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    By Brittany N. Shaff, bCRE, CFRE • March 31, 2022

    The Digital Transformation: Reimagining Major Gifts

    This blog was originally written and contributed posted by our friends at Graduway. You can find the original here.

    As fundraisers, a common refrain we hear from our Vice Presidents, academic and program leadership, trustees, and others is: “We need to find new donors. We’re too reliant on [insert top donor names].”

    While it’s easy to cross your arms and think, “Well, that contradicts our approach strategy” or “Other organizations have more capacity,” at the end of the day we know that our efforts tend to focus on top donors for the simple reason that their names appear everywhere. We see them when we do our pipeline reviews, when we promote leadership events featuring their names, and on our campaign steering committees.


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    More and more organizations, including those in higher education, are relying on a dwindling number of donors to achieve continuously increasing revenue targets. Building a set of strategies to expand your pipeline is not just good business, it’s essential for staff retention and risk mitigation for your program. Clearly, our focus can’t solely center around top donors.

    But what would happen if your most generous donors stopped supporting your program?

    Rather than lacking prospective donors, most organizations lack a plan to forestall the negative impact of one or two top donors discontinuing their support. That’s why it’s essential to broaden the major gifts pipeline through strategies that help accelerate fundraising results while also minimizing the impact of the potential loss of key donors.

    What Data Are You Reviewing? And What Data Have You Overlooked?

    It is easy to say, “review philanthropic capacity, last gift amount, the likelihood to give, and revamp your portfolio structure”. I can practically hear you all thinking right now: “Yeah, easier said than done!”

    Looking at these indicators is a worthwhile and traditional process. But what’s often overlooked is current engagement metrics, as well as the actual content gift officers use to connect with donors and prospects.

    Let’s start with engagement, which comes in many shapes and sizes; and giving is a common form of engagement. The ultimate goal should be to determine how to generate meaningful and measurable engagement that spurs future donations and a greater return on investment.

    When we look at Graduway partners around the world and across higher education, nonprofits, and independent schools, we see that those with an active engagement platform are nearly three times (3x) more likely to donate in a given fiscal year. Looking at engagement in terms of lifetime giving, rather than a fiscal year, 74% of alumni who participate in an engagement platform become donors in their lifetime. 

    While there are various types of engagement—events, communication, mentorship, volunteerism, etc.—those who indicate broadly that they are “willing to help” within an engagement platform have a 70% likelihood to become donors.

    Personalized Gift Officer Content: How Much Money Are You Leaving On The Table?

    Anyone working in communication, marketing, donor relations, or annual giving will tell you: providing personal content at scale boosts both engagement and donation conversions. 

    So what goes into a great annual giving ask? 

    For an email solicitation, we focus on: 

    • Personalized subject lines
    • Personalized biographical data
    • Matching fund designations to current or past interests
    • Ask arrays
    • Immediate stewardship 

    These all represent personalized messaging done at scale. 

    Why do annual giving teams focus so much on these? Simply put, personalization leads to: 

    • Lower bounce rates
    • Higher open rates
    • Higher unique click-through
    • Higher click-to-open rates

    All these metrics point directly to what we all want to see: higher donation conversion rates.

    If we know that personalized messaging at scale for donors and prospects shows success in annual giving, donor relations, communications, and marketing, why have we historically not applied these same principles to mid-level, major, or principal giving?

    The traditional gift officer approach is evolving. Non-profits, health care, universities, and independent schools that are part of the Graduway network have already begun to use personalized messaging at scale for donors and prospects within primary and auxiliary portfolios.

    Similar to how engagement correlates to donations above, personalized messaging at scale for gift officers leads to vastly higher dollars and donors secured than traditional methods. Users are seeing an increase in moves management processes, higher disqualification efforts, more impactful donor relations activities, a larger amount of dollars raised, and a greater number of donors secured.

    One of the largest opportunities for many of us is Leadership Annual Giving. Using personalized messaging for each recipient—recognizing their location, behavior, interests, and more—one Graduway partner recently raised over $7.2 million and secured over 5,700 gifts. And of the 5,700 gifts secured, an impressive 75% were from new donors. 

    This approach isn’t just how you create meaningful engagement, it’s how you find new donors and become less reliant on your current major or principal donors, all while expanding your pool of highly engaged constituents.

    Reward Qualification Work

    Your top donors likely didn’t become your top donors overnight. Years of cultivation and stewardship from multiple gift officers and various other team members is almost certainly responsible for this achievement. Remember: your team will put effort into work that rewards them. 

    Creating annual metrics and goals for disqualification work, using current engagement data in your communication, and tracking the number of new visits—or even the number of new conversations—will not only help increase your base of support and pipeline, but it will also keep your gift officers and teams motivated.

    Key Takeaways

    We know that meaningful engagement and personal messaging lead to more engagement and philanthropic support. This approach builds a larger pipeline, diversifies portfolios, and creates more major and principal donors. 

    We often talk about philanthropy as creating a lasting impact, but I wonder: Will organizations that continue to approach fundraising without personal messaging and real-time engagement data at scale be able to secure more dollars, more donors, and grow their major gift donor size?

    What will be the lasting impact of organizations that don’t evolve?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts, 

    Brittany N. Shaff, bCRE, CFRE
    Global VP, Fundraising Graduway

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