Have times ever been better for advancement in higher education? Stanford University recently wrapped up a $6.23 billion campaign. Princeton’s Aspire Campaign raised $1.88 billion. At Cornell, in the midst of the $4.75 billion Cornell Now campaign, we have just completed the most successful year of fundraising in the university’s history.
But an undercurrent of anxiety runs through higher education; the world is changing rapidly in ways that may make the status quo unsustainable. Can an advancement organization position itself to succeed in an ambiguous future? Cornell’s Division of Alumni Affairs and Development (AA&D) recently embarked on an experiment that we called the Skunkworks, in recognition of the history and spirit of Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs organization.
Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Charlie Phlegar convened the Skunkworks in Spring 2011. The group included 14 staff from across the Advancement Office – from Major Gifts to Advancement Services; veterans mixed with newcomers. Our charge? Take a broad look at the challenges, opportunities, and trends that will influence institutional advancement in higher education over the next twenty years. We were given complete freedom to explore in whatever manner we chose.
The group met regularly for a full year. Members took turns leading discussions on many topics, such as:
- The Digital Life of Alumni
- Rethinking the Endowment
- Storytelling and the Institutional Website
- Crowdfunding and Microfinance
- Young Alumni Giving
- The Psychology of Happiness in Fundraising, and
- Women and Philanthropy
By the end of the year, our conversations revolved around three main themes.
1. Increasing competition for the
attention of our audience.
It is more difficult to connect our audience to Cornell meaningfully. There is rising competition from other non-profits, rapid and dramatic change in communications, and an imbalance between sharing our message and listening to our audience.
2. Changes in the philanthropic environment.
The demographics and behaviors of our audience are making traditional programs and approaches less effective. For instance, women are assuming a greater leadership role in philanthropic decisions. Different generations display different attitudes towards giving. Direct mail and phonathons will become less effective as technology and habits change. Keeping accurate contact information for alumni has always been a challenge, and will get harder as people abandon land line phones and answer fewer calls, thanks to caller ID and mobile technologies.
3. Organizational agility.
Traditional fundraising and engagement programs have served our institution well over the years, and we are organized to sustain and improve them deliberately and incrementally. However, the world is changing so fast that this deliberate pace is no longer as effective, especially with competition from the “new and nimble” non-profits that are making inroads into our audience and threatening our donor pipeline.
Overall, we concluded that broad one-size-fits-all fundraising, engagement, and communications strategies will become less and less effective. We need to focus on user experience, personalizing and customizing interactions in ways that meet the audience expectations shaped by companies like Amazon and organizations such as Kiva.org. We must also segment our audience beyond their giving history, and account for generational differences, gender, ethnicity, and other variables that may affect capacity and inclination to engage.
And changing the way that we think about our audience is only one piece of the puzzle. Equally important is adopting an experimental mindset. The only way you will know if something works is to test it. Some experiments will fail and that’s ok, because that’s how you learn. Organizational culture must evolve toward pilot projects and rigorous data analysis, and away from the risk aversion and conservatism that characterizes so much of higher ed advancement.
Our final report to the Vice President recommended a list of pilot projects designed to test specific hypotheses that emerged from our discussion. Among them are experiments with crowdfunding, developing advancement strategies focused on professional cohorts of female alumni, gamification, and enhanced presentation skills training for faculty, senior administrators, and advancement officers. The organization has already incorporated elements of these into broader efforts to raise annual giving participation.
The Skunkworks approach demonstrates that an advancement office faced with change and uncertainty can position itself for the future by mobilizing talent already present in the organization.
Skunk Works logo via Wikimedia. Copyright Lockheed-Martin