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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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Donor Participation Project

Reversing the Trend: How to Find and Engage New Donors

Nonprofit fundraising has faced a steady decline in donor participation over the last few decades. However, fundraisers can take action to reverse this trend by prioritizing the identification and engagement of new donors.

According to fundraising expert Adam Weinger, the first step is to focus on qualifying new prospects through events, referrals, and faculty relationships. Events provide an opportunity to engage new donors in person, while referrals from existing donors and faculty members can uncover major gift prospects who are currently off the radar. The key is following up quickly after initial meetings to begin cultivating these new relationships.

Once new prospects have been identified, nonprofit fundraisers should develop strategic engagement plans to build affinity over time. Weinger recommends a tiered engagement model where donors start at a low level of commitment, like volunteering or mentoring students, and then progress up the pyramid as their passion and giving capacity grows. The closer donors get to the top levels, which may include joining the board of trustees, the more likely they are to make a major gift.

To solicit these new donors effectively, fundraisers should focus on the impact of the gift and stewardship of funds rather than the amount. Share videos and stories demonstrating how current programs change lives. Explain exactly how the donor’s gift will be used and recognized to inspire their philanthropy. Creative strategies like matching gift challenges, deadlines, and public announcements can also motivate new donors to give sooner and at a higher level.

The most important element, however, is developing strong internal relationships to drive fundraising success. Weinger argues that communication across departments, public recognition of colleagues’ contributions, and educating staff about the fundraising process builds trust in the development office and leads to more and bigger gifts over time. By following this holistic approach of identifying, engaging, and soliciting new donors through internal partnership, nonprofits can begin to reverse the trend of declining fundraising participation. Overall, the key to major gift success is collaboration, not competition.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Set Up Your First Automated Donor Email Workflow

For nonprofits, automating donor email outreach can be a game-changer. By connecting your donor database with an email service like Gmail, you can automatically send personalized emails to donors at scale. Here’s how to set up your first automated donor email workflow:

First, identify the data you want to use. This could be a list of recent donors, donors in a specific giving range, or donors interested in a particular program. Export this list from your donor database as a CSV spreadsheet with key details like name, email, gift amount, and date.

Next, connect your spreadsheet to Gmail using a tool like Zapier. Zapier lets you connect apps to automate workflows. In this case, you’ll connect Google Sheets (which holds your CSV) to Gmail.18/10/2023.alrdy extended.

In Zapier, choose your Google account and the specific spreadsheet you want to use. Zapier will find the column headers in your sheet like “email” and “first name”.

Then, connect to your Gmail account. Choose whether you want emails to send automatically or save as drafts for review. For your first workflow, drafts are a good option.

Map the data from your sheet to the email. For example, map “first name” to the greeting, “email” to the recipients, and so on. You can also choose a signature, email template, attachments, or labels.

Finally, test the workflow and check that the email draft looks as you expect. Make any needed changes, then you’re ready to turn on the automation and let the emails send or save as drafts based on your choice!

With some basic setup, you’ve created an automated yet personalized email experience for your donors. Try different email templates for various donor segments, or connect other actions like mailing printed notes or updating a CRM record. The possibilities are endless for streamlining your donor outreach. With consistency and care, your donors will surely appreciate these automated yet thoughtful communications.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Understanding Your Audience: Filling the Gaps in Your Engagement Strategy

As nonprofit fundraisers, we often focus on individual interactions with our donors like events, calls, and mailings. But true engagement is about the entire journey, not just touchpoints. According to engagement expert Emily Taylor, we need to see the big picture by mapping our audience’s path from first learning about us to becoming our strongest supporters.

Filling in the gaps of your engagement strategy starts with understanding your audience’s needs and motivations. Their needs are not just functional, like incentives, but also emotional and cultural. For example, donors may be motivated by feeling like part of your community or mission. Talk to your donors and analyze their behaviors to determine what they need from you. Provide value to meet those needs.

Your audience’s journey likely has gaps between levels of engagement.

Many organizations find a drop-off between people attending an event and actually donating, for instance. Look for holes in your own strategy and work to motivate your audience to the next level of commitment. Ask people directly for that increased level of support and provide clear next steps.

Guiding your audience down the path also requires collaboration across teams.

While you may operate specific programs, your donors see the total experience you provide. All teams should understand how their work contributes to the overall journey. Come together to map the path, determine gaps, and set shared key performance indicators to close those gaps. See through your donor’s eyes.

Continuously experiment and analyze data to optimize your audience’s journey.

Try different messages, channels, and calls-to-action, then see what resonates. Look for opportunities to involve long-time, highly engaged donors in guiding newcomers down the path. Keep learning and improving to turn one-time attendees into your most ardent advocates.

Fundraising is a team sport, and success depends on the strength of your engagement strategy. By understanding your audience, guiding them purposefully down the journey, and working collaboratively, you can gain their long-term partnership in achieving your mission. Fill in the gaps in your current strategy and motivate your supporters to become stronger allies. Keep engagement at the heart of your efforts.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Overcoming Common Challenges in Implementing New Fundraising Technologies

Implementing new fundraising technologies is no easy feat for nonprofits. Getting buy-in, navigating long purchase processes, and coordinating implementations across teams are just some of the obstacles. Technology adoption specialist Julie Henderson offered some best practices for overcoming common challenges based on her experience at Carnegie Mellon University and other institutions.

First, identify and understand your end users’ needs.

Make sure any new tool will meet those needs and clearly define what success looks like. Otherwise, you risk ending up with “shelfware”—technology that is rarely used after implementation. Engage end users in reviewing and selecting tools to ensure the best fit.

Next, get leadership and IT on board early.

Henderson recommended educating leadership and your IT team about how the technology will benefit fundraising and streamline workflows. Their support—and understanding of the purchasing process—is essential. Ask IT to evaluate data integration and security concerns as part of the selection process. Addressing their questions upfront will speed eventual approval and implementation.

Also, don’t forget technology trials and demos are key.

Ask tech vendors for hands-on access so end users can fully explore tools. Use a scoring rubric to evaluate options objectively based on your needs. However, be realistic in setting trial periods, as tying technology adoption to arbitrary deadlines rarely works.

Finally, focus on communication and coordination.

Clearly define data sharing policies, best practices, and a schedule for using any shared technologies across teams to provide a seamless experience for donors. Continually monitor how the technology is being used and gather feedback to make improvements.

With strategic partnerships, open communication, and coordinated implementation, nonprofits can successfully navigate obstacles to adopting new fundraising technologies. Following a thoughtful process and centering end users will lead to tools that streamline work, enable data-driven decisions, and ultimately help you reach your fundraising goals.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Automate and Organize with Airtable: A Walkthrough for Nonprofit Fundraisers

As a nonprofit fundraiser, you have a lot of moving parts to keep track of: donors, events, partnerships, and more. Airtable is a cloud-based database platform that can help you organize all your information in one place and automate repetitive tasks.

In a recent webinar, nonprofit consultant Jamie Smith walked through how to get started with Airtable. You can build an Airtable base (a collection of tables) from scratch or use one of their pre-built project management templates. For nonprofits, Smith recommends starting with the donor database, events planning, or fundraising campaign templates.

Once you have a template, you can customize it to meet your needs. Add or remove columns, create different views to visualize your data, and link records between tables. For example, you can have one table for donors, one for events, and link a donor record to any events they’ve attended. These connections help ensure all relevant information is in one spot.

Airtable’s real power comes from its automation features.

You can set up automatic notifications, sync data between bases, standardize information, and send customized emails. For instance, when a new donor signs up for an event, you can automatically send them an email with the details and their menu selection. Or if a donor’s contact information changes, you can sync that update across all your Airtable bases.

Airtable may seem complicated, but you don’t need coding or IT experience to use it. While the platform is highly flexible, Smith emphasizes that “the secret to good project management is thinking through what information you need, where and when.” Focus on who needs what information and when. Then you can build an Airtable system tailored to your needs and adjust it as those needs change.

With some time invested upfront, Airtable can save you hours of repetitive work and give you more time to focus on fundraising for your cause. For small nonprofits, it provides an easy to use “source of truth” database that doesn’t require a huge budget or learning curve. Follow Smith’s advice: start simple by just “clicking around” and “you won’t break it!”

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

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Donor Participation Project

Why Details and Simplicity Matter in Donor Communications

When crafting fundraising appeals, it’s tempting to share all the complexity and nuance of your cause. But while accuracy and depth of knowledge are important for nonprofits, too much complexity kills donor motivation. Fundraisers must learn the art of simplicity.

According to fundraising expert Russell James, “A story with 8 main characters is complicated. Adding even more details, 8 names, ages, and pictures didn’t help. It made a complicated story even more complex, donations fell even more.” Instead, focus on one compelling character or group to rally donors around. Details about a single sympathetic person or community in need are far more powerful than stats about thousands of faceless beneficiaries.

James cites research showing that donations doubled when people received the name, age, and photo of one child in need compared to a more general appeal. But when the number of featured children increased to eight, with names and details for each, donations fell by over 40 percent. Our brains simply can’t process that much information in a personally meaningful way.

The solution is to find the emotional “sweet spot” with enough details to trigger empathy and mental visualization but not so many that the message becomes muddy or emotionally overwhelming. Think of your fundraising stories like close-up shots in a movie. We need to see the humanity of one person or family to truly care about their plight before panning out to the bigger picture.

Fundraisers should start with a clearly visualized character – be it a single beneficiary or a unified group.

Focus on the details that make them relatable, like shared values, experiences or community. Explain how your organization made a meaningful difference in their lives through a concrete victory story. End by tying their journey to the greater impact of donations. This simple yet emotionally compelling narrative structure can turn your cause into the donor’s personal tale of triumph over adversity. Above all else, keep your messaging clear and focused. Simplicity moves donors to action. Complexity confuses the mind and dulls the heart.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Learnings from a Donor Innovation Director: How to Manage Change and Adopt New Tools

Dan Lombardi, the Donor Innovation Director at Grand River Hospital Foundation in Canada, shared insights on managing change and adopting new tools at a recent nonprofit conference. His role focuses on problem-solving, improving processes and implementing new technologies to increase donor engagement and staff efficiency.

Lombardi emphasized the importance of an iterative approach to change.

When introducing a new tool or process, his team tests it out and then asks staff for feedback. They communicate that the new approach is not set in stone, and staff input is essential to improving it. An iterative mindset, where missteps and course corrections are expected, helps to alleviate anxiety about change.

Lombardi also stressed open communication, especially when managing change remotely.

His team documents all discussions and decisions in Notion, a collaborative workspace tool, so that everyone has visibility into what’s being worked on. They also hold frequent video calls as a team and one-on-one to discuss challenges and get input.

When it comes to new tools, Lombardi recommended starting with a specific problem you want to solve.

His team adopted Shopify and built their own app to automatically transfer online donations to their database. They use Zapier and ActiveCampaign for donor communication automation. And Notion serves as their internal project management and knowledge base.

Not all staff adopt new tools at the same pace, Lombardi noted.

His team focuses on the intent and benefits of a tool, rather than forcing universal adoption. They work with staff to understand their challenges and make iterative improvements. The key is to start simple by solving one specific problem, even if you have to build your own solution. With the right approach, new tools can increase capacity, not overwhelm it.

Lombardi’s experience shows that managing change and technology in nonprofits requires an experimental mindset, honest communication, and a problem-solving orientation. By focusing on staff needs and iterative improvements, new tools and processes can be introduced without disruption. Overall, Lombardi demonstrates how a questioning, solution-focused approach can drive innovation.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Three Consumer Rebellions and What They Mean for Nonprofits Today

Nonprofits today face major challenges in reaching and engaging supporters. According to author and marketing expert Mark Schaeffer, three major “consumer rebellions” have reshaped how organizations connect with their audiences. Understanding these rebellions is key to nonprofit success.

The first rebellion was against advertising.

Consumers today are adept at avoiding ads and tuning them out. Nonprofits can no longer rely on ads alone to spread their message or inspire action. The solution is to focus on storytelling and creating an emotional connection with supporters. Share authentic stories that highlight your impact and mission.

The second rebellion was against loyalty programs and the notion of “earning” loyalty.

Today’s consumers want transparency and authenticity. They will support organizations and buy from brands that align with their values—not because of points or perks. Nonprofits should build real relationships with supporters, not transactional ones based on rewards. Show how you genuinely make a difference.

The third rebellion is against technology and automation.

Consumers crave human connection and relationships. Nonprofits should avoid relying solely on technology, automation, and impersonal communication. While digital tools have a role to play, personal outreach and genuine interaction are most meaningful to supporters. Highlight the human faces behind your work.

Nonprofits must adapt to new realities. Ditch mass advertising for authentic storytelling. Replace loyalty gimmicks with real relationship building. And remember that no technology can replace human-to-human connection. Focus on your mission and values, share stories of real impact, build personal relationships, and engage supporters in your work. By embracing a human-centered approach, nonprofits can overcome consumer rebellions and thrive. The most human organizations will win.

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

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Donor Participation Project

Purdue’s Pod Structure: A Case Study in Centralization and Collaboration

Purdue University revolutionized its fundraising operations by implementing a “pod” structure that centralized key functions while fostering collaboration. The pod model addressed issues of unbalanced resources, gaps in donor stewardship, and the need for stronger oversight of metrics across fundraising areas.

Purdue assembled cross-functional teams, called pods, around each academic unit and area of focus. Each pod includes members from marketing, donor relations, prospect development, and development. The pods meet monthly to review metrics, discuss priorities, and develop customized strategies for donor engagement. This integrated approach makes it possible to target the right constituents with the right message at the right time.

The pod structure also enabled Purdue to implement standard practices and oversight across the fundraising enterprise. Centralizing communications, for example, gave Purdue data on donor interests and engagement that fueled more personalized outreach. Standardized metrics, including donor participation rates, make donor progression and performance transparent across academic units. Quarterly business reviews, which pods and leadership attend, shine a light on what’s working and where new strategies or resources are needed.

For other nonprofits seeking to enhance collaboration and boost fundraising effectiveness, Purdue’s pod model provides an innovative blueprint. Some key takeaways:

•Assemble cross-functional teams around donors and priorities. Include representatives from all areas that touch donors and supporters.

•Centralize data and communications to gain a 360-degree view of donors. Look for opportunities to personalize and customize outreach based on interests and engagement.

•Implement standard metrics and reporting across the organization. Measure what matters for donor relationships and fundraising, not just dollars raised. Review reports together regularly.

•Foster open communication within the teams and across leadership. The pod structure succeeds when teams meet often, voice challenges, and work jointly on solutions.

•Be willing to reorganize and reassign resources as needed. Purdue shifted responsibilities across teams to play to people’s strengths and fill critical gaps. Not all changes will be right the first time. Review and revise.

With comprehensive insight into donors, priorities, and performance, Purdue’s pod model is enabling the university to fulfill its vision for an integrated and donor-centered advancement program. By enhancing coordination across all areas impacting the donor experience, other nonprofits can achieve similar success.

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