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Are Giving Days Still Relevant in Higher Education?

Authors: Bob Amico, Dr. Julie Knight Ph.D., Adrian Matthys, Jeff Neal, Astria Smith, and Kellie Sullivan

Graduates tossing caps

Do Giving Days maintain their relevance in today's fundraising landscape? Let's uncover the answer through the perspectives of a panel of seasoned experts:

  • Bob Amico, Executive Director for Annual Giving & President’s Associates at the University of Oklahoma Foundation

  • Dr. Julie Knight, Ph.D., Executive Director of Annual Giving at Carnegie Mellon University

  • Adrian C. Matthys, Assistant Vice President of Annual Giving at Oklahoma State University Foundation

  • Jeff Neal, Assistant Vice President of Digital Engagement, Annual Giving & Analytics at Loyola University Chicago

  • Astria L. Smith, Assistant Vice President of Annual Giving and Alumni Relations at Southern Methodist University

  • Kellie Sullivan, CFRE, Senior Director of Annual Giving at Boston University

Evolving Giving Days: Objectives and Evolution

Giving Days have radically transformed higher education fundraising over the years. To gain insight into the evolving landscape, we turn to experts who have witnessed these changes firsthand.

Kellie Sullivan reflects on how Giving Days began as opportunities for alumni to donate. However, they have transcended their origins, resonating with a broader spectrum of participants, including students, parents, faculty, and staff donors. Kellie highlights the emphasis on participation has led to a natural increase in revenue. It's a testament to the evolving nature of these campaigns, where encouraging engagement now goes hand-in-hand with financial success.

Dr. Knight notes that Giving Days have evolved to encompass participation and revenue generation. This shift is a noticeable trend across the fundraising field, and recent developments, such as those announced by US News & World Report, are likely to amplify this dual focus further.

Bob Amico reflects on the adoption patterns within institutions, highlighting how those who pioneered Giving Days and consistently invested in them are now reaping the benefits. The ultimate goal for the most successful is securing participation and revenue. However, Bob acknowledges that resource-constrained institutions may need to make strategic choices, aligning their investments with specific objectives, whether compelling videos to drive participation or specialized training to boost major gifts.

Adrian C. Matthys delves deeper into the transformation of Giving Days. He notes their growing robustness and widespread adoption across campuses, engaging diverse stakeholders. Giving Days are no longer confined to Annual Giving but serve as vehicles for broader philanthropic divisional strategies. They empower donors to make a tangible impact on issues close to their hearts, moving beyond traditional donations to support causes like campus safety or interdisciplinary research.

Astria L. Smith

"As an industry, we may have reached a plateau in the evolutionary process of Giving Days." - Astria L. Smith

Conceived initially as grassroots initiatives to ignite collective excitement and drive mass participation, the true essence of Giving Days lies in acquiring fresh awareness, interest, and new donors. While revenue remains significant, their primary purpose is to engage and inspire a new wave of supporters for a cause.

Relevance of Giving Days Amidst Reporting Changes

In light of recent changes in US News & World Report (USN&WR) reporting, which have reduced the emphasis on alumni participation as a metric, the question arises: Do Giving Days still hold relevance for organizations?

Kellie Sullivan suggests that the reduced emphasis on alumni participation can benefit annual giving departments by allowing them to broaden their focus to include parents, friends, faculty, staff, and loyal non-alumni donors. This shift creates an opportunity to build stronger relationships with dedicated supporters. Kellie also notes that Giving Days historically appeal to diverse audiences and have effectively mobilized grassroots fundraising efforts from various university sectors, including those not exclusively targeting alumni. As a result, Giving Days remain relevant and effective in engaging a wide range of supporters, contributing to the institution's philanthropic success.

Jeff Neal underscores that Giving Days extend beyond increasing participation rates. They serve as avenues to attract substantial donations and major gifts through challenges. Despite the evolving landscape, Giving Days retains value by attracting donors motivated by a genuine philanthropic spirit toward the institution. These campaigns also provide insights into donor affinity beyond assumptions based solely on alumni status.

Dr. Knight emphasizes the continued relevance of Giving Days, as they have become a tradition for their institution. With a focus on acquiring and retaining student donors, Giving Days offers opportunities to engage a broader audience, especially in light of the changes in USNWR metrics.

Bob Amico believes that alumni participation remains relevant as an internal measure of endorsement.

"The rankings scheme may change, but the need for audience development has not." - Bob Amico

Adrian C. Matthys highlights that Giving Days serves a broader purpose than supporting a single metric. They represent philanthropic engagement at scale, touching everyone from major donors to first-time student contributors. These campaigns have become institutional traditions, going beyond transactional gimmicks.

Astria L. Smith believes the removal of alumni participation rate as a metric in US News and World Report Rankings has little effect on the future of Giving Days. Non-profit institutions – particularly universities – constantly seek creative opportunities to feature the great work within their walls. Giving Days provide a focused moment for prospective supporters to see how their small gifts impact the bigger picture. When done well, Giving Days amplify awareness, showcase impact, and generate interest and desire for their featured causes. Although the rankings have changed, the need for donor pipeline growth and management within our organizations remains more critical than ever. As the transfer of wealth in our society continues, it will be increasingly important to connect new donors with our cause, showcasing exactly how their passion might align with our mission.

Data Analytics for Optimizing Giving Day Impact

Can data analytics provide a comprehensive understanding of the impact of Giving Days and how to optimize strategy post-Giving Day?

Kellie Sullivan highlights the crucial role of data analytics in Giving Days. Analyzing and tracking various outreach efforts, from mail to digital strategies, enables organizations to allocate resources effectively. She emphasizes making data-driven decisions and integrating Giving Days into the yearlong fundraising plan to achieve institutional goals.

Jeff Neal

"WHERE the donor gives tells a story of where that person feels the most connected to the school." -Jeff Neal.

Taking that information and building an annual giving strategy around it to continue and grow their philanthropy throughout the year - outside of just a giving day - is a huge opportunity. The journey STARTS with a gift on giving day and should continue in a journey (whether it be marketing automation or manually done) for that donor throughout the year - in stewardship, content, and solicitations.

Dr. Knight

"We need data analytics to provide insights on the overall health of the giving day program as well as the unit-specific performance on giving day." - Dr. Julie Knight

This includes a range of information from basic year-to-year (TYT) comparisons to forecasting areas of future growth to immediate points that must be addressed during the remainder of the fiscal year. If a segment over-performs or underperforms on a giving day, in most cases, there are several months to pivot to the strategy. All of this starts with the data, ensuring standardization of information over time.

Bob Amico emphasizes simple analysis and reporting to participating units after Giving Day. This process helps partners recognize Giving Day's worth and often leads to increased enthusiasm for future campaigns.

Adrian C. Matthys believes understanding Giving Day behaviors through data analysis enhances donor engagement. It identifies prospects, uncovers philanthropic passions, and informs long-term relationships with donors. However, he acknowledges that the fast-paced nature of fundraising can be a challenge for comprehensive analysis.

Astria L. Smith states a successful, comprehensive analysis of Giving Day data is critical to ensuring an institution's initiative meets its specified goals. Annual giving and alumni relations professionals often equate "success" with "execution." I can't tell you how often I hear "It's over. We survived!" as the metric; this is how programs reach stagnation. As our donors evolve, proper analysis of everything from marketing strategies to donor satisfaction is critical. If not, we chase arbitrary numbers (and game the system as a result) instead of identifying impact and true outcomes. It's great that Giving Day was a "success" - what does that really mean? And how can we take those donors who were interested from one-time 'clients' to repeat, invested partners?

Shifting Engagement Strategies for Giving Days

With the heightened focus on student and alumni engagement by US News & World Report, how do you foresee a shift in engagement strategies for Giving Days?

Kellie Sullivan foresees the continued significance of on-campus engagement and student philanthropy programs, emphasizing the need for an on-campus presence and the challenge of returning to in-person activities after a digital shift during the pandemic. She highlights Giving Days's visual representation and educational value for current students to understand philanthropy's impact.

Dr. Knight anticipates an expansion of engagement efforts towards audiences that may have been overlooked, such as graduate alumni and parents, while continuing engagement with undergraduate students and alumni.

Adrian C. Matthys notes,

"Giving Days have already evolved into campaigns that are bigger than the "alumni participation" metric, and the old saw of "Giving Days are just for young alumni" has been thoroughly debunked with data showing that donors of all levels and from all generations fully participate in Giving Days." - Adrian C. Matthys

We continue to evolve by increasing the variety of giving options in our campaigns and selectively mining our campus relationships for niche constituencies that we can engage philanthropically. While we don't want our donors to suffer from "analysis paralysis" when deciding where to contribute during Giving Day, there is still an undiscovered country concerning campus programs and initiatives that can and will inspire our donor base at large.

Astria L. Smith emphasizes the importance of engaging current students in the entire Giving Day process to ensure they understand the impact of philanthropy on their lives as students.

"At SMU, our student groups are integral in the Giving Day process – from designing marketing materials to selecting the featured causes to actively making gifts and encouraging others to do the same. I feel institutions will need to lean into similar efforts, integrating the journey for students so that they realize their institution is a cause just like other nonprofit institutions." - Astria L. Smith

She highlights the integration of student efforts in the Giving Day journey and the need to get the holistic engagement experience right for students without being hindered by arbitrary metrics.

Collaborating with Student Affairs on Giving Day

How do you foresee future collaboration with colleagues in Student Affairs on Giving Day strategy?

Kellie Sullivan foresees Student Affairs continues to play a vital role in Giving Days, especially for fundraising for student clubs, organizations, and programs. Student involvement as ambassadors, fundraisers, and campaign voices is expected to persist.

"The pandemic has heightened the value of out-of-classroom opportunities, leading to a growing need for resources and philanthropy to support student experiences." - Kellie Sullivan

Dr. Knight highlights two main areas of collaboration with Student Affairs. First, aligning priority funds for students with challenge gifts focuses on specific funds. Second, engaging student organizations effectively, creating fundraising pages, providing training on donor engagement, and supporting student-led projects.

Bob Amico shares at OU, collaboration with Student Affairs involves assigning staff members to work closely with the Giving Day team. This collaboration includes segmented planning with high-impact student organizations, administering awards for top-performing groups, and planning on-campus events during the day. Bob notes that student organizations often see a significant return on their efforts in the second year of vigorous participation.

Adrian C. Matthys emphasizes the limitless potential of partnerships with Student Affairs. Student Affairs' impact on students inspires donors, making it crucial to feature their programs prominently in Giving Day campaigns.

Astria L. Smith acknowledges the tremendous partnership between student affairs and SMU development, particularly in generating financial support for student organizations during Giving Day. Collaboration with student affairs allows for identifying student needs, showcasing impact, and connecting students and donors on a grand scale. This connection energizes and inspires alumni to support students directly, making Giving Day a unique platform for such relationships.

New KPIs for the Future of Giving Days

Are there new key performance indicators (KPIs) you plan to start tracking for Giving Days that were not previously utilized?

Kellie Sullivan envisions tracking a broad range of engagement and reach metrics, both in-person and digitally. This includes tracking interactions such as clicks, reads, event attendance, volunteering, donation requests, and more. Defining and solving for various forms of engagement will evolve in the coming years as new benchmarks are established.

Jeff Neal plans to track information more aligned with challenge gifts, such as first-time donors and heightened gift bands. He also intends to focus on increasing giving through Giving Days in terms of dollars and the number of gifts per year. Additionally, he aims to grow parent and student philanthropy and athletics giving if relevant.

Dr. Knight will continue running Giving Days as part of a larger multi-ask strategy spanning the entire fiscal year. She will track how many donors use Giving Day for an additional gift, the gift amount, willingness to give to other funds, and long-term giving to additional funds. This includes monitoring whether donors who consistently give to one fund are willing to support other funds over multiple fiscal years.

Astria L. Smith suggests moving beyond traditional metrics like donors, gifts, and dollars raised. Instead, she plans to focus on metrics that provide a more comprehensive picture of success. This includes tracking how many first-time Giving Day donors make additional gifts after their initial contribution, how many donors upgrade their support over the year, and how many first-time leadership-level gifts are received. Metrics related to retention and upgrades will be crucial for determining success moving forward.

Impact of Giving Days on Donor Retention

Do Giving Days contribute to the pipeline's expansion, or do they lead to more volatile annual growth metrics characterized by greater annual donor churn than retention?

Kellie Sullivan recognizes that some gamification elements around Giving Days can cause fluctuations in donor retention but emphasizes that donor churn may also be due to Giving Day strategies.

"Strategies like introducing freemiums, premiums, and a lack of plans to renew Giving Day donors outside of the event can contribute to churn." - Kellie Sullivan

To address this, it's essential to analyze data closely and focus efforts on the right areas, including reevaluating aspects of Giving Day structure and planning for donor renewal.

Jeff Neal believes that Giving Days play a role in pipeline growth, especially when narrowing the focus and using matching/challenge gifts to elevate donors to a new level of engagement. This provides the frontline team an additional avenue to engage with donors in their portfolio. Prioritizing specific data that holds significance is crucial for a deeper understanding of outcomes.

Dr. Knight has found that Giving Days contributes to pipeline expansion, particularly after several years of consecutive events when Giving Day becomes a tradition for donors. At this stage, it supports donor retention, upgrades, and the acquisition of new donors, including students, strengthening the pipeline.

Bob Amico highlights that their Giving Day is strategically timed to support major gift solicitations, contributing to donor engagement. While acknowledging that some audiences may churn more than others, they use segmentation to address churn and may deploy other annual giving programs as needed.

Adrian C. Matthys expects Giving Day retention in post-pandemic years to be on par with overall retention rates, not anticipating significant donor churn. Adrian views pipeline expansion as a growth area, focusing on mining pipeline prospects from Giving Day donors and capitalizing on new philanthropic interests shown by current major and mid-level donors participating in Giving Days.

Astria L. Smith believes Giving Days can contribute to pipeline expansion when done correctly. The key lies in post-Giving Day actions to showcase impact appropriately. If follow-up plans are thoughtful, Giving Days can help expand the pipeline. However, without careful planning, they may lead to one-time donors who perceive the institution as a one-time project rather than an ongoing philanthropic priority.

Closing Insights: Key Considerations for Giving Days

These insights from industry leaders paint a vivid picture of Giving Days' continued impact and relevancy. Their ability to foster connections, utilize data, initiate engagement and pipeline, and encourage collaboration solidify their place in the evolving world of higher education fundraising. As we navigate the ever-changing landscape, one thing remains certain: Giving Days are here to stay, steering institutions toward a future of philanthropic success.


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Shaff Fundraising Group is a consulting firm specializing in fundraising, marketing, and analytics. We take pride in our independent approach, free from technology affiliations with SaaS and other companies. This allows us to provide objective, solutions-oriented support to our client partners and the wider fundraising and engagement community.


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