Pausing to thank every single donor during the pandemic

Wisconsin sent 35,000 personal videos to donors. You should, too.
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The University of Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association used personalized videos to thank every single donor. Now that’s what we call a great donor experience.

In March, the University of Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association hit pause on its normal fundraising activities as the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the country. Like most institutions, they postponed their giving day, pulled gift officers off the road, and suspended annual fund solicitations.

But just because they stopped asking for support didn’t mean they had to stop thanking current donors.

We talked with Aimee Furrie, Stewardship Program Manager of Annual Giving & Campus Relations, and John Grice, Senior Managing Director of Annual Giving, at the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association about the project the team undertook to send a personal video message of gratitude to every single donor.

“As the pandemic started, we recognized the value in creating personalized communications,” Aimee said. “People were feeling a lack of human connection and we wanted to provide them with that and remind them that we’re all part of this community.

Everything went digital and living rooms became recording studios. TV commercials, American Idol, and late-night TV — viewers were transported into people’s homes with a perspective we’d never had before. So why couldn’t UW do the same thing?”

Aimee, John, and the team turned the crisis into an opportunity. They called upon their student fundraisers to record videos from their homes for Wisconsin’s alumni donors.

“When we made this decision, we were ready to go with our spring campaign to our ‘retention pool’ — everyone who’d given to the annual funds in the last two years along with donors to the medical school and a couple of related areas,” John said. “We hit pause and let the stewardship team go wild and think of a solution.”

Why take this approach?

You can never thank your donors enough.

“We wanted to be laser-focused on people giving to UW in the last year,” John said. “If we have $1 to spend, let’s spend it on keeping people close to us.”

Alumni also cared about students and wanted to know how they were doing. By allowing students to record the videos, Wisconsin gave their donors a way to see how they’re doing.

“It was authentic,” Aimee said. “We gave our students talking points and helped them with some recording tips, but they personalized every video with their own experiences.”

This is just one of the thousands of videos the University of Wisconsin sent to every single donor.

How’d you do it?

The team used ThankView to record and send the videos. (EverTrue and ThankView just announced a new integration, by the way.)

And while they sent 35,000 messages, they actually had to record fewer videos by using a simple trick. They took all alumni with common names (John, Aimee/Amy, Mike, Susan, for example) and recorded one video for each of those groups. That’s a smart way to personalize videos at scale.

Check out ThankView’s blog post for step-by-step instructions if you want to follow Wisconsin’s example.

What were the results?

“Our response, open, and watch rates were through the roof,” Aimee said. “The responses at this quantity were unheard of. Alumni recorded video responses for the students, shared their own pictures or memories, or wrote in saying, ‘I want to make another gift.’”

The Results

  • Open rate over 50%
  • 11,365 video views
  • 400+ email replies
  • More than 200 leads on new major gift prospects as the Wisconsin research team looked into the most engaged viewers.

But beyond the numbers, the responses from alumni donors proved the value of this person-to-person approach.

Alumni Responses

“Ada, you touched my heart with your personal thank you! Thank you so much for recording it. I have always been a big fan of the UW Madison and will continue to be through times like these and beyond. It’s just so nice to be thanked in such a personal and meaningful way! I wish you well in your studies. Stay safe and healthy.” – Jim, ‘66

“Dear Jackie, thank you so much for the video. Today was not a great day, but your video made me smile. Although I wish you did not have to miss some of your campus experience, I would rather you stay safe and healthy. Just continue to have faith. Better days lie ahead! Wishing you the best of luck!” – Louise, ‘78

“Wow!! What a nice surprise!! Thank you so much for the video. It made my day. Good luck with Senior year and On, Wisconsin!!” – Emma, ‘18

“Dear Matt, thank you very much for the video, it made my day. Happy to hear that you are completing your 3rd year, 4th is quite a ride. If you ever want to chat about biotech and research, feel free to reach out.” – Enrique, ‘96

What’s next?

The long-term goal is scalable personalization,” Aimee said. “We want to take our donors and alumni on this journey with our students. We have people supporting different areas, so how do we create that journey and show them how their gifts affect the lives of individual students?”

If you want to hear more about this project and how Wisconsin is taking a hyper-personal approach to annual giving appeals and stewardship, then check out RAISE — the advancement event of the year. John and Aimee are two of a great lineup of speakers talking about creating a better experience for every single donor.

Aimee Furrie and John Grice share how their team is creating personal experiences for every annual fund donor.

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