3 Key Lessons for Fundraisers From the RNL Advancement Innovation Summit

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchOctober 7, 2021

Over 1,000 fundraisers signed up to join us in Virtual Italy at this year’s RNL Advancement Innovation Summit. The event included some incredible keynotes, action-oriented sessions featuring insights from over 20 institutions, and a virtual tour through Roman ruins as well as a pasta-making session with an 84-year old Italian grandma. Here are some key things I heard during the event.

Innovation is no longer an option in higher education fundraising.

In the past years, we’ve all had to adapt. Reaching donors when we can’t be next to each other in the same way has caused us to think critically about how we engage donors. Sure, we’re doing more with virtual events and texting, and giving days and crowdfunding are at near-univesral adoption. But it’s about more than the newest shiny tech. There’s a growing interest by donors to give “through” an institution to impact change, not just “to” an institution to make budgets. Things are changing.

The discussion has also moved past “let’s do more digital” to now be about how our communications integrate, how we can provide the best donor experience with tight resources, and how we can adopt technology that improves the donor experience (and isn’t just another burden to us).

Doc Hendley, Founder, Wine to Water

Doc Hendley, founder of Wine to Water, gave an emotional keynote that challenged us to think differently about how we engage changemakers to fuel our mission.

Silos like “annual giving,” “leadership,” “major gifts,” and “digital” are over.

It’s about integrating a robust menu of giving opportunities into a personalized communication flow that engages donors. If you are operating in silos, you’re creating a mediocre donor experience.

Over three-quarters of our major givers make annual gifts with consistency before they make a big investment. It’s never been about just annual giving—a pipeline of engaged donors is key. To build that pipeline, our appeals need to be integrated across direct mail, calling, and digital engagement if they are going to get donor attention today. If you’ve got different teams running these appeals that don’t talk to each other, or the tech isn’t integrated to share data across these “silos,” you’re missing an opportunity.

Angela Jarvis from the University of Memphis describes how integrated donor engagement through RNL Engage impacts the donor experience.

Engagement is the strategy for fundraising success.

How’s your young alumni giving? Would you like to see young alumni donors grow by 54 percent and bring in millions in gifts? That’s what the five institutions that were part of the Schuler Education Foundation Young Alumni Initiative achieved, even in the middle of the pandemic. These remarkable results come from listening to young alumni (with great, actionable surveying), working with volunteers, and thinking about the giving experience differently to offer opportunities that truly resonate with young alumni.

Engagement was a key theme throughout the Summit, from great insights on how to work with student and volunteer ambassadors, to a report from Dr. Nathan Dietz about the intersection of volunteering, giving, and civic engagement. The donor “experience” is everything today.

You still have a chance to get great fundraising insights, free and on demand

All the content from the 2021 Advancement Innovation Summit is available on demand, at no cost. Check out some of these great sessions, and when you see something you’d like to use to transform your donor engagement, drop us a line.

RNL will continue to explore how we can transform donor engagement at our one-day, in-person regional workshops in Chicago, Las Vegas, New York, and Atlanta in the coming months. Learn more and register for the Chicago workshop.

2021 RNL Virtual Advancement Innovation Summit

Watch every session from the the 2021 RNL Advancement Innovation Summit free. Topics include:

  • Digital engagement and digital giving
  • Alumni and donor engagement
  • Remote management of fundraising operations
  • Strategic optimization of donor engagement channels


About the Author

Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor’s focus is research and strategy to help propel both alumni engagement and fundraising results of RNL clients. Brian has 20 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

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