Do You Really Need Tech for Alumni Philanthropy? How Indecision Could Hurt You

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In the age of digital disruption, how do you cut through the noise to identify which major technological trends have substance?


Recently, my colleagues and I had a discussion about PowerPoint. In the beginning, PowerPoint was lauded as a breakthrough solution in business communication. In fact, it became downright pervasive. Then PowerPoint faced a strong backlash. (Jeff Bezos has banned it in Amazon executive meetings.) Though still useful in certain contexts, this technology can easily backfire. The presenter can stuff the presentation with too much information, fail to reach their audience, or include distracting ClipArt or other dated attributes that make the presentation feel out of touch, etc.

We misstep when we believe one new technology or trend will solve all of our problems. Technologies like PowerPoint, however groundbreaking, are just another moving piece in an ever-evolving puzzle that your team has to solve. Higher ed leaders have to decide which technologies to use, how to use them, and how to balance what they can and cannot do.

In our nationwide 2017 Regional Alumni Assessment, 88% of respondents reported that the use of technology has improved their organization’s ability to identify and communicate with regional alumni. We wanted to dig into that data, specifically, how is technology innovating and disrupting alumni engagement and philanthropy? In addition, how do practitioners cut through the noise to identify which major technological trends have substance?

In her recent article, “Why University Fundraising Must Embrace Technology and Adopt Smarter Strategies,” Caryn Stein, VP of Marketing at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, articulates one of the major obstacles advancement leaders and gift officers are up against: “As colleges and universities face challenges like declining enrollment, depressed student retention, and mounting student debt, along with shifting perceptions of the value of a college degree, higher education’s leaders must find a new mix of funding to achieve sustainability, let alone to expand and invest. No longer able to rely on tuition revenue to support growth, institutions are now looking to their gift officers to secure more significant contributions and secure them now” (my emphasis).

As part of our research, I spoke with three major CEOs currently trying to help institutions address these issues through technology.

  • Regan Holt, Founder and CEO of Uprising (ALUMinate’s technology partner)

  • Adam Martel, Co-Founder and CEO of Gravyty

  • Nick Zeckets, Co-Founder and CEO of QuadWrangle

Insight 1: Not data for data’s sake, but GOOD data

In a March 2018 white paper, “Building a Better World Through Data,” Regan Holt illustrates the issue: “Unfortunately most of the data being fed to BI [business intelligence] tools or newly acquired engagement technologies is spotty and outdated, missing critical information. […] Furthermore, advancement professionals at universities and their foundations are being asked to increase their productivity significantly to fill funding gaps; however, incomplete and erroneous alumni, donor contact and background information is a major roadblock to the achievement of this objective.”

Digital disruption has reached alumni relations and advancement. Social media, big data, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, online giving trends—all of these impact how institutions engage alumni and supporters. Old systems and technologies, as well as old mindsets, may hold institutions back.

Good data, Regan told me during our conversation, really does impact the effectiveness of fundraisers. I asked her, “What are some of the best ways for institutions to get usable, organized data?”

She explained that, “Rather than thinking about making copies of data that is online, institutions should think about how to effectively integrate data that is already owned by them with data that is online. Once they’ve done that, use the aggregated information to figure out what individuals’ current personal interests and passions are. It’s difficult to rely solely on academic and other institutional records to determine what the alumni really care about. Social media presence is so important.”

Did you know that ALUMInate and Uprising can help you integrate established alumni data with new online data, and design and implement an action plan?
Find out more.

As Sharon Blanton points out in Stephen G. Pelletier’s article, “Taming ‘Big Data’: Using Data Analytics for Student Success and Institutional Intelligence,” advancement team members often want to start with predictive analytics, but you “have to go back and ask, what are our data structures? Where does this data live? How are we accessing and analyzing data today? Do we have the right tools? Do we have the right people in place to be able to work on this?” In a nutshell, advancement professionals want to be able to trust their data and be able to explain why. 

Insight 2: The new normal? Online giving and the state of the constant campaign

Technology solutions will be necessary in the changing landscape of higher education philanthropy, specifically considering the rise in online giving and the state of near-constant campaigns. According to Joe Garecht, “The strongest growth in charitable giving across all fundraising strategies in 2016 was in online giving […] with online giving to higher education growing a whopping 12.3% year over year. On average, colleges and universities are now raising over 4% of their total gifts online, a number that continues to grow.”

As outlined in the “Advancement Leaders Speak 2018: The Future of Higher Education Fundraising” report, “large and comprehensive fundraising campaigns are the norm for today’s higher education institutions. At any given time, almost all institutions will be in a campaign, planning one, or getting ready to start a campaign.” In light of these two trends, it will be important for institutions to identify technologies that:

  • -help them discover and engage known and unknown prospects virtually;

  • -connect alumni with institutional philanthropic causes that resonate with them; and

  • -integrate with a variety of social media platforms.

We believe that technologies that streamline the giving process so that it is intuitive and easy for donors of all ages will probably prove most useful.

Insight 3: Augmentation, not replacement

Many of us have questions about these technological trends—what is the real value of all this stuff? What actually works? Where can tech take us that will make a difference? Where can’t it take us?

Will we be replaced?

As Leslie H. Moeller, Nick Hodson, and Martina Sangin explain in “The Coming Wave of Digital Disruption,” when it comes to digital disruption, the right mindset “is not to panic. Rather, it is to look for ways in which you might disrupt your own business, and your industry, using the strengths that made you great in the first place, and that continue to define you.”

As part of my research on exciting innovations in tech and philanthropy, I spoke with Adam Martel, CEO of Gravyty. Their algorithm identifies potential top prospects for gift officers, and their AI-driven program, First Draft, automatically provides the initial draft of the email that the gift officer can personalize and send to those prospects. The technology gets smarter as the fundraiser uses it, because it learns the writing style of the user and adapts its proactively written emails accordingly.

Gravyty’s thesis: if you can take away some of the mundane work frontline fundraisers have to do, you can put them in positions to develop more meaningful relationships and inspire more donors. As Adam explained, “Gravyty helps remove barriers so people can work with people.”

I asked Adam, “What do you think the role of this sort of technology should be in institutional advancement?” He thinks AI will be most useful when it is developed to solve very specific problems in advancement. He said, “AI is important right now. All institutions have databases and potentially pay millions to get data and pay for analytics platforms. But what they haven’t paid for is outcomes, what to do with the output. I think we’re going to see more institutions buying outcomes over more data.”

I also spoke with Nick Zeckets, CEO of QuadWrangle, a platform that “delivers key features like events management, website and content management, e-marketing automation, online giving, a new approach to alumni directories and a host of community value tools.”

When we talked about AI, Nick also underlined the need for human interactions in this field: “Right now AI still isn’t, truly, real. Machines can do incredible things and give advancement organizations real scale, but there might never be a replacement for a passion-driven discussion over lunch between a donor and a gift officer. Technology, at least for the foreseeable future, is poised to make us better and more effective in our work as engagement and fundraising officers, but it’s not going to replace us.”

Planning Questions for Your Team

  • -What are the strategic questions or issues specific to our institution that we want to address with new tech?

  • -How do we create authentic buy-in at our institution for change?

  • -Next, once we have new data and technologies, how do we decide what actions to take and when? How can we thoughtfully leverage what we learn?

  • -How can new advances, like data visualization tools, help us understand and share the stories of our alumni? (Check out our post on how to engage alumni with story!)

  • -How can our institutional mission and culture guide us?


In my conversation with her, I asked Regan Holt of Uprising, “What are one or two main things advancement or alumni relations professionals need to think about now in the face of all these new technologies?”

She told me that, in our field, practitioners can start by asking themselves, “How can we leverage the combination of improved data quality with artificial intelligence and trend analysis to improve the effectiveness of fundraising resources? Data availability is increasing—can it be used to counteract the decrease in funding options and budgetary pressures that so many institutions are facing?”

In philanthropy, no institution wants to be left behind in regards to technology, or, conversely, seen as just part of the herd by following a trend simply because everyone else is. Most of us don’t want to get stuck in old-fashioned mindsets or led by a fad. How do you figure out what will best serve your institution, its mission, and your supporters?

We at ALUMinate believe that, in the end, it (still) comes down to people.

After all that I read and each person I spoke with, a clear conclusion kept presenting itself to me: no one technology or change is a golden key—it is what we do with technology that carries implications. And, even when embracing technology, in any work that involves alumni and donors, you cannot do away with the human touch and the need for authentic relationship building.

We believe we have a relationship-centric, shared-services model that can help your institution ignite your regional alumni communities. Want to have a conversation about what we do? Email me today.

Special thank you to Regan, Adam, and Nick for taking the time to talk with me!

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