If you’ve paid any attention to the fundraising landscape within higher education over the past few years, you’ve seen a deluge of announcements touting massive campaign goals. “Bigger than” campaigns necessitate a reliance on mega-gifts. In the short run, this all seems well and good as institutions announce bigger and bolder initiatives. In the long run, however, this shift will prove to be problematic.
By focusing efforts on mega-gifts, you’re pouring an immense amount of capital into a very small group that isn’t getting younger. Right now, the median age someone gives one of the largest 100 donations to an institution for the first time is 66 years old. The data indicate there’s a high probability the median age will exceed the projected life expectancy in the not-so-distant future.
If donors wait longer to make a major gift – what does that mean for the role of stewardship for the 44 years of the donors’ relationship with the institution prior to making a top 100 gift? This is the question all advancement and stewardship professionals should be asking.
It’s unrealistic to expect front-line fundraisers to bear the brunt of this challenge alone. Fundraising talent is difficult to acquire and retain – the average tenure is around 3 years – and the scope of a gift officer’s role is already often too broad. They are routinely pulled into activities that fall outside of making visits and asking for gifts.
We need to be more intentional about how each piece of advancement fits together to maximize its individual and collective impact. Discipline to the fundamentals – the essence of our work – drives results. I’d argue that the heart of a fundraiser’s work is about creating and cultivating relationships. The deepening of those relationships, though, is the raison d’être of the stewardship professional. And having the right technology in place to connect the dots between these pieces will be increasingly critical as the stewardship paradigm evolves.
In my own experience, I’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing stewardship professionals. The soul they put into our fundraising operation was essential to our success with major donors. They went above and beyond to create incredible experiences for our major donors, which created an immense amount of trust and a relationship that was deeply rooted in the organization’s mission. But that level of work is very difficult to scale.
As we look forward, three stewardship styles will emerge, each designed for a specific stage in your constituents’ life. These styles will mimic something currently embodied in the retail world: boutique, retail, and big-box.
- Boutique is important to sustain the short-term, high-end donor relationships and can help alleviate some of the scope creep that naturally occurs in fundraising. Think about a higher-end retail brand like Nordstrom – and specifically the work their personal stylists do. Relationships in this space help drive transformational gifts to an institution. But again: this is a difficult group to scale; what happens in retail and big-box stewardship will drive results with the rest of our constituency. Retail and big-box approaches are time and labor intensive but for different reasons – less for depth, and more for the scale.
- Retail experience will hinge on providing the deepest relationship possible at scale. The content leveraged in the relationship is tailored to an individual’s interest / phase of life. A great example of this is the relationship between Old Navy, Gap, and Banana Republic. Each has a different feel and flair that are targeted to a particular customer.
- Big-box, on the other hand, will require providing the greatest scale possible – think Costco. Stores in this segment drive value for their customers at a macro level but are less concerned with individual consumer preferences. They test a broad set of products (and regularly introduce new ones) to see what works and what doesn’t. Big-box stewardship will be largely supported by the combined and individual efforts of annual giving, stewardship, and alumni relations through delivering information, news, and broad engagement. In a sense, this is where the working theories of what might resonate with groups of constituents are tested and applied. It’s designed to spread benefit to the largest possible group.
These changes – in stewardship and in fundraising more generally – will require the discipline to look beyond the short-term results and pay attention to the entire lifespan of your constituents. But this focus will be the crux of whether institutions can deliver on their missions for the next 10 or 100 years.