This is post is by Jason Hild, a proud Davidson College and Stanford GSB Alum. Jason’s 10 years of alumni volunteering is rooted in his appreciation of education through an upbringing by two college professors, in his high ambitions for future Davidson students and by the valuable skills one earns from fundraising experience.
Last year, my Davidson College class marked its 10th reunion with an exceptional achievement: 77.8% of the class gave to our reunion gift. Not only did this alumni giving rate set a 10th reunion record at Davidson but the college also has never received more donations from any single class in one year. While I felt very fortunate to lead the dedicated volunteer team that rounded up our record-breaking reunion gift, we truthfully have passionate, loyal alumni to thank for this result. Nevertheless, the EverTrue team asked that I share some of the tactics and lessons from last year’s big campaign.
Before I jump into these areas, let’s indulge in my appreciation for data and examine the following chart to contextualize this post:
Sources: Voluntary Support of Education Report (2011 Ed.) published by Council for Aid to Education, Davidson College.
Am I the only person surprised by the national figures on the left-hand side?
I always expect alumni giving rates to be higher due to two principal factors. First, colleges and universities – especially the private schools – rely heavily on alumni contributions. Second, the college experience has such a meaningful impact on most people’s lives. At least, it influenced mine greatly.
Since I valued Davison’s impact on me so highly, I jumped at the invitation to serve as reunion co chair and lead fundraising for our reunion gift last year. However, if you spend 10-15 minutes with me, you will quickly learn that I prefer big, scary challenges and rarely commit less than 110% to a project. Consequently, our reunion fundraising team planned for big things! We set “stretch” goals, developed a carefully considered strategy, agreed on critical tactics, and focused on relentless execution to achieve an alumni giving rate of almost 80%. I think that four primary factors contributed to this great outcome for the college:
1) Segment the Donors
To break Davidson’s giving records, we had to convert (i) non-donors or (ii) highly irregular donors into contributing donors – in less than a year. These subgroups of “tougher” donors unquestionably represented the difference maker. However, such donors require a disproportionate amount of time to either (a) track down their latest contact information (primarily) or (b) reverse their negative disposition towards giving.
As a result, we divided our potential donors into three groups based on giving history, and our fundraising team focused exclusively on the “tougher” potential donors for the first 70-80% of the campaign. In fact, we worried about nothing else. With this single-mindedness at the outset, the team’s creativity and resourcefulness fueled our use of Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, calls to parents, calls to former employers, emails to other alumni, and any other means to get in touch with our classmates. As our deadline approached, we trusted that the historically loyal donors would be there at the final hours as they had in many previous years. Importantly, they were. Furthermore, we saw our early work pay off fantastically in the last 2-3 weeks, as many “tougher” donors eventually responded positively to the consistent, friendly solicitations over an extended period. We benefited from focusing our resources and tilling the “tougher” soil early on.
2) Simplify and Connect the Marketing Message
From the donor’s perspective, I have always felt overwhelmed by the multitude of goals presented by solicitors. Within college giving, there are seemingly endless annual goals: class dollar amounts, class giving participation rates, special project campaigns, school-wide giving participation rates, sports-specific scholarships, etc. It was too confusing. For our 10th reunion gift, we wanted to simplify the marketing message for donors – and volunteer solicitors, whose locations varied from Connecticut to Texas to Shanghai. More specifically, we wanted one goal. Nothing more. This simplification would ensure that everyone rowed in the same direction and rallied around one common objective.
Furthermore, our potential donors needed to feel connected to this goal. Again, as a donor myself, I have always found it difficult to understand how I impact a percentage rate – or an alumni giving rate. For instance, will my donation improve the giving rate by 0.35% or 0.27%? Am I a percentage? Also, I felt overwhelmed by dollar goals, especially when I only had $20 to give to the $100,000 campaign. Consequently, our 10th reunion campaign focused exclusively on the number of donors that we needed at any point. For example: “we need 98 donors by June 30th to set the record.” A potential donor could clearly see his/her impact on this number, and his/her donation counted just as much as the next donor’s donation – the dollar amount was insignificant. Accordingly, the individual felt connected to and motivated by this marketing message. Again, it was one simple, connected message.
Interestingly, we never discussed any dollar goals with classmates/donors, but we shattered the school’s 10th reunion dollar record as well. We learned that the dollars will be there if an exceptionally high number of donors give.
3) Leverage Network Nodes
Every college class has a handful of people who bind the group together. These extroverted individuals generally have naturally fostered the broadest and most consistent relationships either (a) within a specific subgroup (e.g., fraternity, eating house, athletic team, student club, etc.) or (b) across the entire class since graduation 10 years ago. We learned that these “network nodes” – as I began calling them – were invaluable to the fundraising effort. Having bought into our mission, these well-connected alumni provided classmates’ contact information and willingly solicited donations on their own, providing our team with additional scale.
Furthermore, these “network nodes” benefited from not being formal fundraising volunteers. They could leverage a “halo” of being a concerned friend or classmate to send that funny reminder email or make that humorous but almost scolding phone call. We found that these individuals were most effective with potential donors who insisted on procrastination – or who attempted to forget about a donation altogether.
4) Create Transparency to Foster Accountability
I have an admittedly strong bias towards organization and transparency. Correspondingly, we tracked (a) who contacted each donor, (b) the dates on which we contacted each donor, (c) the method by which we contacted them, and (d) various other relevant details. Throughout the campaign, I organized this data with large spreadsheets and rigorously analyzed our activities across hundreds of classmates. (Yes – my professional pursuits have made me this way for better or worse!) I regularly shared this information – as well as summary statistics – with the volunteer team and Davidson’s development office.
Importantly, this analytical approach gave us a very clear window into the process, enabling us to adapt as needed. We quickly knew which potential donors required an extra nudge and which volunteers struggled to balance the time commitment associated with this endeavor. Also, with such transparency into each individual’s ongoing activities, our volunteers felt accountable. Each could readily see his/her progress with potential donors and immediately experience the thrill of personally securing a difficult donation. Furthermore, no one wanted to let down the team. When professional or family obligations suddenly stole a volunteer’s time in the final months, this sense of accountability compelled the volunteer to speak up first. Although the tracking spreadsheet would have revealed this issue in short order, most volunteers preferred to avoid it reaching this point. Consequently, such granular transparency made us more efficient and effective as a team.
So how does all this relate to EverTrue?
I love the features that the EverTrue team has built into its products. In my view, these features represent the mobile incarnation of several tools that our team used for the 10th reunion gift. For example, we very manually and tediously tracked down alumni contact information via Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google with one query at a time. Now Evertrue centralizes and simplifies the access point to this data, saving users time and increasing the likelihood that alumni can find each other. Based on my experience, I expect EverTrue to help with building greater connectedness among alumni communities. It sounds pretty fantastic to me, and I am excited to see it happen!