Rethink Your Advancement Budget to Raise More. It's THAT Simple.

If you work for a university, you may have noticed the ceiling above your head creaking a bit. Maybe it’s just the building settling, or maybe it’s the sign of a problem “overhead” with the foundation. Higher ed’s rate of hiring non-academic staff is starting to make headlines—making it harder and harder to convince our donor base that we’re starved for money.

At the same time, I’m still meeting advancement folks at conferences who struggle to convince their superiors to hire full-time social media staffers or to give them money for digital and social engagement strategies. To me, this is completely counterintuitive because effective digital strategy is the best way to save money, improve engagement, and raise more.


Spending (the Right) Money to Make Money

I’m not arguing we need to stop hiring people; I’m arguing we need to hire the right people and invest in strategies that move our shops into the 21st century. According to an article from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the number of non-academic employees at U.S. colleges has more than doubled in the past 25 years and is growing much faster than the rates of enrollment and new faculty.

There’s an old adage: You need to spend money to make money. At Cornell, we have a staff of over 300 people in central alumni affairs and development. That number sounds startling at first, but you have to understand that we bring in over $500M in donations every year. The real question is: Are you spending money in ways that make sense in 2015? Heck, are you spending money in ways that make sense in 2005?

Cutting Down on Annual Fund Costs

In my office, I’m always hearing spending figures that shock me—and I imagine that’s not unique to the Big Red. Most advancement offices will happily spend a couple hundred thousand dollars on direct mail and then scoff at a request to invest a thousand in social media advertising. This shows a lack of understanding of what social can offer from a cost-savings perspective. Many senior leaders see full-time investment in social as a luxury that their budgets cannot accommodate. At the same time, we budget for direct mail campaigns when we know there will be thousands of pieces of returned mail. Not only are we paying for an over-abundance of direct mail, but a percentage of it is never reaching the intended destination. (No, USPS does not offer refunds.)

We need to change the conversation and show decision-makers how social media can save money while offering a higher delivery success rate. We might not know someone’s address, but through social targeting, we can ensure Mr. Zuckerberg helps the message finds its way to our audience. With social ads, in addition to reaching a specific audience, you have the option of only paying when someone engages with your content—something Newman (the postman from “Seinfeld” for you youngins’ that missed out on the legendary sitcom) can’t offer. I’m willing to bet many schools could hire a full-time employee for social media strategy just by cutting their direct mail budget by one-third. Less stamps, more “boosts”—that’s how you save money and engage more alumni.

Grounding the Gift Officers

Gift officers are crucial. They develop relationships with alumni, bringing in monumental gifts that revolutionize campus. They also travel… a lot. If you haven’t booked an airline ticket in the past 1-2 years, I’m here to tell you it’s not cheap. We estimate that every trip an MGO makes costs our division an average of $1,500.

Our university has dozens of MGOs, and while they certainly excel at closing gifts, they could probably cut down on the number of trips by cultivating more alumni online. LinkedIn and Twitter are excellent platforms for conversing with prospective donors. I even talked to an MGO recently who told me she’s connected with several people through Instagram. Instead of flying a thousand miles in an attempt to start a relationship with an alum over coffee, we should allow social media to be a catalyst for the relationship.

This is especially important in light of the fact that we are constantly competing with local nonprofits for the attention of alumni. Our VP once said that it’s tough when the local nonprofit can meet with our alumni once a week, while we’re lucky if we can meet with them once a quarter. Instead of increasing our spending on airfare, we can use social media, Skype, Google Hangouts, and more to ensure that face-to-face meetings are less common, but when they do happen, they’re more productive.

Case Example: Cornell’s Digital Gift Officers

Piggy-backing off that idea, Cornell has decided to experiment with cultivating lower-capacity alumni through digital methods. Three staff members were re-assigned as Digital Gift Officers (DGOs), and each was given a portfolio of 500 people to cultivate through email, social media, and phone calls. In other words, their task was to close leadership-level gifts ($5,000 – $25,000) without leaving their desks.

Initial numbers are still trickling in, but the general sense is that the pilot met or exceeded expectations, and the program will be renewed for at least another year. There was a time when people thought email would never be accepted as a professional means of communication because it was “too informal.” Now, we send too many emails; we just have to accept the idea that you can cultivate without sitting across the table from someone.

What Now?

Change is hard around a university advancement office. There are staff members who have been doing things a certain way for multiple decades, and that’s usually because it has been working. But as more technologically nimble nonprofits make a play for alumni’s philanthropic dollars and tuition costs skyrocket, business as usual isn’t an option. We have to hold up a mirror and take a hard look at how we operate.

The boom in college enrollment triggered a boom in administrative hiring, which is now growing faster than enrollment. Are we hiring and spending to maintain an advancement operation that looks like 1995, or are we evolving and changing our staff structure to reflect engagement strategies of 2015? More than one school has made news recently because the roof caved in and they were forced to close up shop. We must be smarter about how we allocate our resources. Investment in social and digital is the path to better, more efficient alumni engagement.

Learn how to get started using social data for prospect discovery and donor identification in our latest whitepaper, “Donor Identification in the 21st Century“:

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