Purdue University: A case study in sustaining fundraising success through training
Purdue University recently announced a record fundraising year, with more than $351 million in total gifts and pledges for the 2017 fiscal year. And this was not an outlier: FY17 was the third consecutive year that giving at Purdue topped $300 million, resulting in a three-year average of more than $342 million. For comparison, Purdue’s prior ten years yielded an average of $220 million raised per year.
I was personally interested in this news, as my first role in fundraising was at Purdue, with the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, many of the top public research universities – like Purdue – were just beginning to invest in their development programs in ways that mirrored the levels of institutional support at top private institutions.
Don’t Mess with a Good Thing?
Purdue’s investments are paying off today. Their sustained performance above the $300 million-level places them solidly among the top public (and many private) research universities. Given this success, it might seem odd that earlier this year, Purdue chose to begin providing targeted training programs aimed at improving their fundraising performance. But that’s exactly what they did.
“Whoever said, ‘Don’t mess with a good thing’ never worked in fundraising,” says Purdue’s Vice President for Development, Amy Noah. “The worst thing we could do is sit back and congratulate ourselves.”
First, Purdue’s deans and other academic leaders received a custom training session led by Rod Kirsch, who joined GG+A earlier this year after a long and successful tenure at Penn State. This program covers fundraising fundamentals for academics, focusing in particular on helping them (1) build a stronger comfort level with high-net-worth individuals, and (2) understand how to link these potential donors’ personal interests with the needs of an academic unit to benefit its students and faculty.
Next in line was a cohort of major gift staff, who participated in GG+A’s six-course instructional and professional coaching program, Advancing Philanthropy for Academic Gift Officers. This program benefits gift officers specifically by targeting key prospects in their portfolio and applying the course content directly toward moving more of their portfolio closer to an effective major gift solicitation.
A Booming Donor Population
At Purdue, the increased need for dean and gift officer training is, in part, the result of dramatic growth in the number of alumni and other donors giving to Purdue in recent years. This momentum has been driven in part by the university’s current Ever True campaign, which aims to raise $2.019 billion by the institution’s 150th anniversary in 2019. The 2017 record year included more donors to Purdue – over 85,000 – than any other year, and followed another record of 82,000 in 2016.
Purdue had seen nearly the same donor count in 2004, but that record was followed by a precipitous annual decline to just 59,000 donors in back-to-back years of 2012 and 2013. “We have made tremendous strides to re-engage former donors, and attract new donors to Purdue,” Noah noted. “We felt training was critical at this point in time to emphasize the importance of recognizing potential major gift supporters among this growing donor population and understanding how to develop strategies for meaningful engagement with them.”
This upward trend in donor participation can also be attributed to the start of a new Day of Giving in 2014, which has become the most successful 24-hour fundraising effort in higher education. As these figures illustrate, participation has been boundless, and global. “The countless volunteers behind this effort deserve so much credit,” said Noah, “especially in their use of social media to promote and encourage participation. The growth in participation from year to year has been just remarkable.”
Part of the credit also needs to go to the culture of philanthropy Noah and her team have spent years building, where giving is embraced as transformative but also fun. You can see a great example of this through the promotional video for this year’s Day of Giving, which should also be recognized as one of the most creative, funny and inspiring fundraising videos ever produced for a university (or possibly any nonprofit organization).
Recognizing the Need for Training
While Purdue linked its need for training to their growing donor base, other circumstances can also prompt the decision to invest in targeted training, whether on specific topics and tactics, or for certain audiences like deans and faculty. If your institution is considering fundraising training, here are some key things to keep in mind.
Desired Outcomes – Every institution wants to raise more money, but that should never be the primary motive for training. The decision to invest in training should be tied to improving key steps in the fundraising cycle, such as helping deans and department chairs to craft stronger cases for support; advising board members and volunteers on how to help solicit a major gift; or coaching gift officers on moving more of their portfolio from cultivation to solicitation. These are all measurable outcomes that can be tracked to determine if the training was effective.
Leadership Transitions – The introduction of a new president, or new deans and department chairs, brings an opportunity to help these individuals sharpen their ability to communicate their vision – and not only to donors, but also to the development teams who will help mobilize that vision to reach broader audiences.
Campaign Timing – Each new campaign brings with it a need to educate volunteers, faculty, and staff who may have limited fundraising experience, but who will serve in roles that will be critical to the campaign’s success. Providing campaign training well before the frenetic pace of the public phase is a key step in successful campaign planning.
Managing Expectations – Sometimes there is no substitute for outside expertise to explain what philanthropy can and cannot do. Too many organizations continue to push goals like doubling the alumni participation rate, securing a big gift from a local millionaire with no ties to your institution (other than being local), or soliciting XYZ Corporation to fund a new building because its name will be on it. Providers of training services should be evaluated on their ability to articulate best practices and utilize peer performance data that allows for developing goals that are challenging, but grounded in reality.
But perhaps the most important consideration for training is what Purdue demonstrated so well: Performance improvement through formal training and professional development programming is just something that high-performing organizations do, and they do it not when there’s a problem, but when things are going great.