fundraising

RNL Experts Chat: Human Intelligence Is a Core RNL Donor Engagement Success Tool

Brian Gawor

Vice President of Research

February 5, 2020

Every week, senior leaders at RNL come together and review our donor engagement programs to see what’s working, where we can do better, and how we can help our clients meet their goals.

And by senior, I mean at the highest level: The group includes Al Ruffalo, founder of RNL and board member, and co-founders Brian Donnelly and Joe Cunningham. They’ve done these sessions for nearly 30 years and have seen just about everything, and they focus on a few programs in high detail each week, discovering where we can be doing better for our partners.

After one of their recent Campus Partner Review sessions, I got Al, Brian, and Joe on the line to tell me about what happens in these high energy, action-oriented strategy sessions. Here’s the interview.

Joe Cunningham, Brian Donnelly, Al Ruffalo
L-R: Joe Cunningham, Brian Donnelly, Al Ruffalo

Brian Gawor: Thanks for finding a few minutes, guys. I know you’ve just finished up reviewing results, strategy, and tactics with some of our RNL donor engagement partners. What’s the point of these sessions, and what are they like?

Al Ruffalo: We’ve done these from Day 1 in the company, and they’re really important. We take “historical ownership” as I like to say, we review the goals, where we’ve been, where we are going, and how we doing on meeting those goals. We look at a lot of stats, key information. We’re looking for where there may be an opportunity to improve.

BG: Do some things seem to resonate across multiple institutions?

Al: Definitely. For example, one thing we’ve discovered is that about 20-30 percent of our partners don’t have robust parent campaigns. And these campaigns are very positive, both from immediate ROI and the expectations that parents have of communication from their student’s college.

BG: Right, as we’ve reported recently, parent fundraising has exploded over the last decade, and the average institution raises over $1M a year from parents. That engagement is very important.

Al: We find that the top reason they don’t reach out to a group like parents is an inability to retrieve the data. Internal blocks, or they’ve just never really tried. So we make sure that our on-site team, our program managers, can help make sure each institution is putting their best foot forward to grow the group they are communicating with.

Brian Donnelly and Al Ruffalo
Brian Donnelly (left) and Al Ruffalo

BG: This is about more than just phone, right?

Brian Donnelly: Definitely. We’re looking at key statistics, like pledge and response rates, as well as output-per-hour-spent. We’re also looking at the big picture like how crowdfunding and giving days fit into the plan. Social media versus direct mail, things like that. It’s about how we can maximize results in the most cost-effective way.

BG: What are you looking at?

Brian: We ask questions like, what have our RNL team’s challenges been, and have we met them? One thing we find is that in some programs our team on the ground might not be talking with senior leadership at the institution about the strategy. We get them to the right senior resources at RNL to make those connections. When you work with us, you’re getting an entire company of experts, and we make sure they are being leveraged at each program and across the institution.

Joe Cunningham: I’ll put on my finance hat here. Our clients’ success is the future of our company. We need to make sure that their programs are doing well. That’s how RNL does well.

Al: That’s right. It’s more than just keeping our partners happy. We have to make sure they’re not only satisfied, but that they also have high return on investment. When we started back in 1991, ROI was never discussed very heavily, but budgets are getting tighter and tighter and we have more data to evaluate. It’s important now.

Joe: As Brian said earlier, it’s important to look at all aspects of what we’re doing with a partner. If you just look at one piece, you’re not seeing the full impact, but when you combine all the efforts, and how they work together, the ROI is very high. The RNL team helps communicate that so the advancement shop knows what they’re getting in total.

Al: We started this company with just a few channels. RNL now offer so many ways to engage with alumni and donors. Digital communications, crowdfunding, giving days, social media, new technologies like visual caller ID and personalized videos to donors. This positions RNL as a comprehensive fundraising engagement provider. We help you raise money.

Brian: And of course, there are all the analytics that go with this now as well. We have a ton of data on these engagement programs.

BG: That’s a good transition. Some of these programs are our most innovative. They are using brand new technology, like our predictive modeling, new contact channels, things they’ve never done before. How do you know if they are doing well?

Al: From my perspective, it hasn’t changed. First we determine with the partner what the goals are. Is it contact, is it dollars, is it impressions to the donor base? We have a ton of historical data on these channels and we need to say: what did we anticipate what the results will be, and how does it look right now, even in the first 30 days? And do we need to make corrections or innovate to get there if we don’t see results right away.

Joe: We use our historical data to set benchmarks and then evaluate the program to see where we can improve.

Brian: This is a big part of the value of working with us. We sit on a lot of information as a company. We make sure it gets out through our operations directors on campus.

Joe: It’s also about what we can learn. We had a client join one of the calls, and they were impressed that we were sharing, that we were bringing in the founders and owners and making this commitment.

BG: That’s great. One thing that’s causing buzz in the fundraising community right now is artificial intelligence. We’re even employing it here at RNL. Fundraisers are worried that they will be out of a job. What do you say to that?

Al: Human intelligence is important because we are humans. For example, we used to do a whole lot of dialing to landlines. Now we’re contacting mobile devices. Different technologies, but we’re constantly building a relationship with our constituents, who are in transition all the time. From prospective students, to students, alumni, parents, if we ignore the fact that they want to talk to someone personally, if you ignore the fact that they want to talk to real humans as they are making their annual gift, their major gifts, committing to a planned gift, you’re fooling yourself. You have to make a personal touch. If we forget who our constituents are then we are in trouble.

Brian: Artificial intelligence can be used in addition to human contact. It can enhance human contact. That’s the path we are going down. All of this data and technology help boost personal interaction.

Joe: I totally agree. From an advancement standpoint, this is a very exciting time. We have so many opportunities to connect with people personally.

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

Read more about Brian's experience and expertise

Reach Brian by e-mail at Brian.Gawor@RuffaloNL.com.


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