Evolving Traditional Fundraising: Scaling, Collaboration and Relationship-Building

The EvoLLLution | Evolving Traditional Fundraising: Scaling, Collaboration and Relationship-Building
Improving back-end efficiency, workflows and processes in the advancement office can create significant and numerous positive outcomes when it comes to bringing in donations.

A common feature of every college or university across the United States and Canada, regardless of status, is an office of advancement. Pursuing donations is a fixture of the modern postsecondary institution, and as the demand for revenue grows, the expectations on the advancement office grows too. Unfortunately, given the level of personalization required to build the relationships that often lead to gifts, it can be difficult to scale this work in a meaningful way. In this interview, Brian Gawor and Caryn Stein reflect on some of the challenges and opportunities that currently exist for fundraising professionals in the higher education space and share their thoughts on how technology and workflow changes could have significant and positive outcomes.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is fundraising so important for colleges and universities across the United States?

Caryn Stein (CS): The projected decline in enrollment in 2017 was about 2.3 percent, and we have to think about how that impacts institutions across the board. Any revenue lost due to that declining number has to be made up somewhere else. A lot of institutional leadership is looking to the advancement office for help to meet their goals. Then we have to ask how many things we want to fund and what our overall fundraising goals are.

With increased pressure, institutions are trying to solve that problem and figure out how to raise the most dollars with the best use of our resources, and the answer has become booking more major and planned gifts. Because if we can book more of those larger dollar gifts and identify those major donors and people that are ready to document a planned gift, we can probably reach those totals much more quickly. That’s a key trend that we’re seeing across the board. It’s really impacting the way that institutions are thinking about how they connect with all of their alumni and donors, and how they approach funding.

Evo: How important are the student experience, the alumni office, and access to institutional continuing education programming in developing this lasting and long-term relationship between students and their alma mater?

CS: There’s an incredible opportunity to continue that engagement and it’s probably more important than ever because we have an opportunity to understand the affinity that our students and alumni might have for institutions, and understand where those philanthropic opportunities might exist.

We need to understand the passions and connection points that we can use to build those relationships over time. It really comes back to understanding what are the main drivers of philanthropic giving or the main drivers of continued involvement and engagement with an institution.

Brian Gawor (BG): I can point to three things for you. First, RNL has done some research where we’ve taken a look at student satisfaction ratings by currently enrolled students and compared those to the alumni giving percentages. We found that they’re highly correlated. Institutions that have very high current student satisfaction rates actually have a higher percentage of alumni giving each year.

Secondly, we do recommend to institutions that as they reach out to alumni they also provide access to ongoing services from the institution, such as career services, opportunities to reconnect with faculty and education programming.

The third things is that, as we go out and we talk with alumni, what we’re finding is that the most successful institutions in terms of receiving both annual and major gifts are doing it in a highly personalized way. Donor time and donor attention are the most scarce resource that fundraisers deal with and institutions really need to have their best possible strategy in place to personalize their efforts to the individual alumni.

Evo: What are some of the unique challenges facing fundraising professionals in the higher education space?

BG: One of the top findings in our recent survey of 270 major and planned giving fundraisers was that over half of them wished they were spending more time in direct contact with donors making their request for support. We use the term solicitation in the field, and the major incline giving fundraisers that we talk to really feel a time crunch.

On top of that, when we asked these fundraisers what percentage of their currently assigned prospect pools were really qualified to make a gift—in other words have wealth and are truly interested in giving to that cause—the average was 37 percent. This is complicated by the fact that the average fundraiser has about 140 prospects in their pool but they’re only able to visit about half of those in any given year.

Evo: What kind of balance must postsecondary fundraisers strike between a few major gifts and many smaller gifts?

BG: The idea that you would be doing either/or, building a long list of donors or focusing on the really big gifts, that’s probably not the best dichotomy to have because, historically, what we found is the individuals who invest over time are more likely to make big gifts.

Often when we see news coverage of a higher education institution receiving a very large gift it’s as though they’ve won the lottery and that’s a really bad metaphor. In fact, a better metaphor for major and planned gift fundraising is like you’re cashing in savings bonds. What you’re doing is you’re converting a relationship with a very passionate donor who feels a tremendous joy with these big gifts. They’ve had a relationship over decades with the institution, investing annually, attending events, staying in touch with their friends, their professors that were really important during a formative period of their life either in their undergraduate or graduate experience.

What we’d suggest is to continue to build a robust pipeline of annual donors and really work on listening to those donors who seem to be ready to take a leap and make that transformative gift.

Evo: What are a few efficiency changes and improvements the majority of fundraising professionals could make to their processes to improve their effectiveness?

CS: Like Brian said, what we’re doing here at RNL is reinventing fundraising management in higher education, and there are a couple ways that we approach that. It gets back to how we focus our most valuable resource in the right way so that we can connect those gift officers with the right people, at the right time, with all of the right information in front of them so that they can spend more time actually doing what they do best.

We often are asking gift officers to do a lot of other things that are not focused on the donors, and so it actually takes time away from having those deep conversations, building relationships over time and really connecting a giving opportunity that is highly relevant to that donor based on everything that we know.

The key is to really take all of the things that we know, the data and information we have as higher education institutions, and couple that with advanced analytics and technology to help us scale our efforts. If we can focus more of their time there on donors that are more likely to give, based on all of the indicators that we know to be true we will see a higher degree of productivity. We’re spending more time with donors, we’re having the right conversations at the right time and we’re not chasing people that may not really be ready to give at the moment.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the value that efficient back-end processes bring to this sometimes-murky area of fundraising in higher education?

CS: We have an opportunity to use the data that we have, but I think sometimes institutions are challenged to be able to do that at scale. We have the opportunity to leverage other indicators that we may not be using to their full extent. The real key shift is that if we see more institutions taking advantage of the many different stages in the process, I think that they’re going to see a lot more success and find that process works a lot better for them.

BG: What we found when we did our surveys is that very few institutions are using predictive analytics in a really smart way that they feel is effective. We’re more commonly seeing those predictive analytics utilized by very successful international charities and then also of course in the corporate side as we’re sold to everyday. We’re not trying to suggest that higher education fundraising use all the tactics of the commercial world but it is time for higher education to reinvent itself and take advantage of some of these next-generation tools that move them from descriptive to predictive. When our clients that they receive a much higher return on investment for their fundraising dollars and the donors are much happier.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Key Takeaways

  • Advancement and fundraising teams are being relied upon by colleges and universities across North America to offset revenue drops stemming from enrollment declines and demographic changes.
  • Personalized communications and interactions, combined with a great student experience and continued engagement from the institution, are critical in driving alumni donations when they’re able to give.
  • Improving back-end efficiency and automating repeatable tasks allow staff to focus more on high-value work, like fostering personalized relationships with alumni and potential donors.
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