Holly Palmer is one of the leading figures in the world of alumni, donor and volunteer research. Her mission is to bring these audiences closer to education institutions through two-way dialog and excellent supporter care. Since founding Holly Palmer Consulting in 2016, she has presented at industry conferences on topics including creating a relationship fundraising culture, how to improve donor retention and how to design a meaningful alumni research study.

In this blog, she draws upon her latest Higher Education Donor Experience Research Project to identify some UK colleges doing good work in donor engagement.

When I first joined higher education development in 2011, my job description consisted of a list of tasks. As a donor relations professional for a big college, my role was to write and send thank you letters, update names in the honor roll, and produce the donor newsletter.

No one asked me to think about whether those were the best ways of meeting the needs of our donors, nor was I asked to measure my performance based on their feedback (although I soon set about doing both of those things).

Happily, times are changing in higher education development. More institutions are choosing to question ‘the way we’ve always done things’ and development professionals are challenging themselves to put their audiences at the heart of what they do, embracing the concept of the donor experience just as the private sector has recognized the value in the customer experience for at least the last decade.

I saw this growing interest in audience experiences reflected in our sector conference programs last year. The phrase ‘supporter experience’ (covering the experience of higher education donors, volunteers and advocates) came up several times in presentations at the CASE Development Services conference, as well as the CASE Stewardship and Donor Relations conference in 2018. The Institute of Fundraising also held a one-day summit last year on supporter journeys, covering the same kinds of concepts, strategies and techniques for a wider fundraising audience.

While there is no magic formula for what constitutes a good donor experience in higher education (and the pursuit of something that works for all audiences and institutions is a fool’s errand!), there are commonalities between how more donor-focused institutions think about and interact with their audiences.

More donor-focused institutions in the UK are:

1.   Considering how they can adapt their roles and operating structures to focus on the donor’s complete experience.

The word ‘experience’ is creeping into development job titles at colleges such as the University of York and the University of Westminster, a good indicator that the way we view our responsibilities is broadening.

Other institutions are making big changes to how they operate, like University College London, who established an Alumni & Supporter Care team to look after alumni and donors and to be a first point of contact for all those interacting with their Advancement Office.

2.   Talking to their donors more than ever.

We discovered in 2016 that Loughborough University has been calling their legacy giving enquirers to talk about their connection to the college, acknowledging that the database doesn’t hold all the answers when it comes to understanding donor needs.

Similarly, the University of Nottingham began calling their first-time donors for a welcome and thank-you chat in 2017. Listening to their stories and motivations, they’ve spotted ways to involve donors further in the cause and make their communications with donors more relevant.

3.   Creating new success measures based on audience research.

78% of the respondents to our sector-wide survey said they had conducted audience research at their institution in the last 2 years, and 41% had run a focus group specifically. Most respondents who measure the donor experience told us they do so through some form of audience feedback.

Comprehensive research studies, particularly mixed-methodology and qualitative, appear to be on the rise at larger institutions, such as the University of Manchester, the University of Bristol, and the University of Nottingham, who each commissioned professional studies in 2018.

Rather than running an alumni census-style survey to gather updated contact details, research studies in our sector are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with the expectation they’ll deliver real insight that gets used.

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