Digital Fundraising for Pipeline Propulsion

By Julie Craig, Sara Prince and Quinlan Stein, Kansas State University Foundation

The best ideas stem from challenges. We are not short on either at the Kansas State University (K-State, KSU) Foundation. When we find ourselves in need of solutions, we embrace creative ideas from across our organization and leverage with what we can glean from the industry. Our approach to address prospect pipeline development is no exception.

The Problem: Donor counts were steadily decreasing, donor retention was down and mass marketing was not delivering the personalized experience our constituents wanted from us. We needed to figure out how to show our donors we know who they are today and truly care about them.

The Solution: Creating digital development officer (DDO) positions allowed us to target the donors in the middle of our donor pyramid, providing leads for major gift officers (MGOs). The DDOs provide a personalized experience, offering opportunities to support higher education in ways these donors are truly interested in.

DDOs answer donor questions, learn about a household’s feelings toward K-State and discover their unique philanthropic interests. Leads are shared with MGOs when a donor indicates interest in learning about investing further in K-State. The Portfolio Analytics and Research Team distributes leads to MGOs based on the prospect’s interest(s).

Social media engagements, answering donor phone calls and responding to donor emails are natural opportunities for DDOs to converse with prospects. Our DDOs provide a donor concierge service leading to meaningful conversations with real results. For example, a DDO spoke with a donor on the phone around 3 p.m. and by noon the next day, a $60,000 proposal was funded.

In addition, DDOs target pools of donors for unique giving opportunities based on interest and capacity. One thousand donors might be identified for a particular giving opportunity via email, then the list is refined to determine the best 100 donors to call directly before/after the email is sent for a virtual visit. They are clear about why they are reaching out, and how they can help donors. We have seen a correlation in the increase of retention. One donor’s response was, “I don’t usually respond to messages that get sent other times of the year. Thanks for all you do on behalf of KSU. Wishing the best to all students and staff for a successful year.”

The Portfolio Analytics and Research Team provides monthly lists of top prospects to contact in search of major gift leads. The teams work closely together to refine the criteria as needed, including having the best prospects reappear on the list every six months if the DDO wasn’t able to get in touch after the first few attempts.

Goals and Metrics

Identifying major gift leads is the goal of every contact our DDOs initiate. When DDOs have an opportunity to interact with a donor, regardless of the outcome, we measure their substantive contacts. Substantive contacts allow us to learn about our donors’ interests and preferences directly from them. We also evaluate the number of major gift leads generated and, consequently, the number of proposals added to our major gift pipeline because of the DDO’s efforts.

Between April 1, 2020 and April 1, 2021, our DDOs contacted 31,397 prospects, of which 8,455 made a gift (27%). This pool of prospects gave a total of $25,532,096 during this 12-month period, with an average gift size of $3,016.

Looking for new donor research ideas? Check out "Alexa, Help Me Find Donors in this Crisis" by Donia Wright for ways to apply COVID-19 standards to donor research.

Lessons Learned

For others interested in creating this type of position, consider what DDO activities would support the goals you are envisioning and create a framework to focus on only those activities. In this position, it is easy to think of a list of activities helpful to the organization, but keeping DDOs focused on actions most closely aligned with your goals will allow faster success and more job satisfaction.

A common question we receive relates to the tension this position can create between MGOs and DDOs. It’s not uncommon for MGOs to feel as though DDOs are reaching out to “their” prospects. Perhaps they should be. Understanding the number of outreach attempts it takes to get an assessment conversation is imperative. For example, it may take 15 emails/phone calls before a prospect responds and agrees to have a conversation with the MGO to qualify/disqualify major gift interest. It’s important for all to understand the personalized messages the DDOs send help us get closer to the assessment conversation, whether they respond to the DDO directly or not. It is also essential to monitor the number of people your DDOs reach out to versus MGOs. In our case, there has only been a 3% overlap between the two, so while it “feels” like they are reaching out to the same people, they are hardly doing so. 

What’s New?

Since creating the DDO position in the spring of 2019, we have had several new concepts emerge, which are currently in pilot phases. This includes the creation of a tip line, where our communications department shares responses to their outreach (social media, email, mail and video) when a story is shared or a question is asked requiring response from a development professional. The DDOs make contact to determine if there is major gift interest, and if so, pass along the lead.

The creation of a DDO cultivation pool allows officers to refer constituents to DDOs when they believe a major gift is within the next three to seven years. Our officers have qualified this major gift prospect, but the timing is not right for portfolio entry. The DDOs provide personalized interactions to continue cultivating constituents until the timing is right. At any time, MGOs can reach out to reopen the conversation about a major gift.

What’s Next?

The DDO position has been a hybrid role between annual giving and frontline development officers. In the beginning, the DDOs’ work aligned closely with the Strategic Solicitations Team ― delivering solicitation reminders, handling appeals, working closely with social media and often raising annual gifts. We are in the midst of evolving a stronger focus on asking for virtual visits, conducting virtual visits and converting these prospects to become major gift leads.

In Conclusion

And there you have it. A position two years in its infancy as we continue to learn, grow and evolve. What started as a concept derived to solve problems has blossomed into positions generating major gift leads, increasing donor retention and strengthening our prospect pipeline for years to come.


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This article relates to the Prospect Research domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge.






 Learn more about the authors featured in this article on the Connections Thought Leadership Page.

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