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The Changing Look of Donor Cultivation and Stewardship

When the world came screeching to a halt and nearly everyone who worked in an office headed home to stake out a spot to set up their laptops, remote working became our new reality. A lot of work went on as usual, but for fundraisers, one essential component of their success became much more complicated: the donor visit. How to engage donors and, more critically, close gifts, when the bedrock tried and true format for those functions—the in-person events and visits—became impossible?

Some creative and determined development leaders turned to virtual meeting platforms and carried on. Their success in both event attendance, donor satisfaction, and closing 6- and even 7-figure gifts speaks to both their intrepid natures as well as to the testament that good relationship building is always the most essential tool for fundraising, even when business is conducted through screens.

Donuts and Digital

“As we adapt to new technology; we let the IRL—in real life—inform the digital,” says Mary Ann Schwartz, Sr. Associate Dean of Development for the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California. She has challenged her team to push the limits on thinking outside the box to deliver meaningful online engagement events and other interactions with donors.

“We aim to deliver the same donor experience online as we did in person. From waiting room slide shows to storytelling through engaging videos to the strategic use of breakout rooms to build a connection and create a sense of community. We let the real world inform each decision in the digital space.”

One particularly appreciated example of thinking creatively about how to best serve donors when you can’t be with them in person was to deliver donuts (and pizza for a donor who didn’t have a favorite donut shop nearby) to everyone who signed up for an online “Coffee with the Dean” event. Schwartz says everyone who was invited participated. Donors were highly engaged, evidenced by their questions, and several were prompted to give right then—even announcing their gifts in the concurrent chat.

“We are embracing the technology to connect with donors where they are and bring in high touch elements,” says Schwartz. “Donors are happy to meet us where we are and we are able to continue a meaningful and resonant engagement.”

Zoom Bombs

Stacy Waters, Associate Vice President of Development at Dell Medical Dell Medical School, and UT Health Austin at the University of Texas, says that working in a new normal has pushed her and her team to be bold and try new things.

“We are relishing this time to be super creative, but more importantly, strategic,” she says. Her team has found that donors are remaining engaged in the online events they host and that they have had higher repeat attendance, as well.

Faculty, too, are open to the new way of working together. When everyone started working from home, one of the first concerns her team had, says Waters, was that their most reliable way of connecting with busy faculty–meeting and walking with them in the halls of the UT health clinics as they did their rounds– became impossible.

Waters said she challenged them to come up with a solution. Zoom bombs were the answer. Faculty now ‘stop by’ team meetings to say hello, talk with the staff, learn what’s happening and vice versa. Everyone enjoys it, says Waters. “Doctors need breaks, too,” she says. “it’s enjoyable for them, and it’s a pretty easy ask – and they know our work is important to their success.”

Everyone’s Invited

When Michael Boyd, Sr. Associate Vice President of Development at Fordham University, and his team realized that virtual events could take them to cities that otherwise they would have not been able to visit—or even if a gift officer might visit, it would be unlikely that the president or senior faculty could go along—they thought, why not the world?

“Online, you can talk to anyone in the world,” says Boyd. “So, all of a sudden, our reach is wider than it has ever been in the past.”

Being able to successfully pivot in-person events to online opened up the possibility of crossing over school lines to who is invited. Prior to the shutdown, alumni from individual schools attended events hosted by the schools they graduated from. But since logistics and catering were no longer issues, when the education school launched an event focused on virtual elementary classrooms they were free to invite alumni from all the schools and units, not just from education. The result was tremendous. Similarly, the school of social work’s webinar on mental health during COVID was “enormously well attended—the biggest one yet,” says Boyd.

“We knew we had hit on something,” he says.

The truth of that was borne out in the annual Fordham Women’s Summit. For several years, the summit drew around 150 attendees to campus. This year, online, more than 700 people attended a full day of content.

But while Fordham advancement has embraced the digital world, says Boyd, they are also yearning for the time everyone can be together again.

“There’s still a lot to be said for in-person cultivation and solicitation, so that for sure, we will come back when we can.”

But he says, looking ahead, he anticipates that virtual meetings and other forms of online engagement will remain part of their stewardship strategy. There will always be limitations to how many places an individual gift officer can be at once, and certainly there are limits to where deans and the president can be.

“Virtual meetings are easier to schedule because I don’t have to figure out how I’m going to get there,” he says. “I just turn on the zoom camera and there I am.”

Celebrities Come Too

Everyone from newscasters to movie stars have taken to communicating to the world through the virtual lens. So, when Jonathan Agree, Associate Vice President of Development for Health and Medicine at George Washington University had a meeting set up to talk about a proposal for the Rodham Institute at the George Washington University Medical Center, what in another other time would have been a carefully planned and orchestrated dinner in the perfect location pivoted online and Agree found himself being face to virtual face with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We talked about a funding opportunity and a need; access to telehealth for Ward 7 and Ward 8— one of the poorest areas of any major city in the country. Infant mortality is high there because most pregnant women don’t receive any prenatal care. Diabetes and obesity rates are really high. So we were meeting to think through how to attack this problem.

“I had a brainstorming session over Zoom with Secretary Clinton,” enthuses Agree—who admits he took a picture of his computer screen to capture the moment for prosperity. “It blows my mind what we’ve been able to do.”

Agree says that while this experience is exciting because of its famous participant, he has had other conversations and meetings over screens with other donors that have been just as meaningful and productive. He recalls one with a successful alumna on the West Coast who is considering a multi-million-dollar gift concept.

“We walked through with her what the ideas were and we talked through each of them. We sent her a PDF in advance so she had time to think through the ideas. Then the dean joined us on Zoom and we talked for another hour and 45 minutes. It felt like we were sitting in her living room in San Francisco.”

Agree’s next ambitious virtual project is an event to host the inaugural women’s executive breakfast series. This year, says Agree, women from around the country can join and no one has to pay $50 for parking. More than 700 women have registered. Agree says that looking forward, he believes that his department will greatly reduce its physical footprint but significantly increase its impact through events such as these.

“We can be effective as long as we have a strategy and a process,” he says.

Written by Terri Rutter, Lindauer Senior Consultant.

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