From Content to Cash: The Rise of the Digital Gift Officer

If you missed EverTrue’s Raise 2016, you missed two days of impressive speakers from higher ed and the private sector discussing the various ways we can engage, track, and convert donors via digital media. Part of that was my disclosing of a new role we’re piloting at Cornell: the digital gift officer.

The concept? As Cornell’s digital gift officer, I’ve been assigned a portfolio of leadership gift prospects—and I’ll attempt to engage (and solicit) them using only social and digital channels.

So why would someone who has been tasked with posting pretty pictures and entertaining videos online want to cross over to the realm of gift officer? Why would I sell my soul by introducing fundraising into my job description?

Ignoring that sarcastic lead-in, the answer is: evolution.


How It All Started

For the last four years, not only have I been monitoring our 29,000-strong online community for engagement trends, but I’ve also been doing high-level prospect research on this community and passing off engaged leads to our development team.

The results have been encouraging; turns out, our wealthy alumni use social media, too. I’ve personally nominated over 400 prospects—30 percent of whom have qualified for major gift tracking and 95 percent qualified for a capacity of $25K or more.

All of this is great progress. But I wanted to take it a step further.

Considering we’ve had success with finding capacity in our social communities and building relationships through social and digital tactics, it only made sense that the next chapter of my job would be to oversee a specific portfolio of prospects.

So, I made the case to my team at Cornell. After they approved the concept, I met with the prospect research team to determine the makeup of the portfolio. We decided on 350 prospects, broken down equally into three categories:

  1. Socially engaged
  2. Looks like a traditional leadership gifts prospect
  3. Dropped by leadership gifts due to ignoring outreach


The idea behind creating these three groups is that we don’t want to socially cultivate just the socially engaged prospects. We also want to see if digital content can effectively engage alumni who don’t have a storied engagement history with their alma mater.

My First Experiment in Digital Solicitation

I received my portfolio with just a few days left in the fiscal year, so in an attempt to do something with my prospects, I decided to narrow it down to a more digestible list. Using EverTrue, I ran the following search on my portfolio:

  • Socially engaged
  • Made a gift in FY15
  • Has NOT yet made a gift in FY16

This criteria returned 15 names—the chosen ones for my first attempt at digital solicitation.

The EverTrue search filters

I then analyzed the prospects’ Facebook engagement stats in EverTrue and was able to conclude that the one thing they all had in common was a love for beauty shots of campus. It just so happens our most popular YouTube video of all-time, the Cornell alma mater with lyrics, features a montage of beautiful photos.

I decided to repurpose that video—but as a personal touch, I added each prospect’s name to the beginning and end of the video. (It sounds like a laborious process, but it was far from it.) The result was 15 videos that all looked the same except for the names that appeared on the screen.


Each prospect’s video had a unique URL, which I included in the personal emails I sent out. The emails read like a stewardship message, but were intended to inspire an end-of-year gift with less than 48 hours remaining in the FY.

The results:

  • Six of the 15 prospects made a gift between the time they received the video and the end of FY16 (40%)
  • All 15 prospects at least watched the video (so you could give it a “stewardship rate” of 100%)

Perhaps the most interesting part of this whole experiment, though, is that my email did not directly ask them for money. Instead, I included a link to our giving page after I signed my name—a kind of “P.S… consider a gift.” Since all of these alumni had given in FY15, they either needed one more gift to join the Cornell 1865 Society (consecutive giving in any amount), or they needed to make a gift to remain in the society.

My “P.S. solicitation” looked like this…


Now What?

Your first reaction might be, “Yeah, that’s great, but it’s only a sample of 15 people.” The devil’s advocate in you isn’t wrong. While the conversion percentage is much higher than a typical end-of-year annual fund solicitation, it’s still a very small sample size.

But (a) give this mad scientist a break, I had three days to do something and (b) it’s an early attempt to create a vibrant, highly personalized solicitation with social content that we know prospects care about.

As we look to scale this strategy, a digital solicitation could take many forms. I could ask them to be an ambassador (and donor) for a crowdfunding project. I may recommend that they join our online volunteer management portal and find a role they’re interested in. If I’m not ready to ask for a gift but they have a big social following, I could ask them to join CornellSOCIAL (powered by SocialToaster) and become an online ambassador for Cornell.


I’ve also started meeting with gift officers to understand their approach to prospect engagement and “ice breaking” in hopes of creating a digital-only version of their process. What’s the social media equivalent to the initial cup of coffee? A tweet applauding their professional accomplishments?

Who knows. I can’t claim to have all the answers because we’re just beginning to ask the questions. This is the first of many steps in attempting to determine the effectiveness of digital media as an engagement and solicitation tool.

What I feel confident in saying is that ignoring digital and social media’s ability to surface what prospects are passionate about—and then not taking action on that information—will only cost your institution time and money.

Want to hear more from Keith on this topic? Check out his article, “A MAJOR Shift? Social Media’s Influence on Prospect Management.”

Keith Hannon is the associate director for communications and alumni relations at Boyce Thompson Institute and was formerly 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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