Before reading this article, take a little less than three minutes to view a video that explains part of the effort discussed below:
Click the following link to view the video: SSE Riga's "Let's Beat Stanford" Fundraising effort
[Update, 27 October, 2014: New York Times article about this topic, quoting Raimonds Kulbergs and me: Using Social Media to Shake Up College Fund-raising.]
'There will always be more people who want to have fun, than people who care about the cause."
This is how the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga (Latvia) introduces its approach to annual fundraising.
The business school is relatively small, new, and outside of Europe, not that well-known. Their recent "Let's Beat Stanford" effort – to increase alumni giving – took a behavioral approach to participation in financial support. SSE Riga alumnus Raimonds Kulbergs is driving this aggressive effort. Their goal was to defeat Stanford's Graduate School of Business, as measured by alumni participation in giving, since Stanford is seen as the most effective university fundraising machine in the world.
Much of what Kulbergs and his colleagues accomplished has been done elsewhere, but there are lessons in Kulbergs' approach. He created an online experience to engage people more fully than many alumni programs do. And SSE's "Let's Beat Stanford" campaign has just earned them a presitigious European advertising honor, an Effie Award. The Effies (so named because they recognize advertising effectiveness) "recognize any and all forms of marketing communication that contribute to a brand's success." SSE Riga won a Gold Effie in the "Product or Service Launch" category.
And SSE Riga wasn't competing against other annual funds. They were in a program that recognizes the advertising success of firms such as Audi, Sony, Lexus and Coca-Cola.
["There will always be more people who want to have fun,
than people who care about the cause"]
So what did they launch?
A creative way to improve fundraising results. Kulberg told me about his efforts a couple of years ago, after a dramatic rise in alumni giving, from 0% to 11% in four years. SSE then tried their new approach and leapt to 33% in the first year of Kulbergs' experimentation. I said to him at the time, "That's great, but unless you retain donors and maintain that level of support, your approach is not a viable long-term strategy."
He contacted me again recently and said "We've retained donors and we reached 35% in 2013." So I took a closer look at what they've done.
Kulbergs' common sense approach uses the basic building blocks of behavioral influence, with an emphasis on how people interact online. In Kulbergs' words, "We bet it all on the assumption that we can significantly change the giving behavior of alumni by addressing their human needs, like recognition, playing and being social."
1) SSE Riga published nostalgic photos online to remind alumni about SEE Riga, their student experience and the community of alumni.
2) They gamified the donation process with:
- competitive elements
- infographics that change in real-time to show fundraising activity
- reasonably priced naming opportunities (e.g., naming a classroom seat for 200 Euros) and
- social media integration, of course.
3) They brought it to life with a face-to-face social event at the institution.
[SSE Riga gamified the donation process with competition, infographics, naming opportunities and social media integration]
The infographics deserve a slightly closer look
They are simple, yet not often deployed on other giving sites I've seen. For example, a circle representing a graduation class grows as the total of its donations increases, relative to other class cohorts. This is just a variation on the "progress thermometer" which has been around for years, but animated online it takes on new life. Similar graphics expand nations on a map, in proportion to the giving from alumni in each country. And firms' employees can compete with fellow alumni working at their industry competitors. Finally, individuals are listed – and ranked – for their giving on separate donor honor rolls.
The campaign's creators more or less invented a school mascot (a unique creature named Hardy Rock) based on an architectural element of the institution's building. They then deployed imagery of the mascot "defeating" the mascots of universities with higher percentages of alumni giving, along the way to the top spot, occupied by Stanford. Stanford is represented here by its tree mascot, being defeated by Hardy Rock, who has laser beams coming out of his eyes – which is awesome:
But what about that goal of challenging Stanford?
In 2011, Stanford's business alumni were giving at a rate of 34% and SSE made that their goal. No European business school at the time had a participation rate anywhere near this, and SSE's own alumni were giving at 11%. But as noted above, in 2013, SSE Riga hit 35% participation – a percentage point higher than Stanford's.
Raimonds calls this a "David versus Goliath story," but I am not sure that's the case. Stanford's business school is much bigger than SSE, but a larger alumni population doesn't necessarily lead to a higher participation rate. In fact, smaller networks tend to be more densely connected, which can drive higher results than one would see in a larger population. In a small network, like SSE Riga's, any two members are more likely to know each other than in a larger network. Targeting about 1,500 alumni worldwide meant a scalable effort that didn't require a large insitutional investment in a professional fundraising operation. Stanford GSB claims 28,190 living alumni by comparison - almost 20 times as many as SSE Riga targeted with their campaign.
Another noteworthy aspect of SSE RIga's results is that it is volunteer-driven. Raimonds says,
We formed a volunteer team with experise in business, IT, and design. Alumni working at ad agency DDB volunteered some of the creative capacity for this project – making nice-looking visuals and witty text for social media. They set out to reimagine the donation process and built a platform with game elements, integrated with social media, where alumni were given control over the donation campaign, and progress was fully transparent to the alumni in real time.
I think that their "outsider" perspective allowed the volunteers to see things with fresh eyes, something hard to do when you are immersed in the traditional every day machinery most of us work with in annual giving and alumni relations.
A final lesson
This effort incorporates the building blocks of crowdfunding, which other educational institutions are adopting for small projects among their larger fundraising efforts. Without the background of a giant campaign to build endowment, or an army of gift officers securing large pledges, this crowdfunding approach becomes the core of a small institution's fundraising persona. It will be interesting to see if it drives the growth of a more traditional development office over time – a kind of reverse evolution of the fundraising office.
Incidentally, Kulbergs recognized that the tactics they employed on behalf of SSE Riga could potentially aid any institution trying to engage more people more effectively in support of alma mater. So Kulbergs and his current colleagues quit their prior fulltime jobs and created a company called Funderful. They are already working with other European institutions to bring their approach to more universities, including this simple approach for Nyenrode Business University in the Netherlands.
In case you skipped it up above, here again is the short (2 minutes 45 seconds) video about the overall approach and results from SSE Riga's award winning effort. This video is worth watching, to get a better sense of the game and social elements incorporated into the project:
Also, visit SSE RIga's Alumni Giving page: https://donate.alumni.lv