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Podcast | The Great Pivot of 2020: Lessons from Winona State University


In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic challenged nonprofit organizations to act quickly and make bold decisions to face abrupt economic and logistical changes. We’re kicking off a series of interviews with fundraising practitioners who navigated the “big pivot” with poise.

In this episode, Kim Cogswell, Director, Technology Solutions, sat down with Kayleen Berwick, Assistant Director of Annual Giving at Winona State University, to discuss how the institution adapted their giving program to increase philanthropy despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connect with Kim: www.linkedin.com/in/kim-cogswell-14b03242/
Connect with Kayleen: www.linkedin.com/in/k-n-berwick/

Pursuant’s GivingDNA Platform can empower your organization to make bold, confident, data-driven decisions. Visit gdna.pursuant.com to learn more.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Tell us about your role at Winona State University 

I manage our calendar of annual appeals and other annual giving projects, including our athletics club membership drive and other fundraising projects, grant funding, digital initiatives, communications, stewardship, all the different components of annual giving that feed into our fundraising here. I also do some arts administration on campus, and on the side, I work with local arts organizations doing volunteer recruitment and retention and personnel management, event management, et cetera.

How long have you been in fundraising? 

I started my career as a student fundraiser in our phone-a-thon call center program, so it was a natural transition into a phone-a-thon coordinator position for the first couple of years. I’ve been in an annual giving coordinator position for about a year and a half and another about half a year in this assistant director role.

When you look at the industry as a whole, what would you say are the biggest challenges facing fundraisers in 2021?

With higher ed, in particular, my experience has been that one of our biggest struggles is recruiting those new donors and getting young alumni to give. That’s not necessarily specific to 2021, but I think if you add the sprinkle of all the fun we’ve been having this past year, it makes it more difficult to address how do we do that well? What kinds of ways are we strategizing that? What kind of messaging? What’s the theme of our messages? What is the language that we’re using? What are we spinning? What’s our case for support, essentially, and what channels are we using? How are we reaching individuals with these messages?

Did you try some new tactics in the last year to zero in on those young alumni?

We did. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we also eliminated our phone-a-thon program. It’s been a year with a lot of pivoting and adapting. We added another appeal to our calendar, which increased our appeal count from three to four, with a fall appeal explicitly geared to those former call center donors and a segment of futures. These were future donors and never donors. 

We tailored all of our messaging and personalized everything to the individual based on their experience and affinities with the institution. What college did they graduate from, what extracurricular activities were they involved in, and where had they given before, if they had given to the institution before?

It was a really big data sort and analysis project that thematically coded all three of those different factors of their relationship with the institution and had seven different messaging buckets. Based on which categories those three items fell into, we matched a bucket of the messaging with it as it was applicable. 

There were three panels on the printed piece, and we plugged in whatever correlated with the individual’s information. That ended up being an astounding success, generated over $17,000, which was more than we’ve had a mailing raise in quite a few years. 

We also prefaced this solicitation with an email letter to donors from our office letting them know, “We closed our call center. You won’t be hearing from the students anymore, but keep your eyes out for emails and mailings. We’ll stay in touch and share messages from students throughout the year in other ways.”

Tell me a little more about the segmenting you did. You said you had three different buckets for your audiences.

Yes. It was quite an adventure this fall. I remember I had everything ready to go at the start of the school year with our COVID relief projects, the food cupboard on campus, student emergency relief, and international student relief specifically. Then, leadership decided that there wasn’t an astounding need for that being expressed by our student body. So we pivoted our messaging to focus on some other needs that the institution had and was facing at the time. 

What were some of those needs?

We returned to expressing a lot of our regular university needs, institutional needs. We looked at what do each of the colleges need? What are they working on? What are their messages that they’re trying to promote? What are they doing with their students now? What kinds of experiences are they working to provide for their students, whether they are on campus, for the few that could be on campus, and digitally for the ones that aren’t on campus? 

We promoted a lot of what each of the individual colleges was doing, plus athletics and student life and development, scholarship giving, and a general annual fund, a sustaining fund kind of message.

 We had all of those messages drafted, just a few sentences for each, and then each individual received a mailing with three pockets. Those pockets were filled based on what college the alumnus graduated from and the extracurricular activities they were involved in. If they were involved in athletics, they got a little athletics box there. If they were in the music department or involved with science or the arts, they would have that college bucket plugged in and where they had given before. 

Many people had given to scholarship funds previously, so they were plugged in with the scholarship-specific message. Then individuals that had never given were plugged in with the general sustaining fund message.

It sounds like you tried to understand who the people were.

I think that personalizing our messaging is important. It makes the experience tailored to the individual, and I think the more we can do that, the more likely they are to respond.

So, when you think about new donors acquired in 2020, how did that look for you? Did you see an influx?

We did have a lot of renewed donors. Donors who had lapsed over several years came back, and they reactivated through that appeal in the fall, which made up for closing the call center. We reached out to former call center donors, reaching back to FY ’15, FY ’16. We went back several years and were able to recapture donors who were regularly giving, had given once or twice through that phone channel, and captured them in new ways via email and via the mailing.

You mentioned that your initial outreach around the student emergency fund, the food pantry, and some of the things that seemed imminent didn’t match what your university needed. 

Yes. We focused a significant portion of our fundraising efforts on emergency needs in the spring of 2020 and over the summer. By the time we were ready to transition into our fall projects, we had realized that many students were not expressing those needs in those ways through those avenues. So we shifted to meet more institutional needs.

When you look back over the year, what was your most significant learning?

The biggest learning is to be adaptable, which I think everybody has been saying, and we’re probably all sick of hearing it. We’re all getting tired of having to try something new and do something new and keep thinking of new things. But the best way to keep moving forward is to keep seeing what works and trying new things. If it doesn’t stick, it doesn’t stick. Move on and try something else. If it sticks, try and find a way that you can work it into your regular plans so that it becomes a process and it becomes repeatable, and it becomes easier to integrate into what you’re already doing, as opposed to making it this whole new effort every single time.

The pre-solicitation message that went out in advance of that fall appeal resulted in some gifts, so we decided to integrate that into the rest of our appeal planning for the year. That’s been an easy way to capture some donors before the mailing goes out, saving us a few cents here and there. Then working with video messages and tried different things there, working with students, working with other staff or internal messages, external messages, trying different things, and seeing how that resonates and how that sticks. What are people more likely to open and click-through versus what are they not?

We’re looking at increasing our analytics to see what’s working and what’s not working. We’re also looking at social media marketing and ads and how to convert individuals that way. And if not convert them, at least increase the repetition and visualization to get in front of them more times for more exposure. We’re doing a lot of exploring this year. In an age where everything was changing so fast and so often, and then last year hit and everything changed so drastically, I think it’s important to stay open to new things and then keep trying something new.

As you think about your young alumni, what is your perspective on building a culture of philanthropy with that group? A lot of people are researching how to connect with them.

I did my master’s thesis on student engagement in philanthropy because I had the same experience as a student. I didn’t know anything about the foundation, aside from my involvement with the call center. Had I not been involved with the call center, I wouldn’t have known anything. I did my research project a couple of years ago now on that topic, just talking with my student fundraisers about their experience and how it shaped their perspective on giving as alumni down the road. 

There isn’t a big culture of philanthropy here at this institution. It isn’t easy to see that among our students. I think at a lot of public institutions, it’s difficult because there’s a perception that it’s a state school, the state funds it, but we all know that’s not exactly the case. It’s hard to communicate that in public institutions. It’s a little bit harder to get that message across and get that in front of our students.

Our marketing and communications team gears their messaging heavily to current students and prospective students in our institution. One of our social media projects is to engage more collaboratively with that office across the hall and get in front of the student audiences more prominently because we know many of our young alumni connected online with the institution through those channels. So that’s where a lot of our young alumni exist as well. We are trying to partner with the marketing team to share philanthropy messages on campus and what philanthropic activity looks like. 

What have our donors done for the institution and students? How do their gifts show up every day on campus? We want to share more informational messages and increase awareness to see successful solicitations down the road.

Are there other channels through which young alumni engage? Do you have text giving? 

Not yet. We haven’t been able to find a suitable text-giving platform and make sure we have the integrity in our database to make that successful yet. We have done giving days in the past. We’re taking a year off to strategize how we approach our giving days. However, we saw many new donors and younger donors come in through those efforts. They were successful where there was support from the faculty and the units on campus. It’s vital to have that ground-level, grassroots support because where we saw more engagement on that side was where we saw more success with the young alumni and more donors and more dollars raised, frankly.

That’s why we’re taking a step back this year. We’re taking a break to look at how to increase that grassroots support in other areas on campus. We also want to make sure that we have buy-in and support from leadership, the departments, and other stakeholders to ensure that the efforts are as successful as they can be and that the departments and the units are getting the support that they need.

Was there anything else that you learned in your research or that you’re thinking about testing with that particular group of young alumni? Any messages or causes that emotionally with them?

Use the information you have to understand your donors’ and constituents’ experiences, perspectives, and their affiliation with your institution. Knowing this affinity helps you build a strong case for personalized support to their experience like we did this fall. We only have so much data available to us, so the more data we can capture about our students and what they’re doing here, the better position we are in to speak to their experiences. 

If we know an alumnus was involved with the music department and they have a degree in biology, we are more likely to reach them with messages that matter to them. It’s a perfect blend of data management and analytics, personalization, and finding the best channels to increase awareness earlier on. It all plays together.