Can Crowdfunding Engage and Retain New Donors?

Remember crowdfunding? Seems like just two years ago it was all anyone wanted to talk about. At every conference, we discussed the benefits and problems associated with micro-philanthropy. Some called it “a must”; others said it was merely “a fad.”

At the time, data wasn’t available to tell the long-term effects of crowdfunding. But now, as we prepare to close the books on FY16 at Cornell Alumni Affairs and Development, the fruits of our crowdfunding labor are becoming evident.

Back in 2014, we at Cornell took a bold—but not unprecedented—step into the world of crowdfunding. Like the Middleburys and Vermonts before us, we believed it would be an effective tool for improving participation, young alumni giving, and retention.

So, how did we do? Let’s take a look:

  • Over $500,000 raised for over 50 projects
  • More than 70% of projects met or exceeded their goals
  • Nearly 4,000 unique donors



This bird’s-eye view of our crowdfunding looks pretty good, but like most high-level metrics, they don’t capture the data that gives senior-level advancement pros goosebumps. Organizations want to know if new donors are being engaged, if dormant donors are coming back to life, and if both groups are coming back for seconds.

We pulled a few more numbers to answer those questions:

  • Nearly 2,000 new donors gave to Cornell crowdfunding
  • 2,179 people who had not given in the past five years gave to a crowdfunding project
  • 1,320 donors were retained via crowdfunding (gave to crowdfunding one year and again the next)
  • 444 donors reactivated by crowdfunding (had made a gift in the past five years, missed a year, then came back via crowdfunding)



Although we’re happy with these numbers, we understand that there is much we can improve upon as we continue to manage student project teams. We know that, as platforms evolve and donor characteristics change, we’ll always be shooting at a moving target.

But we also know that few other fundraising methods give us the opportunity to tell a compelling story, while also showing the direct impact of making a gift. Not to mention, the user experience is typically fantastic—and that’s crucial for online fundraising.

Perhaps I don’t hear as much about crowdfunding any more because so many institutions have implemented it, making it a common weapon in the advancement arsenal. But for those who haven’t tried it—or think the era of crowdfunding is behind us—I encourage you to consider the data I have shared, along with the graphs below.



Crowdfunding remains a powerful fundraising mechanism for many industries. Hopefully, more higher-ed institutions will continue to jump on board and take advantage of it. Just a word of caution: People, not the platform, raise the money. There is no magic wand here; you and your project teams will have to work hard to relay the message and impact to the donors.

The good news is, if you put in the work, crowdfunding can create a lasting relationship between alma mater and a previously unengaged alumni. The crowd is still out there, are you?

Keith Hannon is the associate director for digital innovation for Cornell University Alumni Affairs & Development. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or catch him on Twitter @KeithHannon.

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