Ten Years of SWAG

Ten Years of SWAG


<<This blog post is authored by Dan Krueger. Before joining JHL, he worked in annual giving at Florida State University and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has organized SWAG since its start. >>

On Thursday, June 6, 2024, almost fifty annual giving professionals in higher education – and additional colleagues – within the state of Wisconsin gathered at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisc. The event is called the Summit for Wisconsin Annual Giving, but most of us simply refer to it as “SWAG.”

This year was a cause for celebration as we celebrated our 10th anniversary. While we leveraged the moment in our messaging, there was no special event to commemorate the occasion. This kind of encapsulates how SWAG has worked over the years.

There isn’t anything flashy about it. We don’t have a website, or a staff, or a Rolodex of preferred speakers. There are no evening socials or networking events. It is rare to have prominent speakers or the highly sought after “vice president of annual giving” at a prestigious school to give a keynote. It’s a one-day event to talk, share, network…and sometimes vent…about annual giving topics.

And It’s free. You just need to get there.

With a mix of public, private and technical colleges with an annual giving staff ranging from “none to many,” it has worked for the schools in Wisconsin. How did we get here after ten years? Read on…


Started with Lunch


Going back to 2014, a small group of annual giving directors from five of the comprehensive University of Wisconsin schools started meeting once a semester for an extended lunch. It began as an exchange of direct mail pieces, call center ideas and whatever was on their plates at that time. It included:

  • UW-Eau Claire
  • UW-La Crosse
  • UW-River Falls
  • UW-Stevens Point
  • UW-Stout

Tori Follett, Director of Loyalty Giving at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. commented:

 My first job after college was in Annual Giving at the UW-Eau Claire Foundation. While I was thrilled about this career opportunity, I initially felt underqualified and quite lost. However, meeting with other annual giving professionals from across the UW System proved invaluable.

 Not only did it provide ideas and strategies, but it also gave me a network of supportive colleagues who truly understood the annual giving world. From discussing fundraising trends to venting about industry challenges, I was extremely grateful to have an organized way to connect with peers from other institutions.

After a couple of lunch sessions, I pitched an idea from something I experienced while a part of the annual giving team at Florida State. I don’t remember if it had a flashy name, but it was an all-day gathering of annual giving officials with invites to all colleges and universities within the state. Everyone liked the concept and we decided to give it a shot in Wisconsin.

Most of the initial lunch crew volunteered as a planning committee to create interest surveys, scour advancement staff pages to get names of annual giving staff members and plead with people to attend. I became the point person and planned to have my campus, UW-Stevens Point, act as the host location. As a department-sponsored event, this reduced most facility charges and my advancement office agreed to cover those costs.

The goal was to not charge registration. You just had to get there.

Knowing that there are sometimes budget implications for some schools to go to larger multi-day conferences hosted at hotels with a lot of overhead costs or travel for speakers. We secured two sponsors – JHL Digital Direct and Wilson Bennett Technologies – to cover breakfast and lunch.


At that point, it was finding people willing to present or lead a discussion. Surveying topics of interest was one thing. Finding people to lead a discussion on those topics proved to be a bit more challenging.


We were fortunate enough to have a couple of attendees lead general sessions to both kick off and conclude the event. A couple of committee members stepped in to cover – to the best of their abilities – key topics during breakout sessions.

On Friday, August 7, with a little more than thirty people in attendance, the first-ever SWAG became a thing.


Low Pressure, No Cost


After the success of the first event, a post-event survey suggested that we should hold another event the following year. A few “rules” were put in place:

  1. It would remain on the first Friday of August.
  2. The event would be hosted at a different location every year.
  3. We would secure a new sponsor(s) to present and cover the cost of lunch (and maybe breakfast). Sponsors would provide the ability to present during one of the scheduled general sessions.

Marquette University stepped up to host the second year and Target Analytics was our sponsor. We also added a staff member from the host location to the planning committee so we would have an on-site representative while planning.

Over the years, SWAG has hit all the hot topics that cover annual giving:

  • Direct Mail
  • Call Centers/Engagement Centers
  • E-blasts
  • Social Media
  • Giving Days
  • Crowd Funding
  • Leadership Annual Giving
  • Young Alumni
  • Segmentation Strategies
  • Faculty/Staff Campaigns

Most recently, AI has become the next big topic for discussion.

In many cases, we are able to find someone planning to attend to present on a topic. Every now and then, we strike gold and find someone who wants to share their own experiences about a campaign or event. Other times, it’s simply a roundtable discussion to share ideas. In any of these cases, it’s a low-pressure environment where no one has to feel intimidated to present or ask questions. Most attendees aren’t experts in a given field, but it’s the sharing of experiences that makes for a successful summit.

Follett added, “What I appreciate most is that our peers are the presenters. At SWAG, we hear directly from colleagues facing similar challenges, making the ideas and strategies much more applicable. Most importantly, I appreciate the opportunity to connect in person with other annual giving professionals from across the state. We have so much to learn from each other’s experiences, and this invaluable chance to network and share insights is truly the highlight.”


COVID and a Reset


After five years of SWAG rotating through different locations, everything came to a halt with the pandemic. With the 2020 event cancelled, there was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.

At this point, I had moved on from UW-Stevens Point and joined JHL, who agreed to become a host sponsor of SWAG in perpetuity. Due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, we were hesitant to open back up to an in-person event in 2021, we sponsored three virtual lunch hour sessions over the summer with a different topic and presenter each month.

In 2022, we moved back to an in-person event and brought back a second sponsorship opportunity. After surveying attendees, it was decided to move the event to the first Thursday in June, where it has remained since.

Now that I’m not really planning the event as a volunteer, I’ve taken on a more prominent role in the set-up with the planning committee taking on more of an advisory role. This also means I am no longer a professional peer in the annual giving world and will sometimes lean on the committee to reach out to a new staff member at a school to encourage them to attend.


Ten Years in Review


Over ten years, SWAG has been hosted by UW-Stevens Point (3 times), UW-Oshkosh, Marquette University, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Ripon College and our 2024 host, St. Norbert College.

As far as where the name came from, it was initially presented as a joke. There aren’t many options of words to create by abbreviating Annual Giving and Wisconsin. As the planning committee was trying to figure out a catchy name, I jokingly presented the Summit for Wisconsin Annual Giving, or “SWAG.” Everyone loved it…and it stuck.

Entering our tenth year, I thought we were finally at a point to have a visual identity. I put together a simple logo that we can use to brand our materials moving forward.

With a diverse range and size of colleges and advancement offices, attending conferences can be a challenge both financially and administratively. Add in the constant churn of new faces moving into annual giving as seasoned veterans move into new positions, the need to provide a solid foundation will always be necessary.

SWAG provides an opportunity to gather with peers with varying levels of experience from around the state for ONE day and learn from each other about best practices to support annual campaign efforts at each institution. We can also pass down what is learned year-to-year, copy those successes and perhaps avoid repeating mistakes.

SWAG was never created to compete with other conferences. In a world where travel budget freezes are a regular reality, we provide an inexpensive alternative for statewide institutions to gather and learn. With no real budget or web presence – we communicate almost exclusively via email list – we can sometimes struggle to secure speakers using our internal resources, but we always find a way to make it work.

There will always be new professionals entering the field looking for direction and longtime experts searching for fresh ideas. We see those “one-person shops” with a single staff member trying to figure out how to fit in annual campaign needs while handling every other aspect of their advancement office. The necessity to develop annual donors and advance the mission of each institution will never end, even if development and advancement methods shift as we move forward.

Personally, SWAG is an opportunity to stay connected with the world of annual giving. For one day, I approach the event as a peer, but recognize that I am still an advocate to those who work on annual campaigns. Even though I’m no longer a volunteer, I still approach it as though I am.

As long as people want to keep coming and the desire remains to help our professional colleagues, SWAG will continue on.


If you are interested in learning more about SWAG and how you could launch something locally for advancement offices in your state, you are welcome to contact Dan Krueger to get more details. JHL would be happy to play a role in launching your event.

Copyright by JHL Digital Direct. All rights reserved.

Copyright by JHL Digital Direct. All rights reserved.