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Donor Participation Project

How the University of Tennessee Increased Donors by 54%

The University of Tennessee saw a 54% increase in donors over a seven-year period through deliberate planning and experimentation. Eric Drum, Director of Annual Giving at UT, shares the strategic approach that fueled this growth.

First, UT aligned its advancement team around a shared vision to increase donors.

They mapped out annual targets for new donor acquisition and renewal to build accountability. A key part of the plan was diversifying engagement channels beyond direct mail and phone. The team optimized online giving, launched social media ads, and tested multiple outreach channels to find what worked best.

UT also invested in data and analytics to gain insights.

They discovered that contacting recent donors at the 6 and 12-month anniversaries of their last gift were particularly effective. UT now has anniversary appeals at those time periods, resulting in higher response rates. They also use data modeling to determine the characteristics of their most loyal donors and reach out to those with similar attributes.

The team focused on stewarding new donors to build lifelong relationships.

They implemented a year-long welcome plan for new donors including thank you’s and newsletters. UT also created two new donor recognition programs to highlight consecutive years of giving.

UT engaged faculty, staff, students, and volunteers to expand their reach.

They trained student callers and launched a successful faculty/staff giving campaign, increasing participation from 16% to 64% in a few years. Volunteers also played a key role, so UT invested in communicating their impact and expectations around giving.

Not everything worked, but UT kept experimenting. While event-related gifts drove new donors, those donors were less likely to renew. Despite some channel-specific challenges, UT’s multi-channel approach and commitment to trying new programs has built a sustainable base of longtime supporters. Overall, their strategic yet flexible plan provides a model for how nonprofits can test ideas, invest in what works, and rally diverse groups around a shared vision to significantly grow donors.

View the full recording of this session in our Resource Library.

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