All-in at WKU: More donors, more dollars, and happier fundraisers

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A new way of fundraising at Western Kentucky University raised more dollars from more donors more efficiently in FY21. This is the story of WKU’s journey from “the way we’ve always done it” to an all-in embrace of the Donor Experience approach.

What's on tap

TBT: 2019 on The Hill

Two-time WKU alumna Amanda Trabue returned to the Hill in June 2019 as the Vice President for Philanthropy & Alumni Engagement. 

At that time, WKU’s donors and dollars were trending downward. The donors who were giving $250 – $10,000 annually were churning. Fundraiser morale and activity were in need of a boost. 

Signs of concern
donor pyramid

It was the pipeline problem that exists at almost every institution. The very top of the pyramid carries about 90% of revenue to the institution. The 98% of alumni that aren’t in MGO portfolios get blasted with annual fund appeals a few times a year. The small-but-steady donors that make up a healthy donor pipeline feel forgotten, unimportant, and disconnected. 

In theory, we all know this is not a sustainable model. There is no such thing as a business that doesn’t need customers in the pipeline. Higher ed advancement is no exception. And actually doing something to remedy the situation is not easy, especially at 150-year-old institutions bedecked with red tape and ingrained with a loyalty to “the way we’ve always done it.”

But, Amanda’s a Hilltopper. She loves WKU so much that when she returned to the Hill in her VP role, she decided to confront problems head-on, even if it meant sticking her neck out and proposing a bold new solution. In her words, “It was just the right thing to do.”

A chance encounter with Brent Grinna at a CASE DIII conference gave Amanda the final push she needed to take a leap of faith, seek presidential buy-in, and launch a whole new approach to fundraising on the Hill. 

"A lot of employee engagement and happiness"

Amanda brought fresh eyes and a new solution to an old problem. Her vision for what was possible for WKU was clear, but she needed buy-in from leadership and from her staff.

With EverTrue’s help, Amanda did a deep dive into the “leaky bucket” data. Which donors were churning YoY, and why? What kind of outreach and engagement was needed to retain those donors, and acquire new ones? Amanda identified a target 3,000 prospects on which she could test the EverTrue Donor Experience solution that was working at pilot institutions like Oregon State University and Louisiana Tech. She and Brent pitched the data-backed game plan to WKU’s President Caboni and got the green light. She explained the vision to Associate Vice President Ron Wilson. He was sold.

And then things on the WKU advancement team began to change.

First, Amanda and Ron turned to their team of Leadership Annual Giving officers. Together, they reviewed WKU’s data and cross-industry donor and dollar trends. They collectively agreed: there was a pretty big problem opportunity*.

*We are trying to consciously reposition problems as opportunities in our EverTrue communications. This dose of optimism is a nod to our innovative friend, Dr. Nick Linde.

Driven by the data and excited by the prospect of being one of the first institutions in the country to buck industry-wide downward trends, three Leadership Annual Giving officers jumped at the opportunity to become Donor Experience Officers. These newly-dubbed DXOs were retrained in completely-digital, high-volume outreach strategy and tech, and were each given portfolios of 1,000 of WKU’s next-best (net liquid assets over $1MM; digitally engaged; former or current donors; unmanaged) prospects.

NB: This was January 2020. Today, “DXO” is now the fastest-growing job title in the industry.

Next, Amanda and Ron scrapped the WKU phonathon program. In its place, they hired twelve of WKU’s best and brightest students as Student Donor Experience Officers. They equipped the SDXOs with 250-person portfolios and the same top-tier sales-enablement technology as the DXOs for ten hours each week. (And the SDXOs worked during the typical work day. No more 7pm student phone calls during alums’ dinnertime.)

Once the DXOs and SDXOs were off and running, Amanda and Ron retrained three of their most seasoned Major Gift Officers in the DX approach. The MGOs learned SalesLoft to manage outreach cadences and take the guesswork out of polite persistence. They adopted EverTrue to compare prospects’ giving history with social media insights and wealth indicators; to move prospects quickly through stages of cultivation, dictate contact reports, and suggest information updates; and to track prospects’ career moves in real time. They got comfortable using LinkedIn to reach out to disengaged alums. They unlearned old habits and trained in the new high-volume, high-personalization DX approach.

Amanda and Ron guided this team-wide sea change equipped with data and the “servant leader” approach (learn more about that in Dr. Barnes’ podcast episode). Within nine months of the DX program launch, every tier of the WKU team was on board.

What was one of the earliest and most important signs that Amanda and Ron had made a good choice to push the whole team into the DX pool? “A lot of employee engagement and happiness.” 

Happy fundraisers = good fundraising results.

“Here we are, one year later, and we’re all in with EverTrue. We took our leadership annual giving staff, we took our seasoned staff, everyone at WKU is now a part of the EverTrue partnership. EverTrue is an extension of our staff. You help us do training, follow-up, think tank sessions with our staff, we really have learned and grown together. One year later we’re doing things we never thought were possible, not only individually, but as a group… I can’t imagine what we’ll do in year two.”
Ron Wilson
AVP, Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement at WKU

Enter Jahari, SDXO, accompanied by Polite Persistence

When WKU ditched the phonathon as part of the DX program launch, WKU senior Jahari Burnett applied to be one of the first SDXOs on the Hill. Before he saw the SDXO job posting, Jahari had never seriously considered a career in advancement. The churn-and-burn of phonathon calls didn’t exactly call to him as a potential career path.

But, the SDXO job posting on the WKU advancement site read more like a for-profit, entry-level Business Development Representative job description. He was intrigued. 

Jahari was hired as an SDXO and he hit the ground running. He learned how to manage cadences in SalesLoft, a sales-enablement software that powers sales teams around the world to manage portfolios of prospective customers in the 10,000+ range. (So, trust us, it’s the best software in the biz.)  He committed to a pre-set, 12-step outreach cadence for every alum in his portfolio. His first thirty-days of outreach to a each prospect in his portfolio looked something like this:

cadence calendar

And yes, on the fifth or sixth outreach attempt to a donor, Jahari would send a “breakup” email. This might strike you as a bit uncomfortable. But, more often than not, Jahari would receive a positive response from donors.*

breakup email
*example
breakup email response
*example

Alongside his SDXO peers around the country, Jahari was learning the practice and the payoff of polite persistence. 

In the for profit world, it takes 14 touchpoints for a company to receive a reply from a target customer. We gathered data from all of our DX partners, and found that while this number is significantly lower for higher ed institutions (you have built-in brand recognition and affinity with your alums), polite persistence is still the name of the game:

Polite Persistance

So, equipped with SalesLoft to guide him through cultivation of his portfolio hour-by-hour, Jahari was able to politely persist in reengaging hundreds of alums who had fallen off the WKU bandwagon. 

With the right tech tools, Jahari’s outreach to a portfolio of 250 was not only doable, but it was fun and rewarding. In the SDXO role, Jahari made some incredible connections with alums, and he also discovered that he wanted to pursue a career in philanthropy. As graduation neared, Jahari turned down job offers in the for-profit sector and accepted a full-time DXO position at WKU.

“I feel like my outlook on life, in general, has changed. I could possibly build a relationship with someone and help someone else. For me, that’s something that has really just moved to the top of my list. No matter where I go, I want to be involved in my community, I want to be helping people.”

One of Jahari’s fellow SDXOs, Will Harris, also joined WKU’s full-time advancement staff as a DXO upon graduation. Within his first thirty days on the job, Will is in conversation with two donors about making major gifts to WKU. In his words, “[it is] like my ah-ha moment as a DXO so far. Being an SDXO and transferring to this full-time DXO role has been a smooth transition, but I had never had the experience of being on a major gift side discussion. I am so excited…to get the ball rolling on my first major gifts. Hopefully, there will be a lot more of these in the future!”

DX wins: Time, Talent, and Treasure

The original goals of launching the DX program at WKU were:

  1. To increase gift officer activity; 
  2. To increase donor retention within DXO portfolio; 
  3. To reverse downward trends in donor counts and dollars raised.

From a quantitative perspective, the results from year one in the DX program speak for themselves:

WKU FY21 Results

Through the all-in DX approach, student- and full-time fundraisers raised more money from more donors in FY21, and they did it more efficiently. The suite of DX tech tools took the guess work out of donor outreach and allowed fundraisers to do what they do best (and to do what they enjoy): building relationships. 

Time and treasure have started to flow back to WKU, and so has some absolutely excellent talent. Through the entry-level Student DXO positions, WKU has opened its doors to new candidates like Jahari and Will to join their advancement team. With an assigned portfolio of prospects, tech tools to pre-script outreach cadences and ensure outreach continuity (and no more 7pm dinner-time phonathon calls), the SDXOs can genuinely build relationships with alums. Their work now has predictability and impact, and they benefit from the 1-1 mentorship of Aarika Gunn who manages team of SDXOs. Aarika is a dedicated coach who continues to learn and iterate alongside the SDXOs.

As for the MGOs and LAG officers who have repositioned themselves as full-time DXOs, the new tech tools applied to the abundant universe of prospects has changed even the most skeptical of minds. Each of their 1,000-person portfolios was carefully curated through EverTrue and WKU data dives, so DXO portfolios are buzzing with potential. The DXOs are now equipped with best-in-class sales enablement technology that makes their high-volume outreach possible and purposeful. Every two weeks, Ron and the DXO team meet with Coleman Walsh, a Donor Experience Program Manager at EverTrue, to review activity, metrics, progress towards goals, benchmark with peer DX institutions, and hone their DX craft. The DXOs are learning new skills, connecting with more donors, and closing more gifts. 

Whether they have been fundraisers for 25 days or 25 years, the SDXOs and DXOs are equipped with the strategy, people, and technology to be hugely successful in their work. 

As we learned from John Morris, SVP at Auburn, there are currently some dangerous holes in the advancement talent pipeline that are affecting the whole industry. WKU is mending theirs by empowering their existing staff with tech tools and training that make their jobs easier and more rewarding, and by exposing new and diverse talent to the purpose, impact, and power of a career in advancement.

What’s next?

Amanda and Ron’s investment in mending WKU’s time, talent, and treasure pipelines is already showing big ROI

The work Jahari has done as a tech-enabled SDXO (and now full-time DXO) is one living, breathing example of why this investment will pay off ten-fold in the long run for WKU.

And here are some others:

  • Two new six-figure gifts from a Senior Director of Donor Experience (former MGO) within the first six months of outreach to two new prospects through the DX approach.
  • Increased employee happiness and engagement, across the board.
  • A modern, translatable, marketable skill set for seasoned fundraisers.
  • An average of 400 touchpoints per month per DXO. 
  • Upgraded annual gifts from 27% of donors in DXO portfolio.
  • An onramp to welcome new and diverse talent onto WKU’s advancement team.
  • Two new full-time DXOs hired directly from the SDXO program.
  • A successful FY21 in terms of activity, cash flow, and donor count. 

The proof is in the pipeline(s).

When we asked WKU’s fearless leader where she pictures the WKU DX program in five years, Amanda Trabue answered, “In five years, I hope we have twice as many gift officers doing the work. I hope we’ve grown our pipeline so that we can continue to add gift officers and build out a program that is effective and efficient for our operation. And I hope that we raise lots of money together.

At EverTrue, we feel so privileged to partner with leaders like Amanda and Ron, future leaders like Jahari and Will, and the rest of the game-changers at WKU. They have reminded us that advancement is a people business. And we’re here to keep it that way by freeing up fundraisers to focus on what they do best.

Check out their story below.

Watch the video

Check out our full panel discussion with Amanda, Jahari, and Ron to learn even more about their Donor Experience program...

Since the launch of their DX program, WKU has helped dozens of other institutions across the country to envision and enact a better way to fundraise. 

Want to connect with Amanda, Ron, or Jahari about their experience launching the DX program at WKU? Reach out to us and we’ll put you in touch. 

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