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Digital Engagement: A Conversation with an Alumni Affairs Social Media Strategy Expert

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Andrew Gossen, Senior Director for Social Media Strategy, Alumni Affairs, and Development at Cornell University, believes that digital media are fundamentally transforming the practices of alumni affairs and development. He leads a team that has fostered a string of notable successes, including Cornell’s first Day of Giving on March 25, 2015, which raised $6,969,229 and generated 9,683 gifts. Recently he sat down with GG+A’s Ed Sevilla to talk about innovation and reaching young donors.

Q: Let’s start with a bit of definition. A lot of the industry conversation about young donors focuses on Millennials and goes right away to social media strategies and tactics. But let’s include Generation X donors, who are 35 to55 years old, as well. Why do you think there has been less focus on the Gen X cohort than on their younger counterparts?

A: A lot of our confusion about Gen X is a direct reflection of our failure to invest in young alumni programs in past decades. All we really know about people between 35 and 55 years old is whether they’ve given. Outside of working with classes in a reunion context, not a lot of time and energy has been spent thinking about folks in that age range, with the exception of any major gift prospects who’ve emerged.

Enter digital. A lot of people hope that those aged 35–55 will behave just as previous generations have behaved. I actually think we are in a bit of a fog now. We need to experiment with how Gen Xers like to give, today, testing today’s tools and technologies. So, if you have the political will in your organization, you can begin some sophisticated focus grouping and user testing – to learn what, if anything motivates this generation differently.

Q: Ok, what are some assumptions our colleagues make that you think we should challenge?

A: One assumption is that the case for giving back is clear, and that all you need to do is have a classmate write with a reminder to make the annual gift, and that Gen Xers will respond – because it’s the cultural norm, because giving back is “what you do.”

Higher education used to be the only game in town when it came to philanthropy. We evolved much earlier, but now other sectors have caught up, and in terms of sophistication of approach, stewardship, global reach, and sense of tangible impact, some of the global charities have lapped educational institutions multiple times. Look at Charity Water, an organization that raised $27.9 million in 2014 and has funded over 17,000 water projects since its founding in 2006 – what they do is pretty amazing.

Q: So what actions should fundraisers and engagement leaders take to help younger generations emerge as our philanthropic leaders?
A: The most important step is the first one – to recognize that a lot of what we know and do may not work anymore. We also need to:

+   Engage in a space that is highly digital, with lots of competitors who are investing heavily in time and dollars

+   Invest in people who are thinking about emerging technologies and communications approaches that will let us make our case to our audiences in ways likely to be compelling

+   Accept data science and analytics as a core discipline within philanthropy

Digital gives us more reach than ever before, but without paying attention to the data, we can’t iterate and deliver increasing returns over time. Investments in digital must become a routine part of doing business moving forward. The answer is to build an organizational structure based on digital that enables the organization to stay competitive for decades. It is a very different proposition from developing a series of five-year plans. We need to evolve into becoming better continuous-learning organizations.

Q: What are some examples that you have seen of effective ways to engage and motivate philanthropy?
A: Let me share some stats from our crowdfunding efforts at Cornell:

+   56 percent came from alumni of the 2000s and ‘10s, including students up to the class of 2019

+   27 percent came from alumni from the 1980s and ‘90s – we expected the Millennials’ response but were surprised by the strength of the reaction from Gen X

+   14 percent of gifts came from alumni of the 1960s and ‘70s

It’s like a hockey stick! You really see how younger alumni resonate with this approach. The responses to Cornell’s Day of Giving in March 2015 were similar.

Q: Are there differences between a Day of Giving and a crowdfunding approach?

A: Yes. The differences we are seeing are a function of how the different programs are structured. Giving days are driven by the institution; we put on the full court press and send messages that go out to everybody. By contrast, in crowdfunding the majority of the efforts are grassroots outreach. Nine out of ten projects seeking funding are student-driven, so promotion and messaging goes to campus communities and recent graduate networks, eventually spreading to the broader alumni community. The way in which these grassroots efforts resonate with graduates and students of the last two decades is proof positive of the effectiveness of peer-to-peer personal networks.

Crowdfunding is fundamentally different from business as usual in higher education fundraising – which depends on a “broadcast” model, pushing our priorities out to a generally undifferentiated audience. In contrast, crowdfunding enables differentiation on a personal level. For example, when a young alumnus sends a crowdfunding link to his classmates via Facebook walls, and tags them by name, we see the power of the human algorithm: that individual’s personal knowledge of what others in his circle care about. There is no algorithm as powerful as an alumnus who knows what his friends care deeply about.

Q: Have you seen initiatives that you admire elsewhere?

A: In terms of testing the model in new ways, Columbia University did a great job of translating the giving model to higher education. During its Giving Day on October 21, 2015, they raised over $12.7 M from over 13,000 gifts.
Here at Cornell we have a concept that incorporated humor into a crowdfunding e-mail (the Bring Light to the A.D. White Library project). When we started releasing our fall set of projects, other project teams wanted to be funny too. Content others want to watch and emulate will increase the rates of giving and sharing.

Q: But doesn’t this seem like a drive away from high quality content? How can we strike the right balance between effective institutional messaging and simply offering entertaining clickbait?

A: With data that shows that audiences are paying attention and engaging. If experimentation is the price we pay to identify and adopt different ways to engage, we’d be foolish not to experiment.

We have to be smart and humble at the same time: to recognize that our institutional aesthetics don’t always align with what current generations want to do online while still finding ways to engage with those we need to in order to survive over the long term.

Q: Those are strong words – the need for survival long term. Do you think your colleagues in development feel that urgency?

A: No. That’s because in the big campaigns, 95 percent or more of the money comes from 5 percent or fewer of the donors, and those donors tend to be members of the Baby Boomer generation, or older. So perhaps we can afford to ignore this for a while longer. But rest assured, change is coming; in fact it’s already here and we are not recognizing it. We are in for a shock.

Q: As you think about engagement and philanthropy for younger donors in the next five years, are you optimistic or pessimistic? Why?

A: Optimistic. Because in the few moments when we’ve been able to craft something that clicks with young alumni, they share, they step up, and they give. It’s just a question of figuring out the key elements so we can be smart and structure our approaches successfully. Giving days and crowdfunding are just the start. Young donors’ insistence on engaging with the institution across many channels will even help us do better stewardship all the way up the pyramid, as our youngest donors now become our biggest donors over time.

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About the author

Ed Sevilla

Senior Vice President

Edward D. Sevilla, Senior Vice President, leads the Strategic Communications practice area, bringing more than 25 years of marketing and branding experience in both the private and public sectors. At GG+A, Ed has conducted client work across a wide range of nonprofit sectors. At the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign…