The Illusion of Local

Strategy updates, staging changes, and solicitation scheduling: it’s beginning to look a lot like work plan season. As the mercury rises in my climate control-less 65-year-old building, I’m saturated with perspiration that’s proving to be a formidable opponent for my Gillette clear gel deodorant. The sweat beads, however, are not a result of sizzling summer temperatures, but rather the realization that I’m expected to make a couple dozen major gift asks this year, while also stewarding another hundred households. As if that’s not enough, I go full Ted Striker trying to land a jumbo jet when I find evidence that “my people” are all being courted by organizations in their hometown… and some of those nonprofits are winning.

A 2017 study from the University of Chicago concluded that one’s philanthropic inclination is greatly influenced by their distance from the cause. I’ve only been a major gift officer for nine months, but I’m already seeing this study prove out within my own portfolio. The study’s co-author elaborates:

“People metaphorically apply their knowledge about physical impact to charitable actions,” said Chicago Booth Professor Ayelet Fishbach. “Real and perceived spatial distance negatively influence the expected impact, and hence the likelihood of charitable action.”

Recent researched conducted by Blackbaud Institute found that of the five generations (Matures, Boomers, GenX, Millennials, and Gen Z) four out of five said their first choice for philanthropy was LOCAL social services. To most, local offers more connection to the impact of their dollar. If there’s one thing we know about donors in 2019 it’s that they want to know the impact of their philanthropy.

“Donations increase as real or perceived distances decrease,” Fishbach said. “The expectation of making an impact can stem not only from features of a charitable appeal… but also from the perceived spatial distance between donors and recipients. By shrinking distance, charitable appeals can expand donors’ expectations that their actions will have an impact, and thus increase the likelihood of charitable contributions.”

I have nearly 200 households to manage and it’s a struggle to give all of them the attention they deserve. Meanwhile, each of those households may represent the highest capacity for any potential donor in a 20-mile radius of their hometown. In an era where most nonprofits have wealth screening software, the cat is out of the bag with regards to the capacity of our alumni. Data that was once existed behind the firewall of higher ed advancement is now flowing into the databases of local, national, and international non-profits. So now what? Now, we compete.

For most of its history, higher ed has benefited from benefactors who feel a sense of duty or obligation to support their alma mater. For many of the Matures, Boomers, and even some of those in Gen X, college was seen as an opportunity and an entry into an elite network. But in these latter years, Gen Xers, Millennials, and Gen Z see college as a necessity to employment, one that often comes with a financial sacrifice that takes decades to recover from. That’s not to say these younger generations didn’t have fun at college or have an appreciation for what the experience has provided them. But where the matures and boomers were handed a diploma, the others were handed a diploma… and an invoice. 

This is important background because when you remove inclination and increase distance, you start to understand what gives local organizations an edge over our alumni. Impact is more visible, the dollar might go further at a small nonprofit versus a large university, stewardship has a faster turnaround and is more frequent and personalized, and the local organization isn’t responsible for that monthly student loan payment. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom! We can overcome this, but we won’t do it leaning on the same practices of the past twenty-five years. Higher ed advancement is famous for our willingness to steal and copy strategy from peer institutions. We all do it and it’s a roundly accepted and supported practice. We actually have conferences devoted to it. However, the content and strategy that’s needed to shrink distance between our campus and alumni may be more likely to be found in the, *gulp*, private sector. 

Think about how you connect with your favorite band, sports team, celebrity, or products. Think about how you take in LIVE events. As an example, consider how we now engage with presidential debates. We can watch them LIVE on a TV, phone, tablet, or even a video gaming system. As we watch, we can engage with other viewers in real-time comment threads. For the savvy campaigns, they’re marketing donation links to us on these platforms AS their candidate talks. When their person receives thunderous applause, that link is tweeted and shared across social media by campaign handles and social media ambassadors and influencers. You feel as if you’re sitting ringside with the rest of the country, having it out with opponents and enduring lobbying for your support. Now imagine a news source committing to a business model that puts all of its resources into reporters attending the debate, writing a summary of what transpired, and then publishing the article the next day. Not quite the same feel.

This might not be the best apples to apples comparison for what we’re facing on the frontlines of fundraising, but I feel comfortable suggesting that while we’re making strides in using digital media and emerging technologies to engage and advertise to alumni, there is still much uncharted territory when it comes to cultivating and stewarding our leadership and major gift prospects. It’s imperative we examine all of the tools available. Within these applications is an opportunity to create the illusion of being local. 

Recent data says 81% of Americans now own a smartphone. That means 266 million people are walking around with a LIVE TV studio in their pocket. What are we doing with it? Are we cultivating our portfolio with a Facetime lunch with a beloved faculty member or coach? Are we taking them behind the scenes of a century old campus tradition? What are the EXPERIENCES, we’re sharing with our most beloved benefactors? As more advancement shops dive into livestreaming events, individual giving officers need to consider: how do we apply these approaches for an exclusive audience? 

One example I’ll share is a recent meeting I had with a former Cornell athlete. This was LITERALLY my first face to face visit with someone in my portfolio and I wanted to make a good first impression. Before I left, I spent a whopping five minutes recording a video on my phone of a head coach thanking this alumnus for decades of generous support, along with a few shout-outs unique to the alum’s family. A few minutes into my meeting I slid my phone across the table, video all cued up, and said “before we get started, someone wants to say hello.” It killed. Amazing ice breaker and it was a very enjoyable 90-minute breakfast.

That’s just one example of a handful I’ve tried during my first nine months as a major gift officer. I don’t pretend to have this job figured out and I’m always learning from colleagues with 20+ years under their belt. I do know we’re in the people business, and in 2019 more people of all age groups and capacities are demanding increased intimacy with the recipient of their hard-earned dollars. There are few places more locationally isolated than my Cornell University, so this reality is especially heavy on my mind, but I bet most advancement shops feel they lack the bandwidth to deliver the stewardship their top donors deserve.

As a giving officer, I can only hit so many cities and visit so many people in a calendar year. I have to find more ways to compete with what local nonprofits can offer. Donating, especially at a high level, needs to be an ongoing experience, not a single transaction. There’s too much at stake to allow our closest friends to feel forgotten. If I’m organized in how I schedule time with campus influencers and use my pocket studio to maximum efficiency, I can make that prospect who lives 1,000 miles away occasionally feel like they’re still living on campus. 

Now, if only my phone could beam them to a local watering hole. 

Put it in the 10-year plan.


Keith Hannon is a major gift officer (athletics) at Cornell University. Previously, he was a member of Cornell’s alumni affairs and development’s digital innovation team where he managed online alumni communities and developed digital strategies for major- and leadership-level donor discovery and cultivation. He’s a recovering television/film professional who is quickly approaching 10 years in higher ed advancement.

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