FM Blog

Welcome to our Fundraising Management Blog! Be sure to visit us often for the latest information on fundraising news, trends, and best practices.

AI Fundraising Chatbots: Meet AL from RNL

Follow Me:

Josh Robertson

Vice President of Product Strategy at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Josh has over 17 years of experience in the industry, oversees fundraising strategy, analytics and product development and has worked with over 100+ institutions.
Follow Me:

RNL has launched AL, our fundraising AI chatbot. If you saw our announcements about AL or have followed the growing interest in the use of AI for fundraising, you may wonder how a fundraising AI chatbot fits within the broader strategic framework of fundraising.

Why AI?

Do you have the budget to add an army of staff members for connecting with alumni? The answer is likely no, which is why artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly important for advancement. AI can deliver personalization at scale, solving challenges across the full student lifecycle. AI can help you engage engage students, parents, alumni, and others in a more personalized manner and act on key pain points/questions they have in real-time. It also allows you to learn more about your audience, enabling you to evolve your marketing messages based on real-data. That makes it easier for you to meet the expectation of personalization that alumni, donors, and frankly all consumers now have.

Why AL?

AL, RNL's fundraising AI chatbot

Engagement and conversion are primary objectives of all outreach with alumni and donors, and much of that engagement now takes place via digital communications: your website, social media, digital advertising, and so on. AL, our fundraising AI chatbot and messaging solution, is the logical progression for how RNL is helping institutions make those connections.

Let me be clear: an AI chatbot is not a magic wand for fundraising (spoiler alert: there is no magic wand for  fundraising). However, it is also very clear that fundraising AI chatbots have enormous potential to create personalized engagement while also freeing up your limited resources for connections that truly require the human touch. We have integrated AL into our full suite of omnichannel solutions, giving you a new channel to connect with your constituents and give them key information in a way that seems personal.

When an alumnus has a question, the AI chatbot is there to help answer questions and to send follow up messages to keep them engaged and informed. The institution can also see the type of questions alumni are asking, which can then inform their marketing communication strategy. When an institution is planning a giving day and wondering how they can keep up with the litany of questions, how to increase conversion, and how to thank donors in a personalized way, Al has built-in integration with RNL Digital Giving that allows for the chatbot to easily be embedded within a giving day or crowdfunding campaign. As for the name AL, it honors the transformative work one of our founders, Al Ruffalo, accomplished in the higher ed market, as well as to mark the continued transformation that RNL is building on our strong foundation of solutions.

Meet AL now to learn more about our fundraising AI chatbot

AL, RNL's fundraising AI chatbot

We have AL all ready to talk with you—stop by for a chat and see what AL can do. And keep in mind that AL is fully customized to your institution, so that your chat avatar and branding reflect your institution and reinforce the connection with donors.

This is also just the beginning for our foray into AI for enrollment and fundraising. The applications for this technology, and we will share more use cases over the next few weeks. So say hi to AL, and connect with us on AL’s page to discuss how AI chatbots can amplify your multichannel outreach.

Passive/Aggressive: The Art of Creating a Successful Fundraising Email Subject Line

Shad Hanselman

Shad Hanselman

Associate Vice President at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Shad has over fifteen years of experience in higher education fundraising, serving as a senior leader in complex annual giving programsfor top tier universities. He now pioneers new products to propel the success of RNL clients as a member of our leadership team.
Shad Hanselman

What is the best subject line for a fundraising email solicitation? Is it an aggressive call to action? How about a warm and fuzzy message that may not mention giving? Ask anyone in the industry and they have an opinion on this, mostly based on something they were told early in their career or their personal preference.

Like so many things in fundraising, this is an excellent example of the phrase: “your opinion, while interesting, is irrelevant.”

Fundraising email subject line results

Which subject lines get donors to open a fundraising email? Here are our findings from a test of nearly 340,000 emails.

At Ruffalo Noel Levitz we seek to shatter myths in fundraising and use data to inform our strategy. So, we partnered with four institutions to test subject lines across 24 emails during their calendar year-end efforts in 2018 and the results were eye-opening.

The fundraising email subject line tests

We sent more than 339,000 emails to 12 audience segments across 6 universities. Each audience segment was split evenly with half receiving a passive message subject line and half receiving an aggressive call to action subject line.

So, what works better, a “passive” or “aggressive” subject line?

The reality is: it doesn’t matter…much. Here are the results of the 24 tests.

Subject Line Type Passive Aggressive
Open-Rate wins 7 5
 Open Rate 11.7% 11.4%
Click-to-Open Wins 6 6
Click-to-Open Rate 2.7% 2.7%

In 58% of head-to-head tests, the “friendly” subject line had a higher open rate than the more “direct” counterpart. However, there was no statistical difference in the click-to-open rate, which means that the subject line helps get the email opened, but the content and call to action seem to get the click.

The subject line themes that worked best

There were a few items in our tests that showed promise for positively impacting the effectiveness of the subject line. A few of the themes we observed were:

  • Family Comes First: 100% of subject lines that referenced being part of the institutional family outperformed their non-family-oriented counterparts.
  • Cast a Vision: From changing lives to strengthening the institution, subject lines that gave the recipient an opportunity to insert themselves as the hero outperformed those that were more institutionally-oriented.

Our advice for the best year-end fundraising email subject lines

Based on this test, our best advice for crafting a successful fundraising email subject line is to remember who you are writing to and why your message would matter to them. Instead of going back and forth over a passive or aggressive subject line, use your time wisely and craft a concise message to your recipients that connects them to their passion, casts them as part of your community, and provides them with an opportunity to make themselves the hero of their philanthropic journey.

Request a fundraising consultationEven better, talk with our fundraising experts about how you can optimize your fundraising email communications as part of a broader omnichannel strategy. We have helped hundreds of institutions connect with millions of donors, and we can discuss the optimal steps you can take to better engage your donors. Request a consultation now.

VSE Reports Record $47B in Higher Education Giving for 2018

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

The Voluntary Support of Education survey, considered the definitive record of higher education fundraising, has once again recorded a record year for fundraising in 2018. Institutions received $46.73 billion in gift, a 7.2 percent increase over 2017. Results included:

  • An increase from every type of donor, including a big jump in the “other organization” category, which includes donor advised funds. We’re watching this category as it grows, likely affected by both tax policy and the growing popularity of this giving method.
  • A jump in mega gifts over $100 million, which help fuel those record-breaking higher education campaigns we’re all reading about.
  • Increases in both current operations (6.2 percent) and capital giving (8.6 percent).

As part of the AMAtlas Effort, CASE is providing expanded insights, including a first research brief with graphs from the survey. Read the full VSE press release and insights at CASE here.

Ann Kaplan, director of the VSE, will once again join us for a webinar to go through the results and talk about what the data means for our fundraising and donor engagement strategy:

What $47 Billion in Giving to Higher Education Means for You

Wednesday, February 27 at 2:00 p.m. ET

With Ann Kaplan,

Director of the Voluntary Support of Education Survey

Register Now For this Free Webinar

CASE VI Live Polling Results

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

Greetings CASE VI Conference friends!

Throughout this year’s conference RNL sponsored live polling of conference attendees on questions that matter for the future of Advancement. We offered new questions on the hour during the conference, and our live polling portal was a hit!

What’s an advancement professional?

Here’s the word cloud from our question about what described someone in the Advancement profession:

Continue Reading »

Keeping the #GivingTuesday Momentum Going

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

As a multichannel fundraising company, giving days are a big part of how we help organizations engage donors with excitement and urgency. #GivingTuesday is an important day for many organizations, and a big day for us. Here’s how we spent our #GivingTuesday at RNL:

RNL Crowdfunding and RNL Giving Day powered by ScaleFunder

  • Total raised on platform: $2,581,008
  • Total gifts on platform: 18,665

On-Campus and Off-Campus Phonathons

  • 5,103 pledges  (47% on credit cards!)
  • $714,296 total pledged dollars
  • 7,828 calling hours


  • 199,137 e-mails delivered

Digital Engagement

  • 1,571,722 digital ad impressions delivered

Direct Mail

  • 135,719 solicitation/stewardship pieces sent in two weeks leading up to Giving Tuesday


  • 101,500 phone numbers provided for automated voicemail stewardship messages in week prior to Giving Tuesday.

Keep the #GivingTuesday momentum going all year

Giving Tuesday is a great way to engage donors, but how can you keep donors engaged, excited, and giving all year round?

Ruffalo Noel Levitz has helped many institutions do just that. Here’s what Tori Follett, director of annual giving, had to say about University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s successful partnership with RNL:

“We weren’t sure what to expect heading into Giving Tuesday this year…For the first time, we had an interactive Giving Day page through RNL’s Giving Day platform that allowed us to coordinate matching challenges and social media outreach. We went from raising around $12,500 from 86 gifts in 2017 to $96,185 with 417 gifts in 2018…We couldn’t be happier with the platform and the service we received!”

We are happy to talk with you about connecting with your donors and amplify your results.

Now that #GivingTuesday is over, keep the momentum going—discover how RNL can help you design a multichannel engagement program to take your fundraising to the next level.

Charitable giving tops $400 billion

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

Charitable giving report now available from Giving USAThis year’s Giving USA 2018 report revealed that U.S. charitable giving exceeded $410 billion. Some highlights:

  • Personal giving increased by 5.2 percent, the same amount as the overall increase.
  • Corporate giving rose by 8 percent, on the back of tax reform and strong corporate profits.
  • Giving to foundations increased by 15.5 percent. A strong contributor to this was contributions to donor-advised funds. Education continues to receive the highest portion of donor-advised fund-distribution giving.
  • Giving to education increased by 6.2 percent, adjusted to a 4 percent increase with inflation. Alumni drove much of this increase.

You can purchase and download the full report at Giving USA.

For higher education institutions, you can compare your donor, alumni participation, and dollar results with our no-cost benchmarking reports. Request one today, and a RNL consultant will share the latest insights and strategy with you.



March (Alumni Giving) Madness 2018 – Final Results

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

We have the winners of the 2018 March (Alumni Giving) Madness tournament!

This tournament is our fun way to determine the top alumni giving institutions for higher education fundraising. We took the institutions in this year’s men’s and women’s NCAA Basketball Tournaments, analyzed their alumni giving statistics, and determined the two top institutions for alumni giving.

2018 March (Alumni Giving) Madness final brackets

2018 March Alumni Giving MadnessView the final 2018 March (Alumni Giving) Madness bracket

You can read about the methodology we used and about the first two rounds of results in our first blog.

And the winners are…

Men’s Bracket: University of Pennsylvania. Returning after last year’s win in our women’s bracket, Penn continues to have one of the highest alumni participation stats in the tournament.  As we mentioned last year, donor growth and consistency in young alumni giving have been real strengths at Penn.

Women’s Bracket: University of Notre Dame. Another return winner, Notre Dame also took home a win in 2016 in the men’s division of our tournament. Two years of consistent alumni donor growth and a LeBron-level performance for giving-per-living-alumnus made the Fighting Irish unstoppable.

All this year’s tournament participants are winners. As we approached the final bracket stages, we noticed some pretty incredible alumni giving and donor growth at the top institutions. All participants in this year’s tournaments should be congratulated. The generosity of their alumni is incredible, with more than $3.7 billion given by alumni to these institutions in 2017.

Get the E-Book with all the results

Check out all the results, with expanded commentary on the stats, in our March (Alumni Giving) Madness 2018 e-book. Download your copy here.

2018 (Alumni Giving) Madness commentary:

Alumni participation declines again: In most of this year’s match ups, it was more about who had declined the least. We’re on a 20-year downhill spiral for the percent of living alumni who give. While we know that part of the issue is the sheer increase in the number of alumni institutions are trying to engage, with the good economy and real effort, some are building back. Colleges and universities that bucked this trend were also commonly the top alumni giving dollars institutions.

Averages can be deceiving. Less than 1 percent of institutions raise over 28 percent of the funds in higher education, so the stats are skewed toward the top. This caused some real blowouts, especially in early rounds. However, there were some institutions who really posted gains over the past few years, largely due to campaign dollars.

Many institutions still need a training camp for online giving. We saw a wide range of online giving presence at institutions. It was less common for it to be hard to find the giving portal from the main university web page this year. Crowdfunding and giving days continue to grow, but news of these options wasn’t present on most “give now” pages we reviewed. Social media engagement continues to be minimal, but was definitely something more common at the top fundraising institutions. Overall, online giving is improving a bit, with average score from our refs rising to 3.46/5 over last year’s 3.30/5.

How the tournament is evolving: We heard from advancement leaders that immediate dollars are dominating as a concern at most institutions. So we weighted alumni giving dollars a bit higher this year.  Alumni giving dollars are indeed up, rising over 14% this past year. There were also a few match ups that might be considered upsets this year — an institution won because of strong donor count growth in one case but raised about 1/12 from alumni in dollars. We will be doing further polling of advancement professional this year to get a handle on donor counts, growth and the alumni denominator. That may cause changes to next year’s tournament.

Listen to the podcast

I once again break down the results with RNL’s Shad Hanselman, on the latest episode of podcast Fundraising Voices, available on iTunes and Stitcher.


Can we compare our results even if our institution wasn’t in the NCAA Tournament?

2018 March Alumni Giving Madness tournament You can find out how your alumni giving compares to your peers by requesting a Donor Comparison Report. Using data from the VSE survey, this report allows you to benchmark your alumni giving statistics and identify alumni giving trends. Request your free report here.

March (Alumni Giving) Madness 2018 – Part 1

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

We have been treated to some exciting results during the 2018 NCAA tournaments for men’s and women’s college basketball. And once again we have conducted our third March (Alumni Giving) Madness bracket—where teams fight for the championship title in our alumni giving tournament! This is the first part of our results. We’ll publish the final results at the conclusion of the men’s and women’s tournaments next week.

How does this alumni giving tournament work?

Using the 2018 Men’s and Women’s NCAA brackets, we apply a six-part methodology to determine the winner in each match-up:

  • (20%) Overall team strength: the 2017 alumni participation figure reported to the Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) Survey.
  • (20%) Upward momentum going into the tournament: the increase or decline in alumni donor count from 2016 to 2017.
  • (20%) Recruiting strength and past tournament performance: The total increase or decline in alumni donors between 2008 and 2017.
  • (25%) A strong bench of dedicated team members: The total alumni giving in dollars divided by the alumni of record over the last three fiscal years (2015-17).
  • (10%) Getting a shot (gift) off: Our team of six expert referees compare the two institutions’ online giving presence, including ease of online giving, giving day portal (if any), and crowdfunding. They grade how easy it was for an alumnus to “get a shot off” and make a gift.
  • (5%) Pure luck: Our simulator assigns a small portion of each team’s score to a random factor.

Results are based on publicly available data. The 2017 VSE Survey serves as our primary data source, with annual donor reports from school websites and alumni participation numbers submitted for the U.S. News & World Report rankings used for institutions that did not submit data to the VSE. These numbers and ratings go into our simulator, which calculates a “score” for each team and the winner of each match up.

Watch here at for the results. We’re releasing the first part of our results today and will release the final winners as the NCAA tournaments conclude next week.

From 64 to 16: First Results

2018 March Alumni Giving Tournament MadnessView the current 2018 March (Alumni Giving) Madness bracket

Some things we noticed in the first round of results:

  • There are a few upsets based on recent donor growth. While alumni participation has declined nationally, some institutions have been able to grow alumni total donors with hard work, great messaging, and coordinated communications. This allowed them to beat bigger and more established fundraising programs in the early rounds.
  • Ease of giving makes a difference. A few of our early round matches were so close that the ease of getting a gift off determined the winner . Make sure you’re looking at how easy it is to give on your online giving portal and use effective, socially-engaged giving technologies like crowdfunding and giving day portals.
  • We’re already seeing some big alumni giving. Total alumni giving dollars rose by 14.5 percent across the US last year, and some of the first-round winners won big in both giving and our tournament.

My school isn’t in the NCAA basketball tournament—can I still participate?

2018 March Alumni Giving Tournament MadnessYou can find out how your alumni giving compares to your peers by requesting a Donor Comparison Report. Using data from the VSE survey, this report allows you to benchmark your fundraising results and identify alumni giving trends. Request your free report here.

What happened in the last alumni giving tournament?

Check out the results of the 2017 March (Alumni Giving) Tournament here.

Giving Day Results: February Update

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

Since the start of the year, we’ve been watching the great giving day results of our campus partners using RNL Giving Day. As we shared last year in our report examining more than $35M in giving day results, these one-day events involve a lot of planning and great technology. They’re also true multichannel engagement efforts.

Giving days vary quite a bit with some institutions including significant leadership and major giving components. Here are four recent examples of successful giving days from RNL partners where they exceeded their goals and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Stockton University—First giving day exceeds donor goal by 28%

Click for the Stockton University giving day page – The university’s first giving day had a goal of 500 donors and had secured more than $55,000 in match and challenge gifts prior to the day.

  • Total Dollars: $101,949.00
  • Total Gifts: 643 (143 more than their goal)
  • Online Dollars: $42,350.55
  • Online Gifts: 564

“You and your team were a huge part of our success and played a vital role in providing us confidence, research and the necessary resources to launch our inaugural day of giving.” – Kelly Brennan, Assistant Director of Annual Giving, Stockton University

The University of Kansas—More than $730k and 1,900 donors

Click for the KU giving day page – KU also launched their first giving day ever, but also dealt with inclement weather that closed four of their five campuses. Despite that obstacle, their 65 matches, challenges, and leaderboards helped saved the day and produced a giving day in the high six figures:

  • Total Dollars: $734,621.00
  • Total Gifts: 1,898
  • Online Dollars: $245,584.16
  • Online Gifts: 1,522
Giving day results: University of Kansas raised more than $734,000.

The KU Giving Day raised over $734k in gifts

DePaul University—Beating a goal of 1,000 donors

Click for DePaul’s giving day page – DePaul’s fifth giving day surpassed their goal of 1,000 donors with an hour to spare.

  • Total Dollars: $70,506.16 ($120,506 with their challenge included)
  • Total Gifts: 1,034
  • Online Dollars: $46,745.88
  • Online Gifts: 723

Cleveland State University—Biggest giving day reaches $270k

Click for Cleveland State University’s giving day page – Also hosting their fifth giving day, Cleveland State engaged more donors and raised more money than ever.

  • Total Dollars: $269,332
  • Total Gifts: 2,541
  • Online Dollars: $201,806.32
  • Online Gifts: 2,356

The Cleveland State call center also exceeded their goal for the day by over $2,000. This was truly a multichannel event.

Learn strategies that lead to great giving day results

You can read more giving day statistics and find out about best practices for these record-breaking events in the RNL Giving Day Index and by listening to our webinar, Top Takeaways From $37M in Giving.

RNL Giving Day and RNL Crowdfunding offer your institution the tools to get excite your donors, engage volunteers, and harness a multichannel effort for success. Our expert team can help you take your giving day and online giving to the next level. Talk with our strategists about how you can tap into the power of online giving and write your own success story.

RNL partnerships win higher education marketing awards for fundraising

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

Winners have been announced in the 33rd Annual Educational Advertising Awards, sponsored by Higher Education Marketing Report. This year, 2,250 entries were received from more than 1,000 colleges, universities, and secondary schools from all 50 states as well as several countries.

RNL partnerships won five higher education marketing awards for fundraising campaigns:

  • Mary Baldwin University (Total Fundraising Campaign category – calendar-year-end solicitations)
  • University of Auckland (New Media category – phonathon emails)
  • University of Alaska Fairbanks (Social Media category – digital ads)
  • Montana State University (New Media category – phonathon emails)
  • The College of Saint Rose (Direct Mail category – fall direct mail solicitation)


Higher education marketing awards winner: Montana State University

Phonathon follow-up emails winner – Montana State (click for the full campaign)

Why did these campaigns win higher education marketing awards?

What made these fundraising communications great? First, it starts with the institutions sending compelling images, messages, and reasons to give to the RNL creative team. We use the best design and technology to turn these ideas and materials into compelling campaigns that make it easy for donors to respond. This includes making the giving link or button immediately visible and even driving donors to online giving from direct mail. Mail reply devices also have to be easy to complete. In today’s attention economy, institutions have tremendous competition for the time and interest of their donors. We have to get attention quickly and convert it to action.

Here are examples from our winners from these prestigious higher education marketing awards. Click on the images to see more examples from each campaign.

Higher education marketing awards winnerL College of Saint Rose

Fundraising direct mail award winner – The College of St. Rose (click for the full campaign)



Higher education marketing awards winner: University of Alaska Fairbanks

Social media digital ads award winner – University of Alaska Fairbanks (click for the full campaign)

Judges for the Educational Advertising Awards consisted of a national panel of higher education marketers, advertising creative directors, marketing and advertising professionals, and the editorial board of Higher Education Marketing Report.

These RNL client winners also show the power of multichannel outreach to donors, using a mixture traditional and digital marketing to attract the attention of their target audience whether those donors were on social media, browsing websites, or opening their mail.



Higher education marketing awards winner: University of Auckland

Mobile and web communications winner – University of Auckland (click for the full campaign)

“A very well deserved win for a beautiful piece of media. You and the team did an extraordinary job!”
– Anastasia Papadakis,
University of Auckland

Higher education marketing awards winner: Mary Baldwin University

Direct mail winner – Mary Baldwin University (Click for part 1  Click for part 2)

Are you ready to be an award winner? Contact us today

These institutions represent just a small sample of the many campuses we serve with our RNL Complete Fundraising solutions. We have plenty more examples we can share of effective and award-winning fundraising communications, as well as solutions for annual giving, crowdfunding and giving days, and major and planned giving.

If you’re ready to join this group of award-winning fundraisers, talk with our fundraising strategists. We’ll discuss your goals, challenges, and strategies for taking your fundraising to the next level. Contact us to set up a time to talk.

The future of higher education fundraising campaigns according to fundraising leaders

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

What’s working in today’s fundraising campaigns according to the leaders who oversee them?

In the past few years, we’ve seen record-setting fundraising campaigns at both public and private colleges and universities. Campaigns receiving $1 billion or more in support have become more common. How has this increase (and expectation of) historic campaign results impacted fundraisers?

We explore this question in a new report that examines trends and priorities in higher education’s largest fundraising endeavors. We combined the opinions of more than 600 fundraisers with industry trend data and observation of mega-campaigns to find out how campaigns are changing and what fundraisers are doing to better connect with donors during campaigns.

We found that the “perpetual campaign” is a reality for today’s advancement professionals. Campaign timelines are growing, and preparation for the next campaign happens right after—or even before—the current campaign completes.

We heard from fundraisers that campaigns are encompassing more types of giving than in the past, with pushes for current-use dollars and for new donors becoming more common. Fundraisers are also turning to new channels to contact donors.

This means that gift officer outreach, while still the primary method of seeking major and planned gifts, is not alone as a primary campaign activity. Fundraisers have strong interest in campaign analytics and monitoring of appeals. They also want more monitoring and enhancement of gift officer productivity.

Donor campaign fatigue, providing a strong donor experience, and engaging the entire campus are also key priorities for fundraisers. Knowing that they will return to a campaign after only a short period of stewardship means fundraisers are keen to preserve donor relationships.

Fundraisers also confess that large campaigns have an opportunity cost—other priorities may be ignored during campaigns.

Here are findings from two of the five areas we surveyed.

Perpetual fundraising campaigns are the norm

For the vast majority of fundraising leaders they are in campaign mode—either currently in a campaign or preparing for one to start one soon. Only 1 in 5 said they were not in a campaign.

Fundraising campaigns - Are you currently in a campaign with your current institution

When asked about the duration of the campaigns, from the silent phase to completion, the average response was that higher education fundraising campaigns should last five years.

Fundraising campaigns encompass more goals

We asked fundraising leaders a pair of related questions regarding their fundraising campaign experiences.

  • Which of the following goals and priorities have been part of your previous campaign experiences?
  • Which do you expect to be a part of your current or next campaign?

Here are their responses:

Fundraising campaigns - which elements are part of your campaigns

Major and planned gifts continue to dominate campaign priorities, but campaigns are now more likely to include pushes for current use, annual fund, and leadership giving, matching institutional needs for immediate-use funds.

Read more findings in our report on fundraising campaigns

The Future of Higher Education Fundraising Campaigns
Download Advancement Leaders Speak 2018: The Future of Higher Education Fundraising Campaigns, for findings and comments from fundraising leaders. As well as our recommendations for improving engagement, efficiency, and results from fundraising campaigns. Get your copy now.

And if you have any questions about fundraising strategies for campaigns, alumni engagement, digital outreach, and more, please email me and I’ll be happy to talk with you.

10 fundraising insights from our 2017 research

Follow Me

Brian Gawor

Vice President for Research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz
Brian Gawor, CFRE, is a former annual fund and major gift professional who now focuses on research and benchmarking to drive fundraising strategy. He is also a doctoral student studying higher education giving.
Follow Me

Latest posts by Brian Gawor (see all)

To help provide more fundraising insights for campuses and nonprofits, Ruffalo Noel Levitz surveyed and interviewed more than 3,000 fundraisers in 2017, and also reviewed data from millions of student records from our partners. We translated this research into the popular Advancement Leaders Speak (ALS) series of research reports, groundbreaking indexes of crowdfunding and giving day results, and action-oriented tactical white papers.

As we head into 2018, here are 10 fundraising insights from this research that can help guide your efforts.

Fundraisers need to raise more with a (little) more

In our first ALS report, we interviewed 40 chief advancement officers, and 90 percent told us that raising big dollars is the top goal at their institutions. And while budgets might be increasing a bit in the coming few years, fundraising expectations are increasing at a much higher rate. This central finding drives many of the other things we heard about through the year.

Investments are going to direct solicitation channels

It is likely that institutions will be placing more resources into major giving, planned giving, and annual giving in the next 2-3 years. Alumni outreach, marketing, and events were most likely to receive cuts. This fits the aggressive dollar goals we’re seeing in campaigns and annual metrics.

Fundraising insights: Budget shre to change

Productivity is key for major and planned giving work

Nine out of ten gift officers want to spend their time differently. And they feel like only about one-third of their assigned prospects are truly qualified to make a major or planned gift. It’s time to re-invent prospect discovery and qualification. We need to create a more productive system for gift officers and a better experience for donors.

Data-driven decision making is the new norm

More than half of the advancement leaders we surveyed indicated increased investment in data and analytics in the coming few years. Institutions have mountains of data on their donors, but many are not getting the fundraising insights out of that data that they need. Chief advancement officers told us they want to get more from these systems. Only one in four said that wealth scoring and predictive scoring they currently receive are really helpful.

It’s time to optimize traditional channels like mail and phone

“How to justify ROI” and “reaching new audiences with mail and phonathon” were common responses we heard in our surveys. In order to meet goals and preserve budget dollars, fundraisers are looking to get more from traditional channels, the way one of our campus partners did.

The digital revolution is complete, now it’s about evolution

Social media, online giving portals, and digital ads are reaching near-universal adoption. About half of fundraisers indicate that they have used targeted digital advertising in the past year, and most fundraisers say their digital tactics are successful. But few are doing advanced tracking of impact, listening to what donors do online to personalized appeals, and we heard consistently that multichannel integration is a top priority.

Giving days and crowdfunding answer “why give now.”

We published two groundbreaking new indexes this year—the RNL Crowdfunding Index and the RNL Giving Day Index— based on over $65 million in donations through our platforms. These two time-sensitive channels show why giving “right now” can make a difference, through the use of deadlines, challenges, matches, and social ambassadors. Check out the crowdfunding and giving day research to see average product and campaign totals, key best practices, and find out how these 21st century donor engagement tactics can transform your program.

“How we’ve always done it” is a losing strategy

The definition of insanity in fundraising is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. What we heard as we talked to fundraisers this year, however, is that doing the same thing over and over is starting to lead to lower results, which is even worse. We have an extraordinary opportunity in a strong economy to capture new donors, re-engage lapsed donors and ask more from loyal supporters. But it’s going to require the re-invention of fundraising.

Perpetual campaigns are the new reality

Our survey of nearly 700 fundraisers told us that 81 percent of institutions were either in or about to go into a structured fundraising campaign. How institutions capture donor interest, meet goals, and thank donors in the face of significant solicitation fatigue are going to be important.

It’s time to take donors on a personal journey

A lot of these factors add up to a key strategic leap for fundraisers. It’s time to use the data, technology and new digital tools now available to let donors take the lead. This involves engaging new tactics like marketing automation, and optimized major and planned giving support services to reach the right donor at the right time with the right message. And it means not adopting a “spray and pray” strategy with appeals in the future.

Looking for more fundraising insights? Talk with our strategists.

Take a look at our major research releases from 2017,Ask our experts for fundraising insights with a free consultation and if you’re interested in taking your fundraising program to the next level, ask for a free consultation with our fundraising strategists.

Follow us