5 Ways to Shift Your Higher Ed Fundraising Strategy in 2021
Frank shares his insights and experiences as a higher Ed fundraiser
February 18, 2021 · 6 min read
1) Virtual is here to stay
At this point in the game, it is either time to embrace the change or be left in the dust by others. I still envision a world that we will have in-person events, and reflecting back on this past year, I feel that more people were engaged in different ways than ever before. It was a year of testing, creativity, and hopefully strategy. So going forward, can your gala, scholarship lunch, speaker series, or reunion dinner be a hybrid? If the goal is to bring people together and closer to your mission and institution, why not offer more than one way to be present?
I remember back in April when we shifted an in-person event to a virtual event and moved it to a breakfast hour versus an evening event. Our attendance was around 50 donors, and since we saw our in-person events dwindling in attendance over a couple of years, we were very excited about this attendance total. Since then, as a regular cadence had occurred, the organization watched attendance at virtual events move from the 50’s to the 100’s.
What did we learn and how did we encourage more to come? The speaker matters, the platform matters, and the timing matters. Understand that your first inclination is to do an evening event virtually. That doesn’t work for everyone, and many people in this remote space prefer morning or daytime virtual events. If you are unaware of when the best times are, ask. Your donors and partners will tell you what works for them, and also, record your event and use it as a follow-up touchpoint.
Needless to say, virtual is here to stay, and how you adapt and utilize it to enhance your engagement strategy will determine your success going forward.
2. Utilize video for moves management & stewardship
Two of the most awkward things in fundraising are the “blind date” first visit with a donor and the transitioning of donors between staff members. Video can help solve both and make those more fluid and donor-centered.
I always had nerves, excitement, and anxiety around that first coffee visit with a donor with who I had only had an email exchange or phone call. There is a lot going on when it comes to that first visit, and among it all, there is a “blind date” element. I remember sharing with a donor exactly what I would be wearing so they could identify me. Then as you sit there, not knowing what they look like, you stare at every person walking in, making eye contact and hoping that is the person you are there to meet. Beyond “researching” the person’s social media accounts to really know what they look like, video notes like Gratavid help remove that stress.
A great feature that is offered with a personalized video note is the donor now knows what you look like, how you talk, and they can even send a video message back. Doing this with first visits is extremely beneficial to remove the tension and helps lower the walls and barriers people place with a meeting like this and allows a wonderful start to a relationship.
Have you ever transitioned a donor from one development staff person to another? Reflect and ask yourself, how did that go? I remember moving donors from a Major Gift Officer (MGO) to a Chief Development Officer, or from a leadership annual gift officer to an MGO and realized how awkward it was for me. Now picture how it was for the donor or alumni if not done properly, and what does that look like? Enough questions...Within Gratavid, you can easily put two or three videos together, and when I left my last organization, I ended up doing transition Gratavids to all my donors in my portfolio. What I did was record a video stating I was leaving the organization and that the next video would be an introduction to the person taking over in my stead.
Imagine doing this for all your moves management, and utilizing video to seamlessly transition donors from one staff member to another! You aren’t leaving your donors wondering what happened and prompts the new relationship manager to already have a solid footing with that donor. The feedback I received from those who I managed in my portfolio was, “Well done!” “what a great way to meet the new person, thank you!” and so much more.
3. Shift your major gift mindset
I remember in college, my grandpa sent me an article from the Detroit Free Press about a Northern Michigan University (my alma mater) student who was living out in the woods for his last semester of school. His reason for reaching out was that he found the article interesting, and more importantly, it made him think of me, and he wanted to share that.
As major gift officers and development staff, our only update doesn’t have to be about your university, athletics program, research, or department, etc., but can be about things that you specifically learned about that donor. Think about the example above, if you are building true, authentic relationships, utilize what you learned about the alum you are working with. Do they have kids, grandkids, do they like to travel, or something very specific. Then, remember those things, and when you come across them, share that with your donor.
I remember hearing from one university that when their team was going to play their rival, they took a video of them burning the mascot (maybe don’t do that with all your donors) but that was very specific and intentional.
For me, as a major gift officer, I took detailed notes, and would schedule a time to share things that reminded me of them, and shifted my mindset to remember these little things. If you are to build deep relationships with individuals, you need to show you are listening and it isn’t all about your institution and is also about them as an individual. My examples are endless here, and it is because I trained my brain to remember and find the things that I wanted to share.
4. Plant your seeds now
Most higher education institutions have two-year ends; December and May/June. One year-end is filled with noise and the other year-end is focused on the fiscal year that doesn’t relate to the alum.
First, understand what is the most donor-centric approach and strategy and work backward from there. I always said, if you have a large push in your fourth quarter, the best time to plant the seed is in the first two quarters. Your first part of the year is the best time to connect, share, and steward all the gifts from your year-end push.
It is time to invest in new strategies and technologies. If you think that you can thank someone just a month in advance of when you are going to ask them for their support and expect them to give, think twice. To properly steward a donor, the thank you needs to be timely, with a report back on how it was used, and what it made possible. The reporting back can take place over the year and is typically where most places fail.
5. Showing up equitably
As an Indigenous male, this is an important area for me. Practicing equity and the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a one-stop ordeal, it is a journey. Navigating through the nonprofit sector was unique and eye-opening. I am hopeful that more people are coming to the realization that nonprofits and higher education, especially fundraising, are very white spaces. Here are three tips and ideas that may help to show up differently to your employees and alumni.
First, take the time to listen, learn, and be open-minded and open to feedback. If you said something that didn’t resonate with another person, be open to hearing that and willing to shift your perspective. Listen to what others are saying and don’t pass judgment and project your lived experiences, as they may be completely different.
Second, create spaces for BIPOC employees to connect with each other in healthy ways. As a co-chair of an employee resource group called the Multicultural Business Network, we set up a space that all could show up and share what they were facing. These “Sensing Sessions” allowed time for people of color to get navigation advice, to connect and share, be heard, and know that they weren’t in it alone.
Lastly, in marketing and communications, make sure that there is a diversity of thought for what is communicated with donors, alumni, partners, and others. Not to add more steps to getting something out, that is the last thing I want, but always having different perspectives on things sent out en masse will help both the creator learn new ideas of how someone may view something, but also ensures the success of your message.
These are just some strategy shifts within Higher Education from my experience, perspective, and what I am seeing out there among my network. If you want to learn more about how Gratavid can help you fulfill these strategies, feel free to book time on my calendar.
Always be thanking, and keep on pushing to make a better experience for all.
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