Achieving success in today’s higher education fundraising environment

Chris Bingley

Senior Vice President

February 2, 2016

I have spent my career in higher education fundraising in both on-campus leadership positions as well as serving as an external fundraising strategist working with many different kinds of colleges and universities—a role which I have returned to with Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Having been in both worlds, I know the challenges colleges and universities face in meeting their fundraising goals in this competitive and changing environment.

Starting my new role with Ruffalo Noel Levitz provided an opportunity to reach out to my colleagues in higher education—presidents, vice presidents (advancement, enrollment, alumni), principal gift officers, and others, to discuss the challenges they face. In those discussions I’ve asked key questions around their perceptions of advancement today and the most pressing issues they need to solve. Summarizing those reflections, I heard a need for solutions for:

  • Major gift pipeline development and gift officer performance.
  • Countering declining alumni donor counts.
  • Connecting with and engaging Millennials.
  • Competing in a busy philanthropic market.
  • Using data insights and market research effectively.
  • Engaging alumni and the community in an individually appealing way.
  • Managing the outreach channels with a focus on digital.

Those discussions coupled with my higher education fundraising work at Ruffalo Noel Levitz as well as the University of Idaho, Washington State University, and Gonzaga University have helped me clarify my goals and priorities. We need to think differently about the work to be done if we are to succeed in a challenging market.

Five key ways I am helping institutions achieve their goals for higher education fundraising

As I return to working more closely with a variety of campuses, I have identified five key ways that I want to help guide these colleges and universities toward success in an uncertain environment:

  1. Find new ways for universities to compete and create compelling cases for their alumni to give back. There is competition for philanthropic dollars and we need to compete with compelling cases that meet donor’s expectations and enhance their experience.
  2. The impact that colleges and universities make on our world is too important to accept declines as “the way it is” —we have to expand the discussion around current challenges we are most worried about and collectively create new innovations to overcome them.
  3. Challenge our current thinking about best practice around channels, analysis, data, and perspectives on the future for higher education fundraising. This means not just embracing new ways to engage donors, but incorporating those methods into the channels and strategies that remain highly effective.
  4. Proceed boldly in new directions with technology and embrace proven business practices—perhaps taking a page or two from the playbooks of the most successful in marketing, sales, and business development. Like any industry, we have to keep innovating in higher education fundraising if we wish to keep progressing. Finding new ways to leverage technology and forward-thinking strategies can help us meet the growing expectations of donors in ways that balance the need for personal outreach and communication while being efficient and effective with our resources. .
  5. Establish continuous, long-term productivity and success in major gift pipelines through strategies and applications of the best combination of philanthropy and business practices.

With these priorities in mind, I know we can develop solutions and optimize existing approaches so that we strengthen outcomes, expand reach, and build new approaches to our work.

Finally, many of the colleagues I heard from share that as the stakes are high, the pressure is on to improve on the next mailing, event, visit, or campaign. We are by nature very mission-driven and committed to reaching our goals and pushing the institutions we serve to new heights. That can sometimes make us too reluctant to seek expertise, resources, or just a different perspective that can help us go beyond the way we have always done things to finding new roads to success. Keep in mind that many of the most successful and beloved organizations in our society share their achievements with many trusted partners who play a pivotal role in their forward progress.

As someone who has been in your shoes on campus and has worked closely with institutions like yours, colleges and universities that face the same problems you do, I want to be part of that formula and future in this opportunity. In fact, that is why I have returned to Ruffalo Noel Levitz, so that I can help many more institutions achieve their fundraising goals in such an uncertain environment.

So I encourage you to both challenge yourself to make the changes that today’s higher education fundraising environment requires, while also allowing yourself the right to realize this is a new world that requires new thinking. And if you want to discuss strategies and innovations, or just chat about the strange dichotomy of the satisfaction we take from what we do coupled with the stress it can induce, I’m always happy to connect, as are my colleagues here at Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

Email me and let’s exchange ideas so we can better serve our organizations and fulfill the mission of higher education philanthropy.

About the Author

Chris Bingley offers 15 years of experience in higher education fundraising. His expertise runs the full spectrum of fundraising management, including annual giving, stewardship, alumni relations, planned giving, and public relations. Previous higher education experience Mr. Bingley...

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