Redefining donor and alumni engagement: A Q-and-A with UVA's Cindy Fredrick

In the webinar, “Redefining How We Engage with the University’s Many Constituencies: Now and Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis,” GG+A CEO John Glier talks to Cindy Fredrick, Associate Vice President, Office of Engagement for Alumni, Parents and Friends at University of Virginia Advancement.

Cindy Fredrick

Cindy Fredrick

“Take the long view, fill the well, diversify your plan,” advises Cindy in the webinar. On the topic of pivoting to virtual gatherings, she describes how University of Virginia Advancement replaced 370 live events with 36 virtual ones in the past six weeks while touching the same number of people. “People want to be together and for many of our alumni, their alma mater is their home.”

Here we share questions from webinar participants and answers from Cindy Fredrick.

Q. Do you have any suggestions or resources for virtual award ceremonies?

My suggestion is to ensure that the virtual ceremony is personal and relevant. Weave in photos and videos to stream together to create a ceremony that reflects the accomplishments of the recipients who can then easily share photos and videos with family and friends. This is another opportunity to connect. Consider the length of your program. We are finding that the sweet spot for attention and participation is 45 minutes, and be sure to tie your virtual event back to an evergreen site to gain the full experience of the event.

Q. How do your constituents feel engaged during the “event?” Such a big part of donor and alumni events is networking and engaging with each other; not just hearing from the University on a specific topic. Have you been able to replicate that at all?”

It’s important to offer a diversity of platforms from small, more personal zoom events to a larger audience webinar. In a small Zoom meeting of 25 people, encourage people to display their photo and ask questions. We have used the breakout room option with facilitators to encourage peer-to-peer connection. For example, one of our faculty members spoke for 10 minutes about a relevant topic followed by breakout discussions that were moderated and structured. Our larger-scale webinars have also been highly attended. You can achieve deep engagement with audiences of all sizes.

Q. How are faculty compensated?

While we do not compensate our faculty for single lectures, we draw on our best practices of volunteer management to meaningfully express our gratitude. We start by making the faculty member’s participation easy. We provide detailed materials, arrange logistics, and create collateral to share. We also ensure that our leadership expresses its gratitude in various ways throughout the year. We host an annual, special celebration of our faculty, which is an opportunity for them to gather, network, and share experiences. We are practicing this kind of stewardship through our virtual programming to ensure that the faculty member participating finds the experience meaningful and valuable.

Q. Please share your view of the organizational structure of your office? We have recently reorganized to a similar model and would love to learn from your office’s experiences.

The Office of Engagement is part of the central University Advancement Division at UVA and was created in 2005 to serve all alumni, parents, and friends. The program’s responsibilities include alumni and parent travel; central alumni giving; lifetime learning and faculty involvement; and UVA Clubs and global engagement which supports new student outreach, regional athletic fan events, educational and personal enrichment, social and professional industry networking, community service, student ambassadors, and discovery officers. The Engagement Office coordinates outreach with UVA’s independent, self-governed alumni association and with schools, centers, and programs to create a comprehensive constituent engagement strategy.

Holistically, we have a common goal of engaging over 300,000 alumni and parents around the globe. We achieve this through ongoing communication and strategy. We have created an inclusive program that recognizes parents and friends as an invaluable part of the community. Bringing these constituencies together with our alumni has created a broader, more diverse community. While every institution is unique, this model can be quite effective. It’s finding what is right for you.

Q. What type of virtual events are your producing for your alumni in various regions?

UVA has strong regional programming, which we have continued in our virtual planning. Our events have included:

  • Educational programs featuring faculty or local alumni expert discussing relevant topics related to COVID-19. Topics range from business, politics, healthcare, online classroom transition, entrepreneurship, and personal finance.
  • Experiential programs showcasing our local alumni businesses. For example, a gelato store delivering gelato samples and offering a virtual tasting, and intimate book clubs and movie nights that facilitate interaction and discussion
  • Entertainment programs designed to connect our alumni with common interests. Examples include game watches, and fitness experiences.
  • “Welcome to the City” program designed for new alumni to learn about a new city in which they are moving. This was originally offered in-person and is now being offered virtually.

Q. Do you anticipate that an emphasis on virtual will continue even when things go “back to normal?”

While virtual events won’t replace in-person engagement, they are an integral part of our strategy going forward.

Q. Congratulations on reaching the same amount of people virtually as you did in-person last year. Are the demographics of those you are reaching different from those you reach in-person?

Throughout our six-week virtual programming shift, we have been collecting data on the participation of our constituencies compared to last year’s in-person events. To date, we have learned the following:

  • 10% increase in participants over the age of 60, which represents 20% of all registrants
  • Our global outreach increased 22%, with registrations from 49 states and 33 countries
  • 10% increase from lifetime donors (80%)
  • 8% increase in fiscal year donors (33%)
  • Substantial participation by major and principal prospects

This data has provided our team stewardship and cultivation opportunities. Our development officers are using virtual programming as conversation starters ranging from Zoom instruction to check-ins to gift conversations.

Q. Are you confident that the “touch” with constituents (though equal in number) is the same virtually as in-person events as it relates to fundraising? May be too early to tell.

While we are connecting, virtual engagement is not the same as in-person. What we are realizing is that both in-person and virtual will be important to reach constituents to achieve philanthropic support going forward.

Q. What system is UVA is using to track these engagements (both in-person and virtual)?

We use Eventbrite. My recommendation is to find a platform that works for your organization and integrates with your CRM.

Q. Are you finding virtual engagement numbers falling off since the beginning ones offered? Any fatigue?

We have not experienced fall off in participation to date. We created a broad-based communications strategy to inform our constituencies about all the programming we are offering. And, as the market has become more inundated with offerings, we have adjusted our programming. We are also anticipating that as people return to the workplace, they may not be able to tune in as consistently. We are making plans for that programming schedule as well. It is important to curate your experiences and consider your resources and the best ways to deploy them to reach your audiences in the ways in which are important to you.

Q. Are you charging for virtual events?

At this point in time, we are not, unless there is a specific commodity being shared (i.e. gelato). This could change as we evaluate the expense going into virtual programming.

Q. How are people connecting with one another?

I am not focusing on the numbers associated with our programming, while they have exceeded our expectations. My goal is to encourage interpersonal relationships using virtual platforms. Consider how you have engaged your team while working remotely and apply these lessons to communicating more broadly with your constituents.

More reading

Redefining engagement now and beyond COVID-19: Webinar with UVa’s Cindy Fredrick

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