How Northern Illinois University Used a Giving Day for Prospect Discovery

NIU Foundation

NIU advancement staff awaited with anticipation as they pressed send on the invite to their virtual Day of Giving Kickoff, unsure of what the response would be. This was their 15th year celebrating what was originally known as The Red and Black Gala (representative of their university colors), an annual stewardship event hosted by the Northern Illinois University Foundation.

This year, they had to switch things up due to COVID-19 (the age-old story, at this point). They created a new initiative: the Thousands Strong Campaign.

Fundraising…but make it digital

Picture this: it was NIU’s 125th anniversary. Their ‘Quasquicentennial’, as long-time Advancement professionals would put it. They knew they had to celebrate big, but how?

Director of Strategy and Campaigns – Kristin Miller and Director of Annual Giving Michael Adzovic sat down with us (digitally, of course) to give us the story. Using ‘Thousands Strong’ as their title and inspiration, which is a line from their alma mater -, the NIU Foundation first identified their priorities.

Kristin says, “There were three key priorities: engage as many prospects and donors as humanly possible, raise a lot of money to maximize calendar year-end giving, and continue to build leads for our digital gift officer as well as the gift team.”

To engage their constituents and publicize the event, they posted on Facebook about Thousands Strong. Then, they used EverTrue to look at who was engaging with those posts, and texted those people with the registration link, reminding them to RSVP to the event.

Make it fun

They settled on a two and a half day concept around giving day, with a Wednesday night kick-off, and wanted it to be highly produced. To be COVID-compliant,  they hired a student with an Acting Major to be the host of the event and put together a 30 minute video, which was broadcast live.

What followed was a 28-hour day of giving for the NIU Foundation, so this kick off really helped to gain the attention of the NIU alumni community prior to that giving day. Their goal was to hit 1,000 views (for Thousand Strong) when they went live Wednesday night, and they reached that goal within the first 30 minutes. They’re up to 2,200 now (and counting)!

That Friday, they released a highlight reel via ThankView, including highlight videos from alumni friends and family expressing gratitude for participation and continued celebration for the event. Then, anybody who opened the highlight reel email received an “in case you missed it” newsletter after Thanksgiving.

Northern Illinois Day of Giving
Check out the Thousands Strong project at

Make sure there’s follow-up

The benefit of shifting from an in-person event to a day of giving is the ability to reach more people (we’re talking worldwide) and to track how each person is engaging with the event.

  • Did they register, attend the watch party, but didn’t make a gift?
    There’s an opportunity to follow-up with an impact story.
  • Did they engage on Facebook, but not attend?
    There’s an opportunity to share the highlight reel via email.
  • Did they make a gift, but at a level below their net worth?
    Giving days aren’t just about donor participation. They’re an opportunity to bring new high-potential donors into the fold. If an affluent donor makes a gift, they should receive a personalized stewardship experience — even if they’re not yet assigned to a gift officer.

Which assigned prospects attended the event? Made a gift?

This is an opportunity for their assigned gift office to reach out, share an impact story, and deepen those relationships. (EverTrue’s alerts and gift notifications make this super simple.)

Northern Illinois approached this Thousands Strong day of giving with a Giving Funnel mentality. They wanted to drive meaningful engagement, raise support for students, AND build major gift pipeline.

So the team used EverTrue to look at people who had engaged with them on Facebook, but did not make a gift. They also identified and kept track of segments of people who had RSVP’d, attended the event, viewed the reel, and so forth.

Facebook Post on Thousands Strong

Collectively, they have a data set of 1,900+ new prospects altogether called their “Suspects”, which refers to people that have engaged with them, but have not yet made a gift.

Using EverTrue’s Windfall integration, NIU saw that 504 of these suspects are analytically pre-qualified to make a major gift and the top third have more than $1 million in net worth. They are creating individual touch points for each of these high net worth prospects, stewarding their past giving and cultivating future leadership and major gifts.

What was the Thousands Strong outcome?

The results for the NIU Foundation were overwhelmingly positive. They raised over $2 million across more than 3,000 gifts. Not only that, but their day of giving gifts increased from last year by 20%. Not a bad way to end an otherwise uniquely challenging year!

Within that $2 million total, the largest donations came from challenge gifts, which are donations made to specific areas and societies on campus, such as the Veteran’s Scholarship and Latino Honors Society. The largest amount of gifts came on the day of giving, where over 30% of their gift count came in. This is a 21% increase from last year.

Another neat statistic was that 37 states were represented in the engagement for Thousands Strong. This further supports the digital landscape’s capability to bring people together, albeit different from years past.

A Day of Giving needs to be more than just one day

Having a day of giving means nothing if it’s only about that day. The excitement, community, and pride that surrounds Giving Day should ultimately lead to better segmentation, stewardship, and more donor pipeline.

That places a pretty important emphasis on the follow-up, a task that our friends at NIU have become well-acquainted with. If you follow EverTrue’s Flip the Pyramid concept, you will know that this model allows fundraisers to transform their campaigning to encompass conversations and momentum that lasts more than one day.

Kristin notes, “From a digital engagement perspective, we really used Evertrue’s “Flip the Pyramid” concept for the entire event. The master list of 1,929 brings together those that engaged with us through social media, newsletters, emails and texts. The concept of Thousands Strong was very much focused on pride, connectivity to NIU and shared both meaningful points about the university’s mission and the impact of philanthropy.”

Taking This Momentum Into 2021

Michael closes the story by asking the key question, “How did Thousands Strong influence calendar-year-end giving?” Their totals in end of year giving have gone up across the board, and they want to keep the momentum going into 2021.

As it goes in the world of advancement, they are already focusing on Spring 2021. It will look a bit different than Thousands Strong, as Kristin says, “We want to focus on flipping the pyramid and use what we started here, connect it to the mission of the university, and induce pride.”

Hats off to the NIU Foundation, we look forward to hearing about their continued success in 2021!

Learn more about the Giving Funnel approach used by NIU in this story.

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