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How digital fundraising can improve donor retention


The rise of digital giving has brought a wealth of new fundraising opportunities, and non-profit and higher education institutions are increasingly ready to embrace digital giving opportunities like crowdfunding and giving days. However, as more options and strategies arise, so do questions about how to implement them.

What are the best ways to improve donor retention within these new channels? How should stewardship practices adapt to respond to the influx of new digital donors? How can we unlock major donor opportunities through digital fundraising initiatives?

We had an opportunity to discuss these questions, as well as the latest trends in digital fundraising, with Justin Ware and Rosa Conrad, the co-founders of Groundwork Digital, in the run up to their session at the upcoming Digital Giving Day at Texas Christian University on April 11. Justin and Rosa are big advocates of digital fundraising and its evolution, and they shared with us some of their insights and experience regarding best practice donor retention strategies.

Justin Ware Rosa Conrad Hubbub Digital Diving Day

How has digital technology changed fundraising?

Justin: The change has been immense and we are just getting started. Online giving days have become the norm in most institutions; crowdfunding programs are being managed by full-time dedicated employees at many colleges and universities; and we’re starting to see digital work its way into the major gift space.

Of course, there is a massive amount of room for growth. Especially in major gifts, I expect we’ll see “big data” become a standard and well-understood component of most development efforts. There is so much low hanging fruit available to fundraisers…simply training some of your gift officers to engage with donors and prospects on social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn will have near-immediate impacts. Low-cost Facebook Ads campaigns can help schools and non-profits discover previously unknown major gift prospects. All it takes is a few hundred dollars and an expert who knows how to leverage Facebook Ads.

Digital fundraising has come a long way…and the exciting part is that we still have a long way to go!

Justin Ware - Digital Fundraising

Rosa: So positively! The strongest tools allow for succinct, but powerful storytelling that shows the personal impact of a gift, no matter what size. And in a world where attention spans continue to dwindle and there are a million things trying to steal our mindshare – that efficient personal impact is critical.

Project-based fundraising like crowdfunding has done this really well, but it’s been tougher to adopt that approach into other areas. I’m most excited about the room still left in mapping the stories of annual and unrestricted funds online – creating that same urgency and personal approach for the sustaining funds of non-profit organizations and higher education institutions.

What’s the most frequent concern you hear from anyone trying to embrace digital fundraising?

Justin: Too many options. There are many great, proven vendors for online giving days, crowdfunding, online ambassador programs, content management, and data management. The trouble is, there are few options that tie all of those things together, especially in a strategic or truly multi-channel fashion. That’s why a key component to our work is building digital strategies that bridge those gaps and help fundraisers develop a truly integrated multi-channel approach, along with helping them find the best technology to enable that work.

Rosa: To Justin’s point, all of those options can lead to a major time commitment, which I’d say is the most frequent concern I hear from folks looking to get started in digital fundraising. The amount of time it takes to launch a giving day, the amount of time it takes to manage crowdfunding projects, so on and so forth. And to do it well, it does take time – but bridging the gaps and understanding how all of your digital fundraising initiatives can work together can really cut down on that time long-term.

From your own experience, how can digital fundraising improve donor engagement?

Justin: One of my favorite stories stems from the UC Santa Barbara Give Day that I worked on when I was with ScaleFunder/RNL. Fundraising was, of course, a goal of the day, but so was alumni engagement across digital channels. And UCSB accomplished both. In addition to raising $3.72 million from just under 1,300 donors, the social media traffic around the Give Day was deafening. UCSD Give Day hashtags were trending twice on Twitter (once is a significant feat!)…hundreds of thousands of views piled up on the many Facebook posts throughout the day…the reach of content across the board was staggering. UCSB set out to create a community rallying point with their online giving day and, like with most things under its current leadership, it was successful.

Rosa: There are so many digital tools that improve donor engagement, but some of the most powerful are challenge events within a Giving Day. The urgency of often one- or two-hour windows to make a bigger impact, coupled with the real time updates, excite donors to be part of reaching a goal. One of the coolest examples was University of Massachusetts Amherst’s UMass Gives campaign in 2016, where close to 50% of their gifts came in during the handful of “Power Hour” campaigns that either matched gifts or challenged donors to unlock an amount. And I think it’s important to note that the amounts matched or unlocked were between $2,000 – $10,000. People often think the amounts have to be in the tens of thousands to get people excited – but I see time and time again that just a little extra goes a long way to exciting donors, uniting them around a common goal of unlocking more support for the things they care about!

Which donor retention strategies work better in digital fundraising?

Rosa: Oh boy, my favorite topic! Stewardship that is similar to the medium in which the gift was made is the critical baseline for retaining digital donors. Being able to tell the donor the impact their gift made in both the short and long term provides the transparency they expect – but also gives you built-in touchpoints to continue your conversation and relationship with them. And for those donors who are connected to a specific ambassador, or a very specific project theme without other affiliation to the institution – this opens an opportunity to introduce other, similarly themed areas they may be interested in learning more about and eventually supporting. However the project-specific stewardship must come first to gain their trust.

Rosa Conrad - Stewardship and digital fundraising

What should we expect from your session in Hubbub’s Digital Giving Day event at Texas Christian University?

Rosa: Stewardship, stewardship, stewardship. This is a part of digital giving that has largely been left behind, but could have long-term consequences if we don’t tackle it now. We’ll focus specifically on stewardship of new digital donors, what that stewardship looks like (and absolutely doesn’t look like), and some tips and tricks to get started with adjusting your digital donor stewardship strategy.

Justin: I want to demonstrate that digital belongs firmly entrenched in your major gifts program. In fact, I’d argue it’s just as if not more important to the major gifts program as it is to the annual fund. We’ll share stats and real-life examples of why this is the case and leave attendees with some actionable tips to start injecting digital into their major gifts programs.


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