How Cornell is finding new donors with live virtual events

Cornell live virtual event
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Back in December, we shared some examples of exciting and innovative ways that institutions are helping to connect with their alumni through live virtual events. This time, Ashley Budd of Cornell University is joining us to highlight her team’s unique alumni engagement idea during the holidays.

Read on to hear how Cornell raised $6,000 from a live virtual cooking event, and what lessons they’ll be taking with them as they plan future live virtual events.


The marketing strategy for this holiday season was clear–focus on food and family. And knowing the holidays would have a distance element, my team (especially me) wanted to host an online cook-a-long event with a celebrity chef. 

We knew many college-friend meet ups would not be taking place in person, so we offered up a solution to fill the void of missed Cornell Friendsgivings world-wide. An online cooking class with non-traditional Thanksgiving food. Cornell Young Alumni Programs tapped Irene Li, class of 2012, and James Beard nominee for emerging chef, to host.

The Main Event 🥟

Irene’s restaurant Mei Mei pivoted early in the pandemic to teaching dumpling-making and hand-pulled noodles online. Her virtual class was seamless. She simultaneously demonstrated different techniques, told her story, and answered questions streaming through the chat. 

We offered this experience (and all other featured content during the pandemic) to alumni for free. This event, however, was one of a handful involved in a pilot project examining the efficacy of optional donations. 

During the registration process for the Friendsgiving dumpling class, alumni were prompted with the opportunity to make a gift to Anabel’s Grocery. 

Chef Irene Li ’12 is helping us elevate Anabel’s Grocery programming fund! Thank you for considering this option to support Cornell students working to create an equitable food system on campus. 

Thanks to Anabel’s Grocery, students can buy fresh affordable food right on campus! The program offers cooking classes and recipes to take the mystery out of cooking nutritious, plant-forward meals, fostering life-long skills as well as a love for creating community around good food.  

Donations are optional. Please leave the donation space black if you are not able to give at this time. 

Engagement in online events is through the roof. And through this pilot, event attendees of all kinds proved to us they are happy to donate.

Right person, right message, right time 🕒

As a digital strategist, there are a few exciting things about these gifts. We’re seeing a great mix of loyal, returning, and new donors. Even more validating is, after testing a few different ask strategies with live events, we’ve found the right timing.  

We know we’ve got the right people–they’re already on our event form taking action. By adding a relevant fund, we increase the chance of offering the right solicitation. And now, we know we’ve got the ask in front of them at the right time. Conversion rates at the point of event registration were at least 20x higher than campaigns with post-event email asks and 10x higher than when we asked for gifts in-platform during an online event. 

The dumpling class raised over $6,000 from nearly 250 donors, all gifts under $100, for a struggling student-led program. 😍 Forty percent of the gifts came from loyal donors. The other gifts were split between returning donors and new donors to Cornell. 

What’s next

As we roll out the optional-donation strategy to more live virtual events this spring, we’re keeping the following guidelines in mind. Make sure asking each specific event audience for a donation make sense. We’ll likely opt to keep donations off of career-support events. Next, look for relevant funds. The more direct the giving impact the better. 

Last, keep an eye on experience. Having the donation check-out integrated with the event registration makes it easy on the user. Limit the number of funds available to choose from and ensure the event registration process is clear. 


Ashley Budd Cornell

Ashley Budd is the director of marketing operations at Cornell University for their division of alumni affairs and development. Learn about more projects like this one by subscribing to Ashley’s weekly newsletter, Ashley in Your Inbox

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