The Value of Engagement and the Disappearing Donor
The last 50 years of professional advancement have seen many technological advances, but the magic 0s and 1s that now build our social, fiscal, and industrial infrastructure haven’t fundamentally changed the way we raise funds for our schools.
But the world has changed in the last year. Incremental change in fundraising practices has been accelerated by a global pandemic and cultural shifts. And the implications this new climate has for schools and advancement professionals are worth examining.
In the absence of in-person events, schools have turned to virtual engagement opportunities. I have been in touch with schools who have held events like yoga and mindfulness meditations led by faculty, online cooking classes with famous alumni chefs, and professional affinity gatherings and networking opportunities.
There’s good news. Schools report a general sense that “people are coming out of the woodwork” to engage; those who wouldn’t typically attend an in-person event are suddenly enthusiastic about the opportunities alumni offices are creating.
While we know that these new opportunities are valuable, the question is: how valuable are they?
Can the traditional rubric of evaluating events be applied to the parade of video engagements now available to donors? For example: the yoga session might satisfy a unique aspect of the physical education curriculum at the school, but the cooking class had more attendees. Which is a more “successful” event?
How we track, measure, and evaluate these new programs is a crucial aspect of this fiscal year and the future of such events. At the end of the day, these engagements should serve the larger mission and fundraising objective of the school.
Here’s a quick rundown of how to start evaluating the impact of your virtual events:
- Hold an all-hands meeting to begin a deep analysis of your virtual offerings in the last 6-8 months.
- Create a spreadsheet for every event (similar to the way Newark Academy did, see our ToGather here) and record how many attended, how many shared the event on social media, etc. I would then apply a weight or a point for each attendee, each registration, and each share.
- Make a list of first-time engagers and develop a specific follow-up campaign based on the kind of event they engaged in.
- Create a roster of attendees and pull a report of their giving history. Are they frequent flyers or first-timers? At what level are they capable of giving? If they’re low-level, online donors, is it time for a more personalized ask?
This process of evaluation will help your team codify their understanding of how these events contribute to the overall fundraising strategy. This deep analysis will help you see patterns in constituent behavior that will make prospecting easier and more meaningful.
This kind of analysis can also help with something all fundraisers are concerned with. Fundraisers say repeatedly that they’re worried about participation and about the “disappearing donor.”
Repeatedly, I hear of schools meeting or exceeding their fundraising goals, but with fewer individuals contributing year after year. Now that people are suddenly on screen to take part in your virtual event, it’s time to seriously consider how this type of engagement will change the course of fundraising and how it could inject a much-needed dose of participation into yearly goals.
My prediction, and this is only one opinion, is that in order to successfully convert an audience of millennials and first-time engagers, you need to make your appeals as easy and transparent as your events. Make it easy to give. Be very clear and concise in your communications about what the funds support. If we successfully convert these engagements into funds and court those who have shown up in the last year, then we have an opportunity to build enthusiasm and support from a new generation of donors.
Millennial donor behavior deserves its own case study, so I won’t address it here, but remember: those who join events now are doing so because it’s simple and they are socially isolated. Continue to make donors feel integral to the life of the school with as few barriers as possible, and you are much more likely to retain their ongoing support.
I welcome your thoughts and reactions to these ideas. Please follow-up with me and help me continue the dialogue at our Online Community for Independent and International Schools.
About the author(s)
Ann Snyder is the director of independent and international schools at CASE.