Key Fundraising Insights From Our 2023 National Donor Engagement Workshop

Brian GaworAugust 10, 2023

A few weeks ago, we hosted the RNL National Donor Workshop in Nashville, where an incredible group of donor engagement leaders from across the country got together for 2 days of action-oriented collaboration on hot topics in the fundraising world. It was awesome, energizing, and I learned a lot.

I slept for like 18 hours, then grabbed my notes. Here are three big takeaways and some stolen slides from my time with some of the most dedicated, passionate fundraisers I know.

We have some work to do on philanthropic trust, donor decline, and the giving experience, and they’re probably all associated.

The report from Giving USA this year wasn’t great. Giving was down. We’re also in a generosity crisis, with millions fewer households giving to formal charities than in the past. CASE tells us that young alumni giving is very low, and three quarters of institutions are below their pre-pandemic donor roll totals.

Why might that be? Well, trust is just…down. Down on institutions in general, but definitely in higher education. Greta Daniels and Sarah Myksin commented on this in presentations.

And fundraisers really feel it. Like, with actual appeal response and comments from donors. Many said they’re not leading so much with brand or logo, and focusing much more on impact. That’s smart, and what we should have been doing anyway.

Some of this is a general American trend, some of it is the ongoing discussion of the efficacy of charities or the cost of higher education, but a lot of it has to do with our important role as fundraisers in showing why giving matters. Fundraisers seem to get that, and more effort is being placed on the why of giving.

A slide from Greta Daniels’ and my presentation on key trends in fundraising – for higher education fundraisers, declining trust is a factor, as show in this recent Gallup poll.

Pipeline is the new fundraising buzzword for FY24

Participation is out of US News rankings. While it already didn’t matter too much, it added fuel to a transition that was already underway toward another “p” word: Pipeline. Smart advancement shops are looking more at the path that donors are taking toward major giving, rather than just counting heads.

Fundraisers have a keen interest in developing systems that build this giving velocity, track it, and describe it. It’s about creating a more meaningful donor experience at scale, and we’re all craving the systems and tech that make it happen.

An example from sample RNL analysis in Sarah Kleeberger’s RNL360 Unpacked presentation at the RNL National Donor Workshop. Many shops are greatly under-serving their leadership prospect populations.

We heard that loud and clear and that’s where RNL is investing right now, bringing a low-friction omnichannel approach to leadership giving outreach that works right out of the box. Mid-level donors are grossly under-engaged at so many organizations, and it’s time to give them a better experience. That’s a big part of the pipeline equation.

Image: RNL’s Kathleen Howley and fundraisers from UNC-Charlotte share the success of their leadership giving pilot program from the past year.

A sustainable fundraising strategy should be inclusive, personalized, and tech-enabled

Costs are up. Donors are down in many shops. And to be blunt, as an industry, we’re doing a pretty poor job being inclusive in our outreach. That has to change if we plan to have any donors at all in a few decades.

To engage a diverse, younger, and digital donor base, we’re going to have to change. And the good news is that the ROI on this is pretty incredible, because young donors give generously to the causes that grab their passion. And they have money to give.

Engaging younger donors is crucial, as Greta Daniels and Sarah Myksin explained in their Sustainable Fundraising presentation..

There are a number of forces converging to make this an incredible time to engage a generation of digital natives. Artificial intelligence is going to make it easier to personalize just about every experience. Tech costs are coming down. We’ve all adapted to remote communications during the pandemic, and there’s no better time to bring all these tools together at scale to engage Millennial and Gen Z givers, who are the most generous and impact-driven generations in history. I’m excited. Let’s go for it.

The future of fundraising is in personalization, listening and a more purposeful, inclusive base

Based on what I heard at the workshop, I think you’ll be spending less time counting donors and more time listening to them, and more energy in personalizing their experience at scale. And you’re probably about to figure out this year how you’ll start engaging mid-level donors, and how you’ll be using artificial intelligence in your shop.

If you’re experiencing FOMO because you missed the National Workshop, drop me or my RNL pals a line. We have the decks and the notes, and we can set up a time to talk. The time is now to take action and make a difference for your FY24 plans and beyond. Donor decline is by no means a foregone conclusion, and we’ve seen organizations set records in this time of rapid change, with smart strategy.

The path to a sustainable fundraising future is in an inclusive, purposeful donor base, and technology is going to help us. Let’s get to it, fundraisers. We have some real work to do, together.

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