Young alumni are engaged with causes and also support charities at high rates with both giving and advocacy. But higher education isn’t seen as a philanthropic priority for many recent graduates. We’re not helping: In a recent RNL study, over a third of fundraisers said they lack a “coordinated young alumni giving campaign.” At most institutions, young alumni giving is one half or less the rate of overall alumni participation each year.
The Schuler Education Foundation, which seeks to further the success of individuals and communities by investing in high-achieving underrepresented students and top-tier liberal arts colleges, decided to lead a change in young alumni engagement and reverse the trend of declining participation.
The Schuler Education Foundation engaged RNL and advancement teams at five leading liberal arts colleges: Bates, Carleton, Middlebury, Wellesley and Williams. Year one of the three-year Schuler Initiative included the following:
Young alumni speak: : a comprehensive survey of young alumni giving priorities at all five institutions, along with opinions about higher education, connectedness, and communications preferences.
Volunteers act: feedback from class agents, reunion volunteers, and peer influencers to help drive strategy.
Targeted campaigns have impact: using market research and personas derived from demographic and behavioral data to launch more focused campaigns.
Real results: exciting initial results, with the colleges producing 37 percent growth in the young alumni donor base in the first year (FY19).
Growing the base and knowledge
The initial young alumni survey expanded to a national group of nearly 40 institutions in fall 2019, with results and findings from more than 35,000 survey participants to be published in February 2020. Hear directly from Jack Schuler, Tanya Schuler Sharman, and leaders of the Schuler Education Foundation in this video:
Early results are certainly encouraging and show that by listening to young alumni, executing data-driven strategies, supporting peer outreach, and using technology that allows for more personalization, it’s possible to better engage this cohort and inspire their giving to our institutions.
Let’s talk about how you can increase young alumni engagement
I saw more innovations in enrollment management in 2019 than
at any other time in my career in college enrollment. The confluence of a
number of trends—the transition to experiencing the web on mobile devices, the
continued evolution of social media, the demand for personalization and the
need for automation to pull that personalization off—has quickly changed how prospective
students search for colleges.
When students search for colleges and find your institution,
they bring a load of expectations from their experiences with e-commerce,
social media, streaming, texting, and other day-to-day activities. If you don’t
interact with those students in a way that’s relevant to them, your institution
won’t seem relevant to them.
That was why we focused so much of our attention in 2019 on enrollment solutions that would help campuses connect with students in a way that would increase student engagement, allow them to explore your institution the way they wanted, and ultimately lead to the right students enrolling. These innovations in enrollment management will become even more relevant in 2020 as the length of the recruitment cycle increases after the changes to NACAC practices.
The rise of video as a personal engagement channel
Video is the most preferred medium for students. It grabs
their attention and—when done properly—will engage them more than any other
type of content. However, video is also the hardest to personalize, which is
why RNL made personalized videos one of its top innovations for enrollment
management in 2019.
First, to generate personalization at the top of the funnel, we developed the RNL Demand Builder Personalized Video. Imagine a student opening a video message from your campus and having it use their name and display content that’s tailored to their interests. That immediately differentiates your institution and increases their engagement. In fact, in our initial results, campuses have seen a 40 percent higher yield rate from students who watch the RNL Demand Builder Personalized Video.
We did not stop there, however. We also have evolved the venerable financial aid award for the video age with the RNL Personalized FinAid Video. Similar to its top-of-funnel recruitment counterpart, it uses automation to convey personalized financial aid awarding info as well as additional information tailored to that student’s interests. Here’s a sample from one our clients.
AI chat: Creating enrollment conversations 24/7
Students research colleges on their own timelines. They may
come to your website late at night or on a weekend, looking not just for
information, but interaction. AI chatbots allow you to provide that interaction
in an efficient, affordable fashion.
RNL rolled out AL, our chatbot designed specifically for higher education, early in 2019. This trainable chatbot enables you to engage students and their parents whenever they are ready to chat. The chatbot can answer common questions about application deadlines, where to find information on programs of study, and countless other questions without a staff member having to repeat those answers over and over. That frees those same staff members up for the meaningful interactions a human admissions ambassador needs to have.
Driving smarter strategies with actionable analytics
One of the great positives of the shift to digital marketing is the wealth of data it provides on student behavior. However, that data does no good if it’s not actionable, which was the focus of another one of our innovations for enrollment management in 2019: RNL Smart View dashboards.
RNL Smart View allows campuses to dive into the performance of their campaigns to better understand key performance metrics—such as response rates, geographical breakdowns, application status, and more. Speed is so crucial to student recruitment today, and analytics tools have to provide enrollment managers with the relevant information they need to follow up with students, make adjustments to campaigns, and monitor progress toward goals. Smart and accurate analytics also help ensure that you get the greatest enrollment return from your marketing and recruitment dollars, something campuses need to do in an era of limited resources and grand expectations.
Turning to experts for digital marketing (aka taking our own advice)
We tell campuses all the time that it makes sense to partner with firms and organizations that already have the expertise and systems in place to handle complex operations. In 2019, we took our own advice in the realm of digital marketing by acquiring Converge, the digital marketing agency for higher education.
Last spring when working with a partner institution, we noticed a decrease in the number of students who had completed the FAFSA and were deemed to be Pell eligible. This held true for both the admitted student pool as well as the enrolled pool. Notable in the drop was the marked decrease in the number of zero EFC students (those with no expected family contribution). Of course, the question was asked…is it just us? Are they just late in completing the FAFSA this year? But as the spring progressed, the Pell-eligible students still didn’t appear. Where were they?
My campus partner wasn’t the only one who was noticing this trend. When we explored results from more than 200 institutions using RNL Advanced FinAid Solutions, the data were interesting but didn’t yield any answers. While we know the demographic trends and that the traditional 18-year old population is decreasing, the numbers didn’t correspond to the decline in the Pell-eligible students. Where were they? It seemed as though not only were they not enrolling, they weren’t even applying. In some regions this was quite evident.
When looking at the total population of 166 private institutions and 47 publics, the percentage change of admitted Pell-eligible students remained the same. However, there was a 4 percent decrease in those who enrolled. There were also some noted differences by region.
The West region saw a decrease of 4 percent in admitted students and a 9 percent decrease in those enrolling, with a dramatic 11 percent decrease of zero EFC students.
The Middle States remained flat on the Pell students who were admitted but saw a 7 percent decrease in those enrolling, as did the Southwest region.
Each region, with the exception of New England, saw a decrease in Pell-eligible students enrolling. When we look specifically at zero EFC students, each region saw a decrease in those enrolling, except for a 2 percent increase in the Midwest. For the remaining Pell-eligible group, the Middle States and Southwest saw large decreases of 10 percent and 8 percent respectively.
While the overall percentage of Pell recipients provides an understanding of how the Pell population has shifted, it is helpful to understand the number of institutions that saw those changes.
More than half (55 percent) of the institutions saw a decrease in their Pell-eligible admit pool for the fall 2019 class; 66 percent saw a decline in enrolled Pell students. The private sector saw larger declines, with 58 percent of institutions seeing a drop in the Pell-eligible admit pool and 67 percent in the enrolled pool. The smaller numbers of Pell eligible in the admit and enrolled pools also impacted the yield for those students, with 63 percent of institutions seeing yield rates decrease for fall 2019 compared to fall 2018.
Where are Pell-eligible students going, and what can we do to help?
For admitted students, we can see where they enrolled using
the National Student Clearinghouse and then determine if cost may have been a
factor. For institutions using RNL’s
financial aid services, Pell-eligible students can be identified early
during the yield cycle and targeted for specific communications.
But, what about those who never applied or didn’t enroll in any postsecondary school? While we don’t know the exact reason for their choice, there are many signs that a strong economy may be enticing students into the workforce in lieu of going to college. The perception that the value of college is not worth it may be directing some students to other opportunities such as vocational or technical life paths. For the lowest income families, the desire or need for immediate income may override the longer-term benefits of foregoing earnings while pursuing a degree. Outreach and value messaging are important to connecting with these students.
What can you do to increase access to college for students? Talk with us.
My colleagues and I at RNL work with may institutions to increase access and affordability to college. We work with campuses to award financial aid strategically so students with fewer resources can afford to attend, increase engagement and outreach to first-generation students, and other key strategies.
In today’s higher education environment, parent engagement and college enrollment go hand-in-hand. According a research report by RNL and CampusESP, 77 percent of parents say they are “very involved” in the college planning process. In fact, parent involvement can be extremely influential when it comes to enrollment, retention, and promoting student success.
That’s why RNL has partnered with CampusESP, the premier parent and family engagement company in higher education, to use our combined resources to optimize your parent engagement strategy and turn parents into ambassadors for enrollment and student success.
In working with parent engagement and college enrollment, we have seen tremendous benefits when colleges and universities harness the influence of parents from college search through graduation. Here are three key ways we help campuses connect with parents so they have the information and communications they need to help their students enroll.
Differentiate your marketing efforts with parents
It’s critical to send parents the information they want when they want it. The CampusESP platform allows colleges and universities to send targeted emails and newsletters so parents receive that information at key decision points (with an incredible open rate of 63 percent for prospective parent emails, newsletters, and alerts). Parents receive content on:
Saving Money—cost of college, scholarships, FAFSA, understanding loan debt
Getting In — helping their student, safety, insider tips
Tools—checklists, campus visit questions to ask, cost calculators
Family Activities—planning for college, campus visits, budgeting
Another successful strategy we use is curating content from your website and combining it with expert advice from trusted sources, such as NBC’s Parent Toolkit, to provide parents with a personalized experience that goes beyond Facebook, College Confidential, or basic email.
Over 500,000 parents use the CampusESP Parent Portal, and 72 percent say that CampusESP helps them better advise and support their students.
“Nudge the nudgers” to increase visits, applications, and deposits
It’s not only important to keep parents informed. It’s critical to “nudge the nudger” by giving parents actions to take. Regular emails generated by CampusESP contain qualification events, such as signing up for the portal, completing a survey, or registering for an event. The qualification nudges are personalized to the parent based on the stage of their student in your enrollment pipeline:
Inquiry—focus on sign-up for campus visit
Application—focus on completing student application
Admit—focus on depositing and enrolling
By strategically involving parents in your admission process, you are able to directly influence prospective students.
Improve parent engagement to improve student yield
With our campus clients, we link parent engagement to their student data through a “Parent Promoter Score.” By tracking which parents are most engaged, you can understand which students are most likely to enroll at your institution:
High parent engagement → High likelihood of student enrollment
Low parent engagement → Low likelihood of student enrollment
Strategically engaging parents and tracking their involvement provides an additional measure to understand your outreach effectiveness trends over time. CampusESP provides data on your most engaged families as well as the content that is most effective at reaching families, so that your communication strategies can evolve year after year.
Talk with us about increasing parent engagement in the college planning process
Every school says that “parents are partners,” but true parent engagement requires active, personalized, and measurable actions. That’s why RNL and CampusESP, provide the most complete end-to-end parent engagement process available in higher education.
Dave Becker is CEO of CampusESP. In his 18 years of experience in education technology, he’s had the opportunity to visit and present at over 300 different colleges,campuses and conferences around the world.He has a passion for innovative thinking, and leveraging technology for student and university outcomes.
As the fall of 2019 rolled on, I could not decide if I viewed looking at my inbox each morning with dread or excitement. It seemed that every couple of days one of my many newsletters featured a new data-driven report that had the potential to further “disrupt” American higher education. In almost every case, the news had some implication for the graduate, online, and adult undergraduate sectors with which I have worked over the last 20+ years.
The 2019 Varying Degrees report from the New America Foundation brought all the concerns together in a single table. The report presented survey findings on higher education gathered from 2,029 Americans, and while there were dozens of interesting tables, the one that surprised me/didn’t surprise me the most was one in which all of the generations agreed that there is a serious need for higher education innovation today.
On the surface, the greatest concern is that Generation Z and their Generation X parents feel least confident that American higher education is fine the way it is. While the dim view of higher education by more than 70 percent of Generation Z is distressing, the view of Generation X is even more concerning. Gen X are not only the parents of college-age children, shaping their views of education. They also may be working for two more decades in an economy that demands regular upskilling (see item 5 below), and therefore their lack of confidence that colleges and universities are up to the task matters considerably. The similar views of Millennials—who will be in need of even more reskilling than their predecessors—should concern us all even more.
The following headlines I saw this fall summarized additional trends and the need for higher education innovation find solutions for the challenges they bring.
1. “Enrollment Dropped 1.3% This Fall. Not Every State Tells the Same Story.”
Not all regions have been affected equally. There was growth by as much as 4 percent and contraction by as much as 8 percent. This map from the Chronicle shows vast swaths of the country experiencing fall enrollment decline.
2. “More Students Study Online, But Rate of Growth Slowed in 2018.”
I took issue with this headline. While the rate of growth among students taking some courses online—but not ALL courses online—slowed to 3.5 percent compared to 6.7 percent in 2017, the rate of growth among students enrolled in fully online study continues to grow. 2018 saw growth of 5 percent compared to 4.2 percent in 2017. These data demonstrate that in a year when total enrollment declined, demand for online education grew. There are now more than 3.3 million students engaged in fully online programs, representing 14 percent of undergraduate enrollment and 31 percent of graduate enrollment. Facilitating the growth of online enrollment will be one of the most important areas of higher education innovation in the coming years.
3. “More Ominous Signs for MBA Admissions.”
This headline blared from Inside Higher Education on November 11. The story featured data from the latest Applications Trends Survey Report from the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC). The report indicated that a 3.1 percent decline in overall graduate-level business applications was driven by a 6.9 percent decline in MBA applications—the first year of decline after decades of growth. However, it was not all bad news: applications for other business programs (most frequently finance, data analytics, and management) were up by 5.9 percent. Because other master’s programs only comprise about one-third of all applications, this growth didn’t have a greater impact on the overall fall enrollment situation.
These data align with findings from the work that I do to help institutions understand the market position of their programs. In every region in which I conducted a study in 2019, I found that there were significantly more MBAs being produced than jobs that are typically filled by individuals with such a degree (using the “crosswalks established by the US Departments of Education and Labor). This is one of many indicators likely causing a decline in interest with enrolling in such programs among prospective graduate students.
4. “Why Stopped-Out Students Reenroll.”
On Halloween I was thrilled to read on Education Dive that the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) had updated its research on the “some college, no degree” adult undergraduate population. This new report tracked the continuing educational journey of 29 million students identified in a 2013 study.
The result was a roadmap for institutions that want to focus their efforts on this population. The report also identified 6 million more “some college, no degree” students, making the total population almost 36 million. While this is a huge target, NSC learned that those with 2+ years of past study (10 percent of this population) were significantly more likely to not only reenroll, but also to complete a credential (something I blogged about previously). So, while this defines a more realistic—and smaller—addressable market of 3.5 million, the data throughout the report provide the underpinning for tactics to tighten institutional efforts to recruit these students.
5. “By 2022, No Less Than 54% of the Workforce Will Require Significant Reskilling.”
As I read an excellent monograph in December by Susan Aldridge (recently retired president of Drexel Online) on Educating the Next Generation Workforce, I was thrilled to come across a reference to The Future of Jobs Report 2018 from World Economic Forum (WEF). Most of the reports on the relationship between higher education and workplace skills focus on the long-range future—as far as 2050. In contrast, the WEF report, based on a survey of hundreds of human resources executives, focuses on just the next five years. As the headline indicates, the report states that no less than half of jobs that exist today will require significant reskilling and regular upskilling. Additionally, by 2022, 27 percent of all positions will be new roles that did not exist in 2018. (This also shows the urgency of higher education innovation in the immediate future.)
While technology changes will inherently drive employer demand for a range of tech-related skills, when asked specifically about the skills of the future, survey respondents cited a variety of tech AND critical thinking skills. Perhaps the most alarming aspect of this report is that no more than 63 percent of surveyed organizations see higher education as the preferred provider of the re/upskilling that will be required for their employees. We have long thought that employers were contracting with alternative providers because they could not afford to work with higher education, but this reports makes it clearer that many organizations likely prefer working with the alternative providers.
Conclusion: The need for higher education innovation is now
After reflecting on these and so many other findings this fall, I was left with a sense of hope. From my work conducting market research to help institutions ensure their programs and services were “mission ready” to serve undergrad adults, working graduate students, or online segments of these populations, I know that there is a will to innovate at American colleges—particularly when their backs are against the wall.
imperative for institutions to innovate before there is a crisis. The best way
to do this is to gain an in-depth understanding of what your regional “market”
demands of the institutions in which they enroll, then engage in serious
discussion with campus stakeholders about how to balance market demand with
institutional mission, and then make expeditious decisions to innovate. There
is not a moment to waste.
We all have blank walls on college campuses. You walk by them and daydream of the possibilities—large graphics, storytelling, outcomes of your current students.
Our colleague Trent Gilbert (vice president of enrollment management, Birmingham-Southern College) long ago coined the term “Wall Estate.” Your Wall Estate is the lot of those blank walls just begging for something, anything to help tell your institutional story.
Our client, Hofstra University, is seizing the opportunity to make the most of their Wall Estate! Since working with us, Hofstra has implemented a campus-wide branding campaign to add more color, spirit and storytelling to bridges, stairwells, buildings and, most importantly, their Welcome Center.
Way to go, Hofstra!
“Hi, My Name Is…”
We’ve said it before: tour guides are the most important
people in this process. They have a lot of responsibility in guiding our
guests, answering their questions, and being genuine, authentic representatives
of their schools.
We love this video from our client, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, because it shows a well-trained ambassador doing one thing really, really well—flipping the question of “Why did I choose UAB?” to “What keeps me coming back to UAB?”
Keep telling stories, Jared! And a special shoutout to Tyler Peterson, executive director of admissions and financial assistance at UAB, for sharing with us.
Let’s talk about telling your story during your campus visit experience
Want to see how to maximize your Wall Estate as part of a campus visit experience that engages and excites prospective students? Talk with us and see how RNL+Render can strengthen your campus visit. Schedule a time for a free consultation.
2020 has arrived along with all of our resolutions for the new year and. hopefully, a refreshed outlook on the year to come. Most new year’s resolutions start great and fade quickly, whether it’s getting healthy to being better at budgeting, but what can we commit to in our professional work that we can easily achieve? As you prepare for upcoming campaigns, here are five achievable digital fundraising resolutions that will improve your campaigns.
Don’t waste discovered affinity.
The one thing that usually doesn’t change year to year is affinity, and this year you should not ignore it. Crowdfunding and Giving Days are great ways to help your institution identify donor affinities beyond educational degrees or activities they are involved in (or were at some time). Once you have the affinities identified, it’s important to act on that information. Consider sending donors personalized content based on affinity or consider arming gift officers with tailored asks.
Don’t be shy. Tell the giving story often.
This one is easy because RNL Digital Giving powered by the ScaleFunder platform makes it easy. Our robust crowdfunding, giving day and custom online giving page platform allows you to tell the story of philanthropy at your institution and how gifts can truly make a difference. Aside from choosing campaigns with great stories behind them, empower your campaign creators, giving day collaborators, and ambassadors with easy-to-use tools so that they can amplify the giving narrative. Remember that you can continue to tell these stories through project updates after campaigns have ended, which will demonstrate the impact of giving to donors.
Don’t ask what you can do for crowdfunding—ask what crowdfunding can do for you.
In 2020, commit to letting your crowdfunding program become a triage for faculty and student projects, in addition to featuring centrally-driven campaigns. You will make those audiences feel valued and heard, and you will free up time resources for your institution’s gift officers, allowing them to remain focused on major gifts. Keep in mind that your faculty and students are the best leads for your campaigns, not your gift officers. You should bring in gift officers after campaigns have been vetted to help identify opportunities for leadership gifts, matching challenges, or major gifts in the campaign.
Don’t skip buy-in—it makes the wheels go round.
For many of you, this year’s giving day planning is in full swing (or will be soon). Before you get sucked into themes and social media plans, make sure you commit to a strategy that include campuswide buy-in. This may take more work on your end. You may have to hold info sessions on campus to explain to Jim what giving days are despite the fact that “Jim” has been at your institution during the last three giving days. Perfectly fine—make Jim feel heard and a part of the giving day team.
You might even have to answer the same question you’ve answered every year: “Are giving days worth the work?” The answer is yes, and with more buy-in the workload for your advancement staff can decrease!
Bring your campus partners together and give them a purpose in this campaign, using a platform that lets multiple areas on campus be featured. Consider putting together a steering committee that includes colleagues who understand giving days along with those who might be anxious or apprehensive. Once you have the buy-in from that committee, you can utilize them to help spread additional buy-in on campus. Giving days take a village, and campuses that get good buy-in set records.
Don’t ignore data.
This last resolution is the easiest by far, because we’re serving up data to you here at RNL. Read our Crowdfunding Index, compare your program’s results to the benchmarks presented in the report, and then choose three best practices to implement at your program. If you’re wondering how to best apply the data to your program, contact us and we’ll give you a hand.
Let us help you turn your digital fundraising resolutions into real results
Are you prepared to keep your resolutions in 2020? RNL can help you achieve tremendous success this year and beyond. Schedule a time to talk with us and we can share insights into increasing digital engagement and donor excitement. Contact us today.
Charles Kettering once said, “If you have always done it that way, it is probably wrong.” For RNL, 2019 was packed with 365 days of challenging the status quo, reimagining everything we do with higher education institutions, and perhaps more importantly, how we do it.
The result was a year of continuous fundraising innovation at RNL, and we wanted to share one more look at some of the key initiatives of 2019 before we charge into what is already shaping up to be another exciting year of innovation.
Artificial intelligence is a fundraising force multiplier
At the start of 2019, we acquired an AI chatbot company that allows institutions to be there 24/7 for their alumni and students, creating a better online experience. AL, our AI chatbot, enables institutions to glean important insights into what constituents are asking and provides another digital channel to engage them after they interact with the chatbot. We’ve continued to evolve AL to expand beyond needing to authenticate with FaceBook and built integration with the RNL crowdfunding and giving day solutions, while evolving capabilities like droplets and analytics to create a more personalized and richer experience. The possibilities of how to leverage this technology are endless and it’s been exciting to watch schools like UTSA leverage our AI chatbot product to engage alumni (with an assist from Taylor Swift).
This fall we announced the acquisition of RNL QuadWrangle, the first AI-powered alumni engagement platform that enables institutions to engage one to one with their alumni, delivering a hyper-personalized experience. It’s a platform that’s easy to use regardless of your team’s technical background and doesn’t require an IT investment. We’ve got big plans for RNL QuadWrangle in 2020. All our other products are being integrated with this newest addition to the RNL donor engagement family.
Digital-first fundraising is a game changer
RNL got a lot more digital this year with the acquisition of Converge, a digital agency that specializes in higher education, working with 300 graduate and online programs. Converge brought to RNL a wealth of talent, experience, and digital capabilities that allow RNL to provide more flexible digital, web, and social solutions as well as better analytics around performance of digital campaigns.
Helping institutions use the best digital and social channels for their audience, whether for targeted campaigns or ongoing digital engagement, is going to be a major focus in 2020.
Advanced fundraising analytics improves ROI
Last fall we began the first phase of a new initiative aimed to enable RNL and our clients with analytics that prescribe action, improve the donor experience, and ultimately increase the return on investment. Phase one included the building of several exciting models that can help instituions:
Focus limited resources on the acquisition prospects most likely to give.
Discover the ask string most likely to resonate with each donor and maximize donation amount.
Find the best times to call donors, saving considerable engagement center calling hours and budget.
The early results have been encouraging, and in early 2020 RNL will be launching our new analytics products and sharing more about the test results. We are also working on the integration of these analytics into products to help institutions make smarter strategic decisions and to automate manual processes, saving time and increasing efficiencies.
Digital Engagement Center replaces phonathon
We are more connected now that at any time in human history…more specifically connected to our phones and mobile devices. Yet at the same time the effectiveness of traditional phonathons have waned for many institutions. The RNL Digital Engagement center allows institutions to think of mobile phones as a platform, with RNL’s products able to create an integrated strategy to engage donors on their mobile device, leveraging an institution’s student ambassadors and our software and expertise. While calling is still a core component, integrated text, video, and enhanced whitelisting and visual caller ID capabilities make the digital engagement center more personal and relevant at a time when it’s harder to get someone to answer the phone for a call. Learn more about the our solutions for the next generation of donor engagement.
Innovation inspired by insights from campus partners
It’s important to note that none of our fundraising innovation would be possible without our partnership with hundreds of institutions each year. I’d like to offer a special thanks to all those campus professionals who participated in innovation summits and advisory boards in 2019 and let us test these new innovations in their donor engagement programs. Your ideas and feedback influence our innovation roadmap and we encourage you to keep those ideas coming in the year ahead.
Look out for more fundraising innovation from RNL in 2020
Be on the lookout for some of our exciting news on new products, improved features and an improved client experience in the months ahead. It’s going to be a great 2020.
Last year at Cause Camp, I laughed when speaker and fellow nonprofiteer Rachel Muir called herself a “recovering nonprofit executive director.” I laughed because that describes me to a tee.
My path to #nonprofitlife was winding at best. My parents instilled in me a strong work ethic and a servant leader mindset from a young age. No matter what job I had or role I played, I constantly looked for ways to make things better. In my late 20s, after working for small and large companies and the government, I longed for a career with real purpose ― a career that would make a difference. So, I gave the nonprofit sector a shot and served as a nonprofit executive for two different organizations from 2009 to 2013.
The Great Recession was technically coming to an end when I got my first nonprofit gig, but as many of you remember the effects of that economic downturn reverberated in the nonprofit world for several years afterward. As a newbie to the sector, I was (naively) surprised at the persistent financial pressure our organizations were under.
The constant grind of cash flow concerns, a board with a scarcity mindset and very real fundraising challenges due to internal and external circumstances quickly wore me down. Networking and commiserating with colleagues and friends in the nonprofit space revealed that I was not alone. We were all on pins and needles, and most of us were constantly stressed about finance.
Foundations and institutional funders were talking about sustainability and capacity building, but what we really needed was operating funds. Overhead dread set in with each grant or ask. It was all just too much for me. In 2013, I retreated to the private sector to save my sanity (and my health) with holes in my heart and a heavy soul.
For the next two years, I continued to reflect on my nonprofit experience and talk with colleagues still in the sector. Sometime in 2015, it occurred to me that if nonprofit finance was more strategically approached, and if boards and staff alike were more educated and open about money, the space could be radically different. Sustainability, then, would not just be a word we toss out to make a funder happy – it would be a real possibility. Stewardship of every dollar, of every gift, would be a team sport for board and staff, reducing or even eliminating unhealthy power dynamics.
I was so excited by this idea that I was compelled to do the one thing I swore I would never do: start my own company. Blue Fox was born in 2015 with a singular mission ― to disrupt the traditional accounting model through technology, innovation and a radically client-centered approach to finance. I put a stake in the ground to only serve nonprofits and social enterprises, and we developed services that were uniquely tailored to those two types of organizations.
We’re not your average accountants. We’re strategic partners, we’re numbers nerds who care about our clients’ missions, and we’re the team looking at the financial big picture with an eye towards sustainability and true stewardship. And we’re actually fun to be around ― imagine that!
After four years of serving nonprofits all over the country, it’s my vision for 2020 and beyond that Blue Fox lead the sector to revolutionize its approach to finance. Our clients excepted, nonprofit leaders spend 90% of their time chasing funding, and 10% of their time analyzing how they leverage those hard-fought dollars ― if that! If we were for-profit companies operating this way, we’d be out of business in a matter of months.
We must shift our habits and mindsets. Financial stability and sustainability depend on it. I look forward to talking with you all at Cause Camp 2020 about your fiscal experiences as nonprofit leaders and managers, and having some fun (yes, FUN!) together as we talk about all the money things ― including how to change your organization’s approach to finance from reactive to proactive and how to get your board on board.
Get your tickets today! Early bird pricing available now, register HERE.
*Early Bird pricing available until January 31, 2020.
When I stated my fundraising career in the early 2000s, it seemed that every institution was putting together a 2020 Vision. Countless hours were spent pulling together staff, students, and “designated experts” to forecast a far-flung but quickly approaching future in the hopes of positioning their institution for fundraising success.
Looking back, no one knew the game-changing innovations that were about to come to life over the next two decades. At a time when debates raged about whether email was a viable communications method, nobody could imagine a world where social media would drive personal relationships, texting was the preferred means of communications for a third of American adults, and artificial intelligence would be able to tell us more about our constituents than ever before.
Now 2020 has arrived. As we boldly venture into a future far different than those imagine by science fiction authors, it appears few institutions are truly prepared to realize their outdated 2020 vision, let alone truly leverage all the potential available to them as advancement leaders.
Here are four key areas where I have noticed development professionals lagging behind:
1. They focus on the appeal and not the people behind the gift
One of my favorite quotes is “If you want money, ask for advice. If you want advice, ask for money.”
Time and time again I have seen this play out in fundraising. Good fundraisers are engagement professionals first. It is important to connect with your prospects on the most personal level possible to understand their interests, desires, and where your organization can fit into their philanthropic plans. Knowing your prospect personally is the key to securing transformational $1M+ gifts as well as $100 gifts. Many professionals focus on the fundraising appeal and not the people behind the gift. If your focus is fundraising, your prospects will move to a nonprofit that focuses on them and their impact.
2. Their tools don’t talk to each other.
Knowledge is power, yet most institutions are trying to run a supercomputer on triple-A batteries. From traditional communication streams like phone, direct mail, and email to more modern enhancements like texting, digital advertising, and marketing automation, the strength of each is only as good as the weakest link in the communications chain. No channel works alone. Your channels must speak to each other in order to maximize outreach and share valuable prospect information.
3. They still talk to their alumni like they are students.
Relationships develop over time. People get to know each other through regular interaction, discovering common ground and areas of like and dislike.
However, so many people in the fundraising industry miss this critical point about engaging alumni. They think they can continue to send solicitation after solicitation based on outdated prospect information pulled from their days on campus, primarily their degree information. While this may help with your first communication, it cannot be the basis of your relationship for life. Every interaction is an opportunity to learn more about your audience. Institutions need to take advantage of new technology and systems to not only capture this information, but use it to build predictive models, shape communications, and drive strategy.
4. They make <Name>, <Last_Gift_Amount> and <Designation> the extent of their fundraising personalization.
Every advancement office needs to strike the right balance of ROI for personalized communications. Personalize too much and your staff have to create dozens of versions of each letter, email, ad, etc. throughout the year. But too little personalization makes communications come off as formulaic and sterile. So how does an institution find this sweet spot?
First, stop trying to do it alone. For years, fundraisers tried to throw more human resources at this problem in the hopes of create more and more segments. When people were not available to do the job, most organizations just wrote it off as too difficult and went along with the best they could do.
Thankfully, there are now AI-driven solutions like RNL QuadWrangle that can do the heavy lifting necessary to curate content, connect individuals, and deliver tailored communications that fit the needs and desires of a 21st century advancement office. I also recommend seeing a demo of how quickly and easily RNL QuadWrangle can help you set up customized donor interactions.
Talk to RNL about being ready for 2020 and beyond
If any of the four examples above sound familiar to you, then you are not as ready as you could be for 2020. However, the good news is that the technology to get you ready is more cost effective and easy to implement than ever. RNL can help you get there quickly and set you up for success for years to come.
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