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Higher Education Fundraising in 2021

Posted by Clara Moses on Feb 4, 2021 11:40:49 AM

Unsurprisingly, we have seen a drop in direct mail fundraising efforts from higher education advancement departments over the past year. Just as COVID-19 has changed the way students learn and participate in campus life, it has also changed the way schools operate. Advancement teams have changed how, and who, they ask for donations. If your fundraising strategy has not evolved yet, it is time.

Pivoting Away from Budget Cuts

Last spring, 54 percent of advancement staff members from a variety of master’s colleges and universities who responded to a WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK survey said they were not confident that their school would reach its fundraising goals in 2020. Aside from dwindling donations, budget cuts added to this feeling of uncertainty. According to EAB’s (formerly Education Advisory Board) June 2020 survey, nearly half of advancement leaders were expecting cuts to their budgets of 10 percent or more. It is also worth noting that once these cuts are made, it is rare to see the same amount of money return to the same places.

Thankfully, advancement staff across the country have become experts in pivoting, because appeals can only be halted for so long. Fundraising to get donations is one of the major ways higher education institutions sustain themselves. At Roger Williams University, tuition covers around 80 percent of their costs.

“We are very dependent on tuition and room and board revenue,” Lauren Tierney Swensen, Director of Annual Giving at RWU, said.

Spring at RWU was a whirlwind, as it was almost everywhere. Students were sent home early in March, and because of this, room and board costs were cut in half. Also, their normal day of giving campaign occurs in April, but that did not happen in 2020 due to their sensitivity toward widespread financial struggles. However, because the university relies so heavily on that revenue, appeals of some kind had to be made in short time.

Staying Sensitive

Around 500 calls were made to families of students during which members of the advancement team suggested reinvesting the money they were saving on room and board as a tax-deductible donation. However, they were still mindful that many people may not have been in the position to give freely during that time. So, the advancement team worked with the financial aid department to identify some of the families who would be better left out of the appeal. In the end, almost a quarter million was reinvested.

“That number is a drop in a bucket when you look at the numbers, but still incredible,” said Tierney Swensen.

Part of the reason these calls were so successful was due to the personal and careful nature of the conversations. The first talking point was always, “how are you doing?” If the answer was dismal, advancement staff could pivot to outreach by asking them about their situation and if the RWU community could do anything to help. This method quickly informed the caller if the person on the other end would be receptive to an appeal or not. Tierney Swensen reported that the number of people who said no after an ask during the campaign was unusually low.

Donors Are Still Giving to Meaningful Causes

According to a report from the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, charitable giving rebounded in the second quarter of 2020, boosting total giving in the first six months of the year by nearly 7.5 percent on a year-over-year basis. The thing is, giving never takes a complete nosedive, nor does it decrease and increase in direct correlation to the stock market. The biggest change we have seen in donor behaviors over the past year is which causes they are choosing to give to. Many shifted funds they would normally donate to their alma mater to crisis-related causes, or even political campaigns considering 2020 was a presidential election year.

In response to this, RWU focused their fall homecoming appeal on raising money specifically for financial aid. They kept their efforts subtle but refused to entirely ignore the opportunity to get donors to show their support. RWU has also seen a lot of donations come through for memorial funds and scholarships.

“When people find meaning in something, they’ll find a way to support it,” Tierney Swensen said.

Integrated Campaigns Are More Important Than Ever

When department budgets get cut, it can be tempting to react by cutting marketing efforts, especially direct mail. That was definitely true this year, with everyone’s messaging changing quickly, digital marketing seemed to be the best, fastest, and cheapest way to communicate. However, integrating your digital and print campaigns is more important than ever if you really want to reach your audience.

Donors are all unique individuals who prefer to receive messages in different ways. Although each donor is unique, there are some undeniable trends in the data. For example, older alumni are usually those who can afford to give the most money per donation. They are also members of generations that do not prefer electronic forms of communication. This means to reach many of your large donors you must continue to send direct mail.

Tierney Swensen reported that RWU still has a lot of alums who are members of the Baby Boomer and Silent Generations who will only give by check. In some cases, the school does not even have phone numbers or email addresses for these contacts. She also noted that when RWU’s mailings go well, they catch more attention than digital appeals do. We can all relate to being bombarded with emails. Direct mail is a lesser used marketing channel which means you have a better chance of your message being heard over all the online chatter.

“I get emails all the time and delete them, even if I mean to support the organization they came from,” Tierney Swensen added. “The physical envelope on my kitchen counter is what reminds me to give, even though I might just go on my phone to do it.”

Gaging the Value of Direct Mail

There are ways for advancement teams to share their messaging and make appeals through direct mail while still maintaining good ROI…

  • Send to the right people. This requires having an updated and organized contact database, which is ESSENTIAL for success. If your database is a mess, direct mail can seem really costly because you end up wasting money on postage when items do not arrive at correct addresses. It is also important to make sure you are sending to targeted lists in order to reach a receptive audience instead of spending the money to send everything to everyone.
  • Reallocate money. In person meetings and events are still mostly out of the picture. Although these bring in donations, the absence of them can also save institutions money. The events you host, the travel expenses, even the extra marketing associated with just these specific topics all cost money. Can the money you are saving on in person events be used for different appeal ideas?
  • Rethink your traditions. For example, maybe you send a few big alumni magazines a year. Before simply announcing that you cannot afford that anymore and stopping communication altogether, consider a different format. The same information could be relayed to alumni in smaller but more frequent newsletters.
  • Integrate your communication channels. Actionable postcards that drive to a URL are direct mail pieces associated with good ROI. They allow you to grab recipient attention while simultaneously giving them the easy option of donating online. Postcards are small, can be quite colorful, do not have to be opened, and do not need envelopes. This saves you money on both printing and postage.
  • Do something unique. If you are simplifying your direct mail pieces, consider other affordable ways to spice up an appeal. Send small, branded items that some department of your university is likely still creating despite the pandemic. Or encourage continued giving by starting a club program. This incentivizes even small donors to get into the habit of giving consistently. The idea is that for a monthly donation of $X or more they will receive X gift in return. Some of our favorite, less traditional branded swag options are reusable straw sets, device chargers (portable or wireless), hand sanitizers, PopSockets and PopWallets, decks of cards, and webcam covers.

2021 will be a year of flexibility, mindfulness, creativity, and understanding, but it is certainly not the time to be silent. Donors are still giving; they may have just shifted their focus to causes that are truly in need. Be clear about why your institution needs their donation and the good it will be contributing towards. Many people are assuming things will go back to “normal” this year, but some mindset changes caused by the pandemic are likely to stay. It is best not to wait for that return to “normal.” Instead, consider changes in donor behavior and create your next appeal campaign with those in mind.

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