce an ambitious new initiative that will take us into the next 50 years (that you can all help support).

Nine basic activities will make a difference with your anniversary

I’ll be clear: nothing would have worked if the CFECT staff and board hadn’t stepped up. From anniversaries to strategic plans, success only happens when there is leadership and positive energy.

With that foundation, the following are the nine most important components. The first five prepare the soil:

  1. The board and staff agree to be clear and realistic about goals for the year, whether dollars to be raised or diseases to be cured.
  2. Every activity you consider – a big event or a commemorative booklet – must relate directly to the goals. People proposed lots of great ideas for the CFECT anniversary year; we discarded most because we couldn’t link them to our goals.
  3. Write a no-surprises budget with which even the most sour CFO can work.
  4. Agree to and embrace whatever your answer is for “It’s your anniversary. So what?”
  5. Included the “so what?” answer in every public mention of the anniversary.
  6. The remaining four were key activities for CFECT; other groups with whom I worked had different activities. Be creative, but remember: activities must align with the goals!

    1. CFECT held two gatherings. The first was at the beginning of the year and was limited to key donors and funders, former board members, and committee members. Attendees were told why the organization considered them special and why the anniversary mattered. They were given the first look at the upcoming activities. Finally, as “insiders,” they were encouraged to be ambassadors throughout the coming year.
      The second gathering was in the fall. Invitations went to the insiders, grantees, and nearly everyone of influence in the state. (They all came, too!) The program and the setting were choreographed to answer the “So what?” question, but entertainingly, of course.
    2. With appropriate fanfare, the foundation gave an anniversary “gift to the community” that succinctly represented why the foundation is a unique institution in the region.
      After months of thoughtful and sometimes heated debate, Board and staff chose to raise and divide $1.5 million among the 13 public libraries in the 11 towns the foundation serves. The elements of the gift included endowment, collaboration among towns and agencies, due diligence by the foundation, and several donors contributions, all CFECT attributes it wishes to be better known for.
    3. The foundation created award-winning, keepsake annual reports. The process was just as important. Staff interviewed people who had started the foundation as “a dream and a promise” 25 years earlier and asked them to reflect how far it’s come.
    4. We conducted editorial meetings with the local media, receiving excellent press and editorials

    Did CFECT reach its goals? Yup.

    Some of the measures are quantitative:

    • A 59% increase in contributions from the previous year, despite a horrendous economy
    • Major turnouts at both events
    • The Council on Foundation’s top award for the annual report
    • Then-Governor Jodi Redl declared a “Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut Day

    Anecdotally, AlisonWoods, the director of gift planning, reported that professional advisors are more likely to come up to her and say, “I have a client…” ”Just last week I bumped into someone who was still talking about the party six months later,” she added.

    Thanks to its carefully-planned anniversary year, I could hear good people writing the community foundation into their estates. Some years later, the community foundation kept that spirit of celebration alive.

    Anniversaries work for all types of nonprofits and foundations at all ages. Not long after CFECT, I asked the same questions for a children’s services agency that was turning 175 years old. One of my favorite annual reports ever; I explored the entire history of children’s services in the United States. I’ll post the annual report and the story someday soon!

    In the meantime, thanks for reading.

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