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Advancement & Development

Your 21st Century Toolkit

We face tough economic challenges, but cyber and other options abound for innovative fundraisers and technologists.

WE ADMIT IT: With the shakyeconomy, bad press about endowment debacles,and tuition and fees on the rise, it is not an easytime to work on the fundraising side of higher education.What's more, layoffs and cutbacks havemade alumni, corporate, and other potentialdonors wary to part with funds or annuities, andthe fact that most folks are busier than ever rightnow makes the act of reaching them and keepingtheir attention nearly impossible.

No surprise then that in this environment, savvy college and university fundraisers are turning to a familiar friend-- technology-- to help them on the solicitation front. At institutions such as Susquehanna University (PA), Monmouth College (IL), and the Moody Bible Institute (IL), popular solutions currently include social networking websites and other Web 2.0 tools, e-mail marketing products, and a new look at enterprise-level solutions.

Neesha Rahim, associate VP for The Osborne Group, a NY-based management consultancy, says most of these efforts are being driven by audiences themselves. "It might sound like common sense, but as an institution of higher learning, you want to go where your audiences are," she notes. "The more audiences adopt tools like social networking and e-mail, the more you're going to see colleges and universities trying to reach out to them through these media."

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Last year, a Monmouth College web pro created an animated fundraisingslideshow that featured nostalgic campus photos and a soundtrackof the college choir singing the college song. Then an e-mail went out to5,000 alumni with a link to the work. The response was overwhelming.

Success With Social Networking

Hands down, social networking websites represent the most rapidly growing vehicle for advancement and development today. These sites-- particularly Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn-- afford advancement and development offices the opportunity to connect directly with potential donors in a medium that makes these individuals comfortable. They're also dirt cheap: In all cases, membership is free.

According to a 2008 survey of 211 advancement and development officers by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 73 percent of respondents were using Facebook, and 53 percent were using LinkedIn. More than half of all respondents reported needing less than a half-time staff position to coordinate these efforts. (See "And the Survey Says…".)

The Alumni Relations department at Susquehanna University is new to the social networking scene, and Director Becky Deitrick says she and her colleagues only recently have embraced Facebook. Today, on a "fan" page created by an alumnus, the department regularly posts videos of everything from homecoming to regional brunches. The department also supports a number of separate reunion groups. The objective of all of these efforts is to make visitors feel a connection to their alma mater. "Our goal is to get one-time Susquehanna people reconnected to the university because we believe that when they are connected, eventually they will make a gift," Deitrick explains. "We know that we lost many alumni over the years because they moved away and didn't stay in touch, but if we can use this medium to find them again, we'll be in better shape than we would have been without it."

More higher ed institutions that have embraced alumni outreach on Facebook include the University of Florida, Northwestern University (IL), Spokane Community College (WA), and The University of North Dakota. A handful of other schools have tried different social networking sites; some schools are exploring private social networking communities powered by technology from a company called Ning.

The California Institute of Technology recently launched a new alumni community on Twitter, a social networking and micro-blogging site that links up with Facebook and compels members to communicate in 140 characters or less. Earlier this year, Andrew Shaindlin, the Cal Tech Alumni Association's executive director, told members of a CASE roundtable that the endeavor is still too new to evaluate adequately, but that simply trying it is worthwhile. "The alumni we do reach on Twitter are satisfied that we're trying it at all," he told the roundtable. "We know we won't reach 20,000 people on Twitter, but we don't need to, if we're reaching nine of the right people."

Still, participants in the same roundtable raised questions about tracking the efficacy of social networking sites. One skeptic noted that, at least currently, there is no scientific way to determine return on investment (ROI), but pointed out that institutions could look at things like how many alumni have joined an online community, how long these people have been members, how many have posted discussion points or are active online, or how many people take the next step and respond to a call to action.

Louis Alexander, director of alumni education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noted that while social networking is a great way to create attention for a cause, the technology is still too young for development directors to ascertain the degree to which they can use it to fill their coffers. "Last year, our senior class committee used Facebook to advertise events and promote the senior class gift," Alexander said during the roundtable event. "[This] had mixed results: It was useful in creating buzz around events, but had less impact on the amount of the class gift."

Your 21st Century Toolkit

SUSQUEHANNA'S ALUMNI RELATIONS department regularly posts videos on Facebook, of everythingfrom homecoming to regional brunches-- all to make site visitors feel a connection to their alma mater.

Exploring E-Mail Marketing

Many schools that haven't fully embraced social networking are instead turning to another form of communication: targeted e-mail. Like its predecessor, direct mail, this technique provides an easy way to blast a message to thousands of potential donors at once. E-mail, however, is optin, which means that at some point, recipients agreed to accept the material, making them that much more receptive to the messages contained therein.

No institution has learned this better than Monmouth College. Last year, as part of an exhaustive overhaul of the campus's web presence, the Communications department commissioned Brian Lawrence, the college's coordinator of web services, to put together a video for fundraising purposes. Lawrence used Adobe Flash, Photoshop, and Illustrator, as well as audio editing software from Audacity, to build an animated slideshow as an end-of-year development piece. The show featured nostalgic campus photos and a soundtrack of the college choir singing the college song. Lawrence then sent out an e-mail to 5,000 alumni with a link to the work.

The response was overwhelming. On the first day alone, the e-mail generated 2,100 click-through views to the video and 120 donations of varying amounts.

And the Survey Says...

IN A 2008 SURVEY, representatives from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education asked 211 advancement anddevelopment officers to explain why they werebranching out into social networking. In particular,the most commonly cited goals were to:

  • Build membership
  • Connect with alumni (including the currently disconnected)
  • Share information with alumni through a fast, easy, and free method
  • Promote events

Some respondents also noted that they hoped social networking sites would function as hubs for organizing chapters, clubs, and reunions, and allow alumni to provide career services and professional networking assistance for students.

Still, the study wasn't all roses and lollipops. In cataloging responses to more strategic questions, the survey found that only a handful of advancement and development departments utilizing social networking have verbalized quantitative goals, and that nearly half of the respondents don't really know how to make social networking sites part of a larger campaign. Survey respondents also expressed a certain degree of skepticism about some of the disadvantages of the medium. According to some responses, the main disadvantages cited are a) the time and resources needed to keep social networking sites current, b) competition with other online venues, and c) the lack of control over content in an open forum.

"What you get out of advancement and development efforts is only as good as the data you put in," says Rae Goldsmith, VP for advancement resources at CASE. "But if schools don't really understand the medium-- if they don't understand how to use social networking to their advantage-- then they don't know what kind of data to look for."

The bottom line: While social networking tools provide a golden opportunity to expand development efforts, they, like everything else, are not perfect. As Goldsmith suggests, some of the latest advancement and development tools require planning, time, and a whole lot of patience.

"I don't think any of us expected it to generate as much interest as it did," says Lawrence. "In the end, we got almost 50 percent viewership. Compared to success rates for direct mail or sending out DVDs, that's unreal."

Advancement and development officials at the University of California- Irvine have embraced a similar eGiving strategy because they say it leads to instant fulfillments via credit card. During each campaign, technologists at the Office of Annual Giving put together a visually colorful e-mail template (complete with links to the institution's eGiving site), and a Flash video that shows the impact donor support has on UCI's campus. The e-mail also contains automatically generated personalized text, culled from information in the AG office's database.

Director of Development Meagan Bataran says that during each campaign the template is sent out once a week for three weeks, and that each time a template is sent, the subject line is changed to attract alumni who may not have been touched the first time around. She adds that the strategy works because it leads to online credit card transactions that deliver funds immediately (as opposed to checks, which take time to clear).

And e-mail marketing can be cost-effective, too. At Temple University (PA), for instance, Mary Beth Kurilko, director of web communications, recently oversaw a campaign that revolved around the URL to a spirited and inspirational Flash movie. Kurilko designed the movie herself using products such as Macromedia 8 from Adobe, and ActionScript, an open source tool. Because the movie was built inhouse, it cost next to nothing to build. Within the first few months of distribution, the e-mail had generated 520 gifts totaling more than $140,000, making it one of the most cost-effective campaigns of all time.

A New Look at CRM Solutions

While a growing number of schools have embraced contemporary strategies such as social networking tools and e-mails that link to audio/video, a handful of institutions are taking a broader perspective, buying or building enterprise-level constituent relationship management (CRM) solutions to tackle advancement and development.

The Moody Bible Institute is one such school. As part of a broader enterprise resource planning (ERP) effort that began in earnest in 2002, school technicians scan all incoming documents related to gifts, and load them into a web-based PeopleSoft Enterprise Contributor Relations system from Oracle to ensure accurate and timely entry, and tracking of all gifts. Moody technicians scan every piece of mail the moment the mail comes in. The system automatically separates checks from envelopes, catalogs data from these scans, and puts the information into a database. It then automatically generates receipts for the donations, and sends the receipts back to the donors.

Frank Leber, the school's VP of information systems, says the transition required a "sizable" investment in AS3600 optical character recognition scanners from Opex, but says the expenditure resulted in a vast improvement over the strategy of manual entry the school had adopted in the past-- a chore that required almost 30 full- and part-time employees to accomplish. "We've reduced staff considerably, and by the time our donor management analysts are handling the gift, they're not touching paper at all," says Leber. He adds that under the old system, student workers were able to process two or three batches of 30 replies in one hour, while now, those workers can process six or seven batches in the same amount of time. Leber can't yet quantify the savings, but notes the system has made a huge difference. "Because we're more quickly processing the checks we are getting," he explains, "we're putting receipts back into donors' hands faster, so they can respond with another gift if they choose."

Other schools have developed similar systems on their own. At Indiana University, for instance, a team of technologists at the Indiana University Foundation recently built and launched IQ, a secure portal that offers near realtime donor and gift records; current giving reports; and a toolkit of resources, links, forms, and information to serve the needs of fundraisers across the university statewide. The system went live at the end of 2007. Today, the "Standard Reports" tool available in IQ permits licensed users to access reports ondemand with current information. One of these reports provides a scorecard with a top-level summary of current fundraising totals-- an easy-to-use glance at the most recent donor and dollar totals, plus a comparison to the previous year's results.

According to IQ Manager Dru Presti-Stringfellow, IQ certainly is an improvement over the old system. In the past, she points out, the data were distributed via weekly and monthly paper reports sent through campus mail to nearly 200 individuals. Those reports consumed nearly 22,000 sheets of paper monthly, all at significant cost. But thus far, in addition to the undisclosed cost savings on paper, the IQ system has been a considerable success: Presti-Stringfellow reports that in the four-month period since the tool's launch, upwards of 47 percent of the potential user population had logged in at least once. The system manager adds that of those who logged in at least once, nearly 16 percent were logging in weekly for the convenient access to information that IQ provides them.

What's Next

With reports such as those above, it's clear that higher education officials are turning to technology to streamline and facilitate fundraising efforts across the board. Still, advancement and development experts say they have a long way to go, and note that current applications of technology only skim the surface of how IT could be transforming the fundraising landscape in the months and years ahead.

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At Temple University, a recent campaign revolved around the URL toa spirited and inspirational Flash movie built for next to nothing withproducts that included an open source tool. Within the first few months ofdistribution, the e-mail generated 520 gifts totaling more than $140,000-- one of the university's most cost-effective campaigns of all time.

Rae Goldsmith, VP for advancement resources at CASE, says that over the next few years, she expects colleges and universities to make substantial investments in additional communications tools such as podcasts, portals, and RSS feeds. "We'll see institutions embracing things that are basic and common-- stuff you see every day but, for whatever reason, things that institutions haven't really deployed yet. As the economic situation gets worse," she adds, "schools will be looking for anything they can get their hands on to spark viral marketing and stretch dollars as far as they'll go."

Osborne Group VP Rahim agrees, adding that educational gaming could become particularly prevalent in the coming months, as well. To explain her prediction, Rahim describes a hypothetical "social awareness" game that an organization such as UNICEF might use to encourage website visitors to distribute mosquito nets and prevent a village from being overrun by malaria. She notes that colleges and universities could adopt the same concept for their world, incorporating school colors, school fight songs, and maybe even school mascots-- "Anything a school can do to keep potential donors interested and hook them on the idea of coming back for more," she says. "Advancement and development always has been about relationships; with technology, the playing field for those relationships has just gotten a little bigger."

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