Key Takeaways from Thought Leaders in Academic Philanthropy

Each year advancement professionals turn to CASE (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education) for industry best practices and insights into fundraising, donor engagement, and other aspects of everyday operations in academic philanthropy.  In fact, CASE is celebrating fifty years of serving its members this year.

On March 13 – 15, 2024, the organization gathered members and other constituents for its District 1 Annual Conference in Boston, and we were there.  Here are three things we learned from a fascinating group of thought leaders in academic philanthropy:

1. The need for personalization is increasing.

Over the past decade, industry trends have shown that fundraisers are being asked to raise more money from fewer and fewer donors each year.  To counter this trend, advancement teams have started thinking both strategically and creatively about how to connect with donors at every level, while working hard to build a pipeline of lifelong donors and advocates.

A few examples stand out, such as: adding Donor Relations Officers or Major Gift Officers to connect one-to-one with high-level donors; launching interactive Giving Days that embrace in-person and virtual engagement; and expanding into micro-campaigns to affinity groups that draw people closer to their school.

In each example, the specific interests, behaviors, and characteristics of the donor come into focus, and require targeted messaging, segmentation, and a creative approach.  Paraphrasing from one conference speaker: “Advancement has broadened beyond just fundraising, [striving to produce] meaningful communications across the board and personalization at scale.”

2. Collaboration is key.

As staff turnover, hiring difficulties and open positions continue to cause bottlenecks for advancement offices, many individuals are taking on more responsibilities.

Additionally, as campaigns spread out to more formats and communications channels, it is more important than ever for teams to have synergy in messaging, design, and theme.  This leads to greater collaboration among departments, opening the lines of communication between annual giving, leadership giving, marketing & communications, alumni relations, and others.

Ultimately, by sharing ideas, resources, and trusted partnerships, teams are communicating more and making inroads towards breaking down organizational silos.

3. Despite advancing technology, the human connection stays strong.

The way work gets done is changing.  More collaborative, multi-faceted job functions are one example, as outlined above.  However, technology continues to drive change in every industry, including Advancement and Development.  There is a lot of hype and publicity surrounding artificial intelligence, its endless possibilities, and the exponential growth in efficiency it can bring.  AI, however, is not without risks (e.g. privacy concerns, biases, accuracy, etc.)

Among the thought leaders at the D1 conference in Boston, there was a healthy mix of excitement and caution when discussing the adoption of new technologies such as AI-based tools or even wide-reaching integrated CRM systems.  As a general rule, many advocate for the “walk-crawl-run” approach.  This meant encouraging pilot programs and small projects to measure and prove value before making large investments that impact a wider organization.

On the topic of technology however, a key takeaway was the sentiment that “advancement is robot-proof.”  Technology may change how individuals think about achieving their goals or even how they tackle their day-to-day projects, but the human connection remains at the heart of fundraising, donor engagement and alumni relations.  Institutions are finding new ways (and sometimes old ways) to engage donors, build relationships, and make personal connections – on campus and off.

As an attendee and sponsor, BCG Connect was grateful to be a part of an event that delivered so much value to academic and nonprofit fundraisers.  Like many of those in attendance, we left with new ideas and a renewed sense of optimism about the future of the industry.