Officials made thousands of fundraising visits last fiscal year to boost donor retention

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Donna Arbide, the vice president for development and alumni relations, met with several officials to discuss how to communicate about fundraising opportunities and to coordinate on common goals.

Fundraising leaders made thousands of visits to donors in fiscal year 2019 as part of a push to retain existing donors and find new ones.

University spokeswoman Crystal Nosal said fundraising office staff made more than 4,800 fundraising visits last fiscal year to meet their goal of retaining 64 percent of donors annually and hitting 16,000 alumni donors. Fundraising experts said that amid a nationwide decline in alumni donations to higher education, taking steps to build a solid donor base is integral to raising large sums of money.

“The more donors and prospects we can meet face-to-face, the more relationships we can develop,” Nosal said in an email.

Nosal said Donna Arbide, the vice president for development and alumni relations, met with University President Thomas LeBlanc, Provost Forrest Maltzman, deans and “other University leaders” to discuss how to communicate about fundraising opportunities and to coordinate on common goals. Officials aim to “establish a best-in-class engagement and fundraising operation” as part of LeBlanc’s philanthropy and constituent engagement strategic initiative.

“Fundraising and alumni engagement are team efforts and we will continue holding these meetings and other conversations to discuss shared priorities and surface new opportunities,” Nosal said.

The push to grow and retain GW’s donor base comes as officials prepare to launch the next major capital campaign in 2021 in conjunction with GW’s bicentennial anniversary.

Nosal declined to say what decisions have been made as a result of the meetings between University leaders. She also declined to say if the fundraising office met its goal of 150 visits per fundraising staff member last fiscal year.

She declined to say how many alumni donated to GW last fiscal year or what percentage of alumni donors were retained from the previous year.

Officials in the spring started offering incentives, like free gift cards and pizza, for students who thanked donors for funding their scholarships. Leaders also implemented a text-based digital system for thanking donors at this year’s annual Flag Day celebration in an attempt to encourage more students to participate.

Officials raised nearly $116 million last year, the fifth-highest amount in the University’s history, but GW has struggled to keep up with its peers in alumni giving, fluctuating between 8 and 9 percent in recent years. The University has also not kept pace with fundraising dollars earned per dollars spent among peer schools.

Fundraising and development experts said a heightened focus on donor relations can reinvigorate overall donor participation.

John Lofthus, an associate dean of development in the graduate division at the University of California Santa Barbara, said maintaining relationships with existing donors is a logical priority because it is easier to retain them than to find new fundraising sources who may have no connection to the University.

“The reality is that development is a science and it’s an art,” he said. “But ultimately you’re dealing with humans.”

Lofthus said alumni in particular are valuable to a school because the pride they feel for their alma mater can inspire them to give larger gifts as they progress further in their careers and earn more money.

“When we talk about relationships, it really is just that, a relationship that hopefully builds up over time,” he said. “They are relatively small gifts, and you have to do a good job of stewarding that.”

Lori Gusdorf, the executive vice president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Foundations for Philanthropy – which generates resources for the association’s strategic initiatives – said the increased collaboration between development office staff and deans of academic schools could improve donor relations because staff can learn from deans about topics that interest donors, allowing staff to build more personal connections with donors.

Gusdorf said some donor relations initiatives, like thank-you notes and basic communication, may sound “kind of simple” but can have “major consequences” on donor retention rates.

“Donors appreciate hearing from a peer, or even somebody that was a recipient of their gifts by writing thank-you notes,” she said. “It helps with donor retention and shows them specifics.”

Tim Kane, the vice president for alumni affairs and development at Vassar College, said that while the number of philanthropists donating to higher education is dropping, improving the quality of relationships with donors, like through recognition and events, can increase the total dollar amount of donations.

He said the burden that maintaining relationships with donors inflicts on a University development office’s time and resources makes it challenging to keep the efforts up. Kane said staff must balance pursuing big gifts in the short term with improving donor relationships in the long term because the cost of creating lasting relationships may mean few funds upfront.

“We have to constantly work that tension to the betterment of the college or university,” he said.

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