Alexandria Technical & Community College Gets an Education in Donor Relationships
How does a small, two-year community college in Minnesota go from practically no fundraising and less than $1 million in its coffers to a school with a fundraising arm that has assets of about $12 million? By building relationships, plain and simple.
When Kathy Pfeffer-Nohre was hired as a consultant for a fundraising campaign in 1995, Alexandria Technical & Community College’s (ATCC) foundation had just $900,000. But after the campaign proved to be a success, ATCC hired Pfeffer-Nohre to become executive director of the ATCC Foundation — and now the college brings in more than $1 million in donations annually.
The first step was ATCC building that relationship with Pfeffer-Nohre, and relationship building has been at the forefront of the college’s fundraising ever since.
“Our whole success is built on the relationships that we have with people in Alexandria and the surrounding communities,” she says. “They know we’re a team player, a community player, and that’s how we’ve built those relationships.”
Knowing your donor
While building relationships with donors is essential, maintaining those relationships is the real key to fundraising success. In order to do that, ATCC needed a donor relationship management tool to be able to track its donors. Enter Talisma Fundraising.
“I hesitate to think what would have been the result if I had not found [a DRM system]. I had sold real estate before, so I had no idea how foundations worked. I just knew how to sell something, and I sold the college,” Pfeffer-Nohre says.
“Talisma helped me get all my donors into the system, helped me recruit a board, track my donors, and track my success or failure on any given event,” she adds. “You have to be able to keep track of your donors.”
“It’s all about figuring out what data is important [to ATCC] and then where to spend time,” says Paul Finch, product manager of Talisma Fundraising. “We use the data to figure out who’s going to get the newsletter as their touch and who gets a personal phone call. Where is the best ROI?”
ATCC uses its DRM system to track every bit of information it can on its donors so it can turn every touch into a personalized communication. That way, as Pfeffer-Nohre explains, she can quickly pull up a report when a donor calls and immediately see what they talked about last time they were on the phone together, the spouse/family of the donor, etc., and tailor the conversation to the donor’s preferences.
The area where this has helped the most is ATCC’s annual luncheon event.
Springboard for fundraising
The turning point for ATCC’s fundraising, according to Pfeffer-Nohre, was when the foundation began an annual luncheon event 11 years ago. The purpose of the luncheon is threefold: 1) to thank donors for their gifts, 2) to tell donors all the new and exciting things they should know about the college, and 3) to ask for their help again. In its first year, the event raised $500,000, and it’s been the launchpad for the annual campaign since.
Each year, the hour-long luncheon follows a specific theme, and that theme is then the springboard for all the fundraising communications throughout the year. For instance, in 2012 the theme was “Paving the Way for Students,” coinciding with the new Foundation Hall that the ATCC Foundation built to house 150 students.
That theme then was incorporated in all the donor calls and phone-a-thons, the 5K run, and a wine-and-cheese event at Foundation Hall. Also, Foundation Hall has a large patio with concrete furniture, and donors could have their names engraved on both the furniture and the patio itself in return for their gifts. Pfeffer-Nohre hopes to leave that as a legacy, where ATCC can continue to sell those “pavers,” as she calls them, to future graduates and donors.
No matter the theme, at each luncheon there is a student at every table — usually one student and nine donors to a roundtable. This really hits home with attendees, who love talking with students and seeing, firsthand, how their gifts help change lives.
“Everybody’s got their favorite charity. Some people really like education, some really like the medical world, some really like Habitat for Humanity, etc. — so you need to give them a reason not to forget you and for you to be one of their favorite ones,” Pfeffer-Nohre says. “You do that by showing them how their gift changed a life — how somebody’s life is different because of something [they] did.”
In addition, high-school students come over and participate in the luncheon as well — whether it’s a performance or dressing up in costumes — driving home the importance of education to the future of the community.
The list of invitees is about 600 people, with about 300 attendees on average. And Pfeffer-Nohre and her team make it a priority to follow up with each and every one of those donors — plus the ones who do not attend.
Donors who can’t attend are contacted within 48 hours of the event with messages that they were missed and then are provided the date of the next year’s luncheon when that information is available. Pictures of the event are posted within an hour, and an e-mail goes out to attendees to check out the photos. Then they all receive thank-you letters for attending, and that’s followed by the ATCC Foundation staff personally calling everyone who was there and asking questions such as: Did you enjoy the event? How do you think we can improve it? What was your favorite part? Would you like to come back?
“We get a dialogue going with the people. If we don’t call them, either a board member or someone connected is checking in with these people immediately to let them know how much we like them being there,” Pfeffer-Nohre says.
On top of that, every donor receives at least four touches a year. The type of touch depends on the donor — for instance, Pfeffer-Nohre may go to lunch with a $5,000 donor, while a $25 donor will get a different kind of touch, she says. But every donor is important and acknowledged at least four times a year.
Since Pfeffer-Nohre arrived in 1995, the number of donors has increased 273 percent, and the average gift to ATCC has increased 419 percent. More than 750 guests attended the 2011 luncheon, bringing in more than $250,000, and in fiscal year 2012, ATCC’s total contributions totaled $1.6 million, with about $300,000 coming directly from the luncheon.
“Stability has been a huge key to success for [ATCC],” Finch says. “They have had a single person [Pfeffer-Nohre] spearheading their fundraising for quite some time. She’s a real go-getter.”
Other keys, according to Finch, are that Talisma and ATCC agreed to think of the donors first and to respect donors’ wishes.
“If you don’t take care of your donors, you’ll just keep getting new ones until there’s no pool left, and you will not have taken care of the ones you established from the beginning,” Pfeffer-Nohre says. “Some of my strongest relationships are with people who have been to 11 lunches with me, and every year we add more.
“People need to know they’re appreciated, and they have to know how you use their money,” she adds. “… You can’t just take the gifts and say, ‘Thank you. See you later.’ They need to know that they’re important enough to you that you’ll keep in touch with a real relationship.”
Standing Out in the Crowd(funding)
Crowdfunding has been a hotly debated and rapidly growing medium for fundraising, both in the for-profit and nonprofit spaces, with mixed reviews from experts in the field.
No matter your take, there’s no denying the ability for crowdfunding to bring in a rush of dollars in a short period of time. Take, for example, the New York Foundling’s Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund campaign.
The Foundling, which offers services for underserved children, families and adults with developmental disabilities, lost power during Hurricane Sandy like many in New York City, and its servers went down. At the time, the Foundling wasn’t using a cloud-based donor database, says Vice President of Development and Communications Jennifer Malichio, “so our ability to collect, track and process donations — an imperative aspect of funding our programs — was severely impeded in the aftermath of the storm.”
Many families and children that the Foundling serves were affected by the storm and in need of necessities such as food, clothing and shelter. So the Foundling turned to crowdfunding platform Deposit a Gift to raise awareness and seamlessly collect donations while working remotely and still without access to its platform and programs in the office.
The ‘build it and they will come’ myth
A big myth to crowdfunding is that you can put up a page on a crowdfunding platform and “benevolent donors are going to shower you with money,” says Dana Ostomel, founder of Deposit a Gift.
“That’s the furthest thing from the truth. … It’s not about putting the site up. There are two components. One is setup, and the other part is marketing. The marketing is really more important.”
Still, before you can market your campaign, you have to set it up. So utilizing the Deposit a Gift platform, the Foundling created its campaign. On the welcome page, it introduced the Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund, had a “Click Here to Donate Now” link in the second line, described the organization and offered more links to the donations registry. There were also five rotating photos — one of the campaign logo and four of the children it helps serve.
Then there was the registry donation page, which allowed donors to choose where their donations went: the general fund, foster care children support (food, clothes and shelter), or generators to combat the blackouts. There also was an About Us page, detailing the organization and sharing more compelling photos, as well as another page going into more detail on the Sandy fund, including more donation descriptions and links to the donation registry.
“More and more of our donors are choosing to make their donations online, so it was important for us to essentially be where our donors are. It also provided us with the ability to create really appealing, compelling fundraising content online,” Malichio says.
“[The] platform allowed us to post pictures of the children and families in our care and really tell our story in a way that explained to people why the money was needed and how it would be used,” she adds. “This helped donors connect and really feel that they were making a difference, which is so important.”
From there, it was all about marketing and sharing. The Foundling created an ad block on its homepage publicizing the Sandy fund and sent out messages via Twitter and Facebook, which all linked to the crowdfunding campaign. Then, everything the Foundling did on social media was complemented by e-blasts to its list, Malichio says, to keep donors updated on how their support was helping.
On top of all that, the Foundling was fortunate enough to be endorsed as one of singer Beyoncé Knowles’ “Ten Ways You Can Help After Hurricane Sandy” blog post. As you can imagine, the celebrity endorsement didn’t hurt either.
In short order, the Foundling was able to raise $20,000 for the campaign and quickly release the funds to approximately 40 families in need who care for about 100 children, Malichio says.
“It was a combination of our wonderful donors sharing with their networks and us sharing online to create a lot of momentum and drive more and more people to the site,” she adds. “We had a really important need that a lot of people could relate to. The story is key. It has to be compelling enough for people to want to share it with their friends.”
Also, contrary to the beliefs of some crowdfunding detractors, the Foundling was able to capture donor data through the campaign and follow up with and properly thank donors. Many of them, Malichio says, were interested in learning more and staying engaged with the Foundling.
Ostomel attributes some of the Foundling’s success to the fact that it responded with a sense of urgency, getting the site up within 24 to 48 hours of the hurricane. Plus, the Foundling was really clear about what the need was and who had been affected.
“Those were key things. And the marketing,” she says. “They had pictures, breakdowns, various price points, the ability to give anything you wish. They really marketed the heck out of it. People during moments like that are looking to help, and the Foundling gave them that opportunity.”
While the campaign was a success, Malichio says it is not a magic bullet. Crowdfunding isn’t suitable for every campaign. But it’s another valuable tool in the fundraising toolbox when utilized correctly — like it was for the Sandy Relief Fund.
Responding to Need Through Responsive Design
Disaster-relief organizations often face the quandary of how to keep donors engaged in the wake of a disaster after the initial influx of interest and donations subsides. But what happens when a disaster-relief and health care organization finds itself taken to another level — thanks in part to proper planning?
That’s what happened to Boston-based international relief and health care organization Partners in Health (PIH).
When the devastating earthquake struck in Haiti in 2010, PIH and its digital fundraising partner Blue State Digital (BSD) mobilized and launched an entirely new website focused on the quake, says Joe Rospars, CEO of BSD. This helped PIH get in touch with all its donors and supporters on its housefile, while also allowing the organization to sign up more people and have supporters spread the word to people who hadn’t heard of PIH before.
Then something unexpected happened. When actor George Clooney led a telethon to point to charities aiding Haiti, such an influx of donors rushed to their computers and phones to help that just about all of the charities’ websites went down — including the Red Cross. But at that time, thanks to the new website designed to handle a hugely increased load, PIH’s site was one of the only ones up and running, able to process donations and sign up volunteers.
“These kinds of opportunities give potential donors and volunteers the ability to own the cause, to make them feel like they have a concrete impact in the world,” Rospars says. “It points to the bulletproof infrastructures that allow you to seize the moment when people turn their eyes to you like in this moment. We were able to do that in that key moment.
“You can’t move those spikes. If you chop the top off because your site goes down, you sort of miss the moment. PIH was able to rise to the occasion and do more good that really needed to be done,” he adds.
As a result, a relatively small nonprofit transformed into a “different order of magnitude,” as Rospars puts it. “The hard part is when people stop paying attention to the crisis,” he adds.
Responsive design through continuous testing
The first step to handling a new level and new donors was to overhaul PIH’s website — moving it from a more traditional, old-school website to a responsive design that promotes giving — and keeps donors engaged when the disaster moves out of the social consciousness.
Getting the clutter out of the way and optimizing the user experience was one component, Rospars says. So BSD and PIH went through and stripped the website of barriers for visitors, including the donation process. PIH now utilizes the same Quick Donate tool that the 2012 Obama campaign successfully used for its online fundraising (the Obama campaign was a client of BSD), so e-mail subscribers can give in one click through e-mail.
Then, BSD and PIH used multivariate testing to optimize every facet of the digital fundraising space, including launching the responsive website based on test results. They tested (and continue to test) everything from homepage and donation design to photos, calls to action, donating prompts, different messages to different ZIP codes and more. They also test every e-mail with various messages, creative, copy, landing pages, taglines that show up on search engines, light boxes, stories, etc. — and then see what the audience tells them through response.
The website also is optimized for mobile, and everything is done with the donor in mind — while always testing new things to try and improve results.
“We set up tools to listen to what donors want,” says Dan Thain, director of campaign development at BSD. “We get insights from our audience and through testing to build the most effective and simple message we can to pull on their heartstrings and get them to give.”
PIH has invested in a long-term testing strategy, relentlessly focusing on testing and using data to drive strategy and creative. It also incorporates an “always on” digital communications program through e-mail, social media, advertising, and integrated digital and direct-mail communications.
BSD began working with PIH in 2009, and since — including the Haiti campaign — the partnership has yielded more than $50 million raised through various campaigns. Speaking to its responsive design, PIH’s donation form completion rate is more than twice the industry standard, and PIH saw an 8.9 percent increase in end-of-year fundraising in 2012 vs. 2011.
PIH also gleaned several interesting things through its testing. For instance, it found that more people give when you ask them for less, which may not be surprising, but also that lower asks increased e-mail donations by as much as 80 percent for some segments.
“Ultimately, people have limited time or money or attention span to give to any cause. If you’ve got a couple of minutes to read an e-mail and click, we don’t want to make you go through something that’s not necessary to give in that moment,” Rospars says. “It’s all about relationships and honoring the limited time to get the biggest results — and giving them the lowest barrier to entry to feel good about giving.”
“Relationship is the key word,” Thain adds. “We build out voices using the founders and the spokesmen and women. We send e-mails from [Board of Trustees Governor] David Walton … send communications from donors who explain why they gave and why you should too. We understand that Partners in Health is a true community.”