We Went to 12 Fundraising Conferences in 12 Weeks. Here’s What We Learned.

Brian GaworVice President of ResearchMay 4, 2023
Blog on Fundraising Conferences: Image of audience listing to a presenter at a conference

The RNL fundraising experts team of Greta Daniels, Justin Marquart, Nick Herman, and Scott Kruger contributed to this blog and presented at these events with RNL partners.

It’s been a busy spring conference season in the fundraising world, and RNL has been a big part of it. Between mid-January and April, we sponsored and presented at more than a dozen conferences, including CASE events, AFP ICON, our own virtual Advancement Innovation Summit, and more. As we gathered with fundraising peers, here are some of the key themes that kept coming up.

Fundraising talent is a key priority and recruiting is now very much part of conferences

A few years back we started to notice recruiting tables at fundraising conferences, usually by major systems. It’s great to see larger systems, many that are going into campaigns, headed out find talent. It’s also a little awkward to stop at a recruiting booth when your current VP who paid for your conference registration might be right around the corner. There’s a ton of pressure, and as one recruiter put it, “We’ll hire over 100 positions this year. We have to get the word out, and fast.” Our team wonders two things:

  • Is there a better way to do this, such as a set of sessions where advancement shops share their plans with a group, so we can make career advancement a bit more strategic?
  • Is the massive turnover and need for fundraisers driven in part by the fact that we’re not giving our colleagues the right tools/platforms, data, and support? We explored that in a recent webinar, and we’ll continue to cover the topic in the coming year.

Conference attendees crave interactivity, real data, and good conversation

Blog on Fundraising Conferences: Post from Eric Billings about the CASE VIII conference
A recap of a particularly memorable Fundraising Throwdown! (See on LinkedIn.)

For this conference season, we hosted our “Fundraising Throwdown!” (a cooking show-style competition) 10 times across the country. Many thanks to the fundraising leaders of all levels of experience who joined in. In this unique session experience, fundraisers on two teams hear a fundraising scenario, then have a mere seven minutes to craft a response to that scenario. It’s an energizing exercise for sparking conversation about innovation in donor engagement. Great audience participation and creative participants made it a hit. Some of the the best moments included:

  • One team brought in an actor from the audience to make the case as an impassioned alumnus to give on giving day (they won).
  • A live mouse (actual rodent) taking its spring break by running across the stage. The team that was presenting won the round by adopting it at as their mascot.
  • In our final presentation, a young professional took on the role of president and gave a live plea for donations to support first-generation students. They won the Throwdown! by a whopping 89%, the biggest win ever.

We started on a mission to make sessions at conferences more interactive, and tackling real issues, beyond just “show and tell.” It was successful, and we heard from many people that it was a highlight.

“I’m always so happily surprised by how transparent all the universities are with each other. Readily sharing data and templates with other institutions is such a foreign concept for folks new to higher ed development . . . CASE and the like are wonderful, collaborative environments where we come together with the shared mission to improve the experiences of students, faculty partners, community members, and donors.” —Advancement Leader

Fundraising “tricks” are all the rage, and the discussion of sustainability is too

A huge debate in the fundraising world right now: premiums to give (gifts), challenges, matches, and other giving “tricks” to drive up participation numbers. These tactics are very common, incredibly successful, and still hotly debated. The big concern is whether these effective tactics build loyalty. We saw a ton of sessions that featured innovative donor acquisition tactics, along with plenty of hallway debate about them. We think the answer is to be creative but invest just as much in the future.

“Incentives for giving are powerful. They can really help identify a group that’s ready and just need a little nudge,” says RNL Senior Vice President Greta Daniels. “If it drives up your donor numbers enough to appease your leadership and they get out of your way so you can do the really important work of engaging these donors for the long term, I say go for it. Just keep the focus on the donor experience and growing an initial gift into long-term giving investment.”

“This was my first CASE conference ever, and I was in awe at the experimentation that so many schools utilized to maximize their donor outreach, solicitation, stewardship, and data analysis . . . I was very excited to bring that knowledge back so we could figure out where we could improve in both the present and the future. If I had to pick a common theme, it would be “innovation.”—Advancement Leader

Systemic, sustainable pipeline fundraising is in high demand by today’s professionals

The biggest complaint we heard at our booths and between sessions was about systems that only solve one problem or that don’t talk to the other technology in place. This is a perpetual problem in advancement work, as the shiny new thing gets attention but ends up operating in a silo and not really helping in an optimized way. We’re investing heavily in tackling these issues with integrated, omnichannel engagement platforms.

We believe that it’s all about planning for the full stream donor engagement strategy. “A la carte solutions often cause more problems than they solve,” says Scott Kruger, RNL vice president. Looking toward the lifetime donor experience is crucial, including data flows, and how solutions will integrate into your other systems, platforms, and outreach. “Comprehensive strategy is key. You need to build a systemic solution, and not just solve for one problem. Good fundraising solutions are not a buffet. You’re here to give your donors a fulfilling, Michelin-star meal.”

Find strategies that are working for fundraising leaders at our July Workshop

Here’s your chance to join 100 of your peers exploring the latest fundraising trends, insights, and innovations. Join us in Nashville for the 2023 RNL National Donor Engagement Workshop this summer. Over our day-and-a-half together, we will explore:

  • Key changes in donor preferences and motivations.
  • Technology that maximizes results and can produce 25x donor response.
  • Trends from the best giving days, and new tools to boost your big day’s success.
  • The best ways to support gift officers to amplify the leadership, major and planned gift pipeline.
  • A focus on “sustainable” fundraising, and engaging rising generations of Gen Z and Millennial givers.

Take a look at the agenda for a deeper look at the sessions, and we hope to see you in Nashville this July.

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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