Key Insights From our 2020 Advancement Innovation Summit

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchOctober 7, 2020

Over 1,400 advancement professionals and senior leaders registered for the online RNL Advancement Innovation Summit held on September 17-18. Originally scheduled for New Orleans before the world changed and we couldn’t be together in person, we focused the two-day event on the theme of “challenging the norm in donor engagement.” Here are some key insights from the virtual conference.

2020 might be about murder hornets, but it’s also about fundraising innovation

Our panelists and guests all acknowledged that this is the craziest, most challenging year to engage donors ever, as our CEO Dr. Sumit Nijhawan discussed in his opening remarks.


The pandemic has us working remotely, finding new ways to contact donors, and unable to rely on traditional tactics (even mail) the way we used to. But we’ve seen incredible donor engagement, with record-setting campaigns, and a huge response for emergency relief. Panelists reported successful funding of immediate student needs, and even major gifts to fund social justice programs, quickly. We saw over $70M in donations on our digital giving (crowdfunding and giving days) in the first four months of the pandemic. Fundraising in the current environment is about remaining present with donors, engaging them personally, and responding with integrated technology that makes it easy and fund to give.

That’s been the push with our strategy over the past six months. From implementing remote engagement for student ambassadors at warp speed, accelerating innovation on integrated, omnichannel communications, to making it all as cost-effective as possible, we’ve been riding a whirlwind. RNL’s Josh Robertson laid out what we’ve done so far are implementing in product innovations still this year, and he was barely able to cram it all into his hour-long session. Check it out to hear what we are up to.

Watch Josh Robertson discuss the RNL Innovation Roadmap


Advancement leaders seek social justice

Advancement leaders told us that they want to be part of a more just and inclusive world. Our passionate, direct and provocative keynote speaker, Vu Le, kicked off a conversation that continued throughout the event about how we can embrace a more diverse donor base, and channel philanthropy to maximize social justice.

New technology provides a personalized donor experience

If we were making a shift to digital donor engagement before the pandemic, it’s a full on pivot right now. From adopting remote engagement technology, to driving response through texting, personalized video, and AI-based personalization, the need to engage donors when we can’t be next to them has amplified the adoption of new tactics.

We unpacked these in sessions with RNL partners about:

  • AI-driven personalization: in communications, content and events
  • P2P texting: over 1 million messages sent this year with 99% positive response
  • Crowdfunding and giving days: driving urgency, excitement and campus involvement
  • Remote engagement: retiring the “phonathon” and going omnichannel, from anywhere
  • Personalized video: putting a personal face on integrated messages
  • Maximizing the power of mobile engagement: reaching the right people, and getting past spam blockers

You can watch these sessions on-demand free.

The advancement profession is ready to get real

Let’s be honest, fundraising conferences are often a lot of “show and tell” sessions and vendor booths that ends with “okay, what does this actually mean to me?” We wanted to do something different, engaging key leaders and innovators in this challenging moment, and organizing the content around what people can do right now to challenge the norm in donor engagement.

When we proposed a conference that would be essentially “live”—happening live on the screen—some people thought we were a little crazy. Bringing 32 institutions together for live panels, case studies, and inviting people to join open, unscripted chats about real pressing topics in our fishbowl conversations just isn’t the way online conferences are being run. There’s a whole lot of pre-recording and staging. But we found that these real moments made a difference. As one attendee put it: “This is like the most insane, awesome podcast I’ve ever been part of!” We’re proud to have delivered, live, what’s on the minds of advancement professionals.

Let’s keep the conversation going

If you heard something that you’d like to try with your donor engagement at the Innovation Summit, or something in this review sparks your attention, contact us and we schedule a time to talk. We’re live with these new, tested and cost-effective technologies today, and we can share how peers are challenging the norm in donor engagement—because they have to meet rising goals in this challenging time.

Thanks for joining us at the Summit. It was an event to remember. We’re looking forward to next year when we once again challenge the norm in donor engagement, with you.

Watch sessions from the 2020 Advancement Innovation Summit

Get free access to presentations and panel discussions from campus fundraising professionals and RNL experts.

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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 25 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

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