Now that we’ve nailed down the foundational concepts of donor journeys, segmentation and personalized outreach at scale, we’re ready to take all we’ve learned and “run” with it. In this session, which is the final installment of our “Inside Fundraising Multi-Channel Engagement” webinar series, we will unpack several concepts borrowed from the sales engagement space and explore how we might apply them to fundraising. 

That’s why Rachel Spencer and I need someone whose background is very much embedded in the sales engagement space to give us a unique perspective on today’s topics, which include cadences, the qualification process, and the funnel concept.  

That someone is Daniel Sims, Director of Customer Success at VanillaSoft. Daniel has been working with some of our largest customers across insurance, business development, lead generation, and finance as a workflow analyst. He helps customers to hone, refine, streamline and optimize their outreach strategies, post-implementation. 

We’ll kick things off with a recap of the cadences. 

1. Cadences 

Last time, we introduced the idea of a cadence and discussed how it fits into our multi-channel approach. 

What’s the Goal of a Cadence? 

Daniel defines a cadence as a method of getting someone’s attention by reaching out to them through a number of different engagement channels with consistent messaging. 

Originally, the idea of a cadence came from music, and it refers to following the beat and keeping up with the rhythm. And it’s kind of what we’re trying to achieve with our digital engagement strategies – keep conversations with donors going and follow the rhythm they’re most comfortable with. 

Given that persistence plays a key role in engaging your donors, a cadence will ensure you’re persistent with your follow-up while allowing you to build a relevant and consistent narrative.  

When Do You Stop Running a Cadence? 

The ultimate goal of a cadence is to get your donors off the cadence and move them onto the next stage – be it pledging a gift, making a gift, or another cadence. 

Multi-channel engagement

So, what you’re trying to achieve with your persistent omnichannel outreach is getting hold of a particular prospect and delivering your pitch or making an ask. The point is to reach that level of engagement where you can have a direct conversation with a donor and get their feedback, which can be yes, no, or maybe later. 

Getting a negative reply isn’t what you hope for, but it’s still a fair outcome because you know where that particular donor stands. Whether the prospect says yes or no, your cadence has succeeded – you got your prospect’s attention and engaged them. 

And that’s when it’s time to move on to the next stage and a new cadence. 

Or call it a day. 

When a prospect has been completely unengaged and never responded to any of your outreach efforts throughout the entire cadence, it’s OK to conclude that they’re not the right fit for your program.

2. To Cadence or Not to Cadence? 

In this section, we’ll take a step back and talk about pre-cadence. The idea is to explain things from a sales engagement perspective on things, and then try to apply the same concept to the fundraising space. 

Let’s take a step back and answer a really important question: 

Does Everybody Belong on a Cadence?

It’s already obvious that organizing your multichannel strategy into cadences is a great idea that will boost both the efficiency and effectiveness of your fundraising efforts. However, you should know that not everybody belongs on a cadencelet alone on the same cadence!  

In an ideal world, every prospect you reach out to would be interested in what you have to say, and your cadence would consist of one or two steps. But, in reality, you’ll need many more steps in your cadence – 5, 6, or even 10. And you (nor anyone, for that matter) don’t have enough people and resources that would allow you to put every prospect on a cadence. It would be too time and resource-intensive. 

So, what do you do? How do you pick donors most likely to respond to your outreach? 

Again, another sales concept comes to the rescue. 

Qualify Your Prospects 

Before you put any of your potential donors on a cadence, you have to qualify or even pre-qualify them. The trouble is you can’t randomly pick, say, 10,000 prospects – you need to identify those that are cadence-ready. 

Here’s how you can do that. 

Create a Funnel 

Sales uses the so-called “funnel” concept, which we’ll discuss in greater detail a bit later. It consists of the top, middle, and bottom parts, each corresponding to the stage of the buyer’s journey. The top of the funnel represents your total addressable market, that is, anyone who might be likely to make a donation to your school. 

To assess this huge audience’s likelihood of donating, you should whittle them down the funnel and measure how engaged they are. And that’s where marketing comes in to help you qualify all those records. 

Scale Your Messaging 

Marketing automation, preferably using email or broadcast texting, will allow you to message all your constituents at scale, feel their pulse, and track their level of engagement. 

For example, if any of these 100,000 constituents from the top of your funnel, have attended your webinar, shown up to a university sporting event or other organized special event, it’s safe to conclude that they’re at least slightly more engaged than those who never even opened your emails or responded to your text messages. 

The point is to move these records down the funnel using cadences until what’s left are the best prospects, or in the case of High Ed Fundraising, constituents most likely to donate. 

Use Lead Scoring 

This is yet another sales concept you can implement to qualify your records more accurately and quickly. 

Let’s say you sent ten emails to a contact, and they opened seven, clicked on the links in three, and finally replied to one of them. On the other hand, you have a contact that opened only two of your emails and attended one of your webinars two years ago. 

Which one is more likely to make a donation? 

Analyzing your constituents’ behavior and engagement with the help of a scoring system will allow you to determine which leads should be on a cadence. This is a data-driven approach, and it will save you from guesstimating mistakes. 

Plus, it can help you inform your future cadences since you can look back at the journeys of the constituents who ultimately made a donation and try to pinpoint leading indicators they would give. 

Come up with a number-based scoring scale, for example:

  • 1 point if someone opens your email 
  • 2 points if someone clicks on the link in your email 
  • 5 points if someone replies to your email
  • 10 points if someone attends an event your school organizes. 

Then crunch numbers and determine the threshold that will qualify constituents for getting included on a cadence. 

The Higher Ed Plot Twist

While we can apply most of these sales strategies to the higher ed context almost verbatim, there’s an essential difference between the two use cases that should be noted. 

The university advancement programs are unique because every year there’s a new class of graduates added to the pool of constituents. These annual fresh batches of non-donors that have to be classified and qualified somehow are a great thing since they mean a number of potential gift opportunities, but at the same time, they can congest your funnel.

Multi-channel engagement

We’re talking about a lot of new graduates – maybe even as much as 10,000 or 20,000 new people each year, meaning that your pool of prospects grows exponentially. This also means you need to be as strategic as possible if you don’t want to waste your resources. 

When it comes to Annual Giving (AG), first, you should sort out who in your AG pool should even be on a cadence, figure out what to do with your lowest tier of donors, that is, the least engaged constituents, and then figure out what you want to do with them. You can do this with general annual giving as well as mid-level giving. There’s no rulebook to follow here. To a degree, you’re making it up as you go along, learning through educated guesses and relying on trial and error. 

This entire sales concept can be applied to Annual Giving in many ways since there are so many more indicators you can use in AG/fundraising to help you build your segmentation. That’s where we start to see non-donors, LYBUNTS, SYBUNTS, giving levels, and similar categories. 

So, narrowing down this huge pool of people using automated messaging, lead scoring, and segmentation is the way to go. 

3. Qualification 

We’ve already touched upon the idea of qualifying your prospects, but we’ll dissect it a bit further in this section. 

The first thing to understand is that not all prospects are created equal. Some aren’t ready for a cadence. Others, even though they’re on a cadence and are engaging with your content and emails or attending university events, might not be ready to move down the funnel and make a donation.  

But how to kickstart the process with such an overloaded pool of prospects that keeps getting bigger every year? 

Start Broad

Remember the top-of-the-funnel concept we mentioned earlier? 

That’s your square one and the place where all your mass marketing activities are happening. At this point, you’re only getting your prospects’ names, contact detail, and a general whiff of potential interest. 

Then, as they pass the qualification rounds and go down the funnel, they’re promoted to the next, more-specific echelon. And the more someone goes down the funnel (or up the pyramid,) the more targeted, personalized, and specific messaging they will get. 

The point is to keep on validating and qualifying your prospects until they’re at the stage when they’re ready to make a pledge or even give. 

Set the Right Objectives 

A crucial factor for doing your qualifying process right is setting the right objectives. 

This particularly refers to identifying major donors. While their wealth is a priority, by no means is it the only thing that qualifies them for being placed in a higher echelon. There are a number of other criteria, including affinity, which is among the most important and elusive. 

So, someone might have a net worth of $100 million, but that doesn’t mean that they actually want to make a transformative gift to your institution. 

On the other hand, a prospect might not have sufficient wealth to be moved to a higher tier, but when you talk to them, you might find out they have access to a large fund through a close relative. 

So, never rely solely on hard stats and figures. Use the interactions with your prospects to make informed decisions about how to categorize them. 

Think About the Endgame

It’s important not to leave any opportunities untapped and let them slip through the cracks. 

Always look at the bigger picture and your ultimate objective. In other words, continue to move your prospects down the funnel (or up the pyramid.) 

For example, if a prospect makes a $50 donation, but they could give $500,000, then you left money on the table. This mistake is very likely to happen if you fail to move your constituents toward the ultimate goal. 

And that’s again something that cadences, lead scoring, and qualification can help you with. 

4. The Funnel

In the fundraising space, we use the term “donor pyramid,” which is basically the same thing as the sales funnel.

Sales Funnel Vs. Donor Pyramid 

The sales funnel is, in essence, a visual representation of the buyer’s journey, or in our case, the donor’s journey. It’s closely related to building the pipeline and introducing potential donors to the top of the funnel, engaging and qualifying them all along with the help of cadences until they’re ready to make a gift. In fundraising, you’re moving a pool of prospects up the pyramid using cadences and specialized, tailored comms for better efficiency.  

When talking about the higher ed/fundraising context, people who fall out of the funnel will still get some form of communication. They’re just not qualified enough for a particular cadence. 

Unlike sales, where you might talk to someone while you should be talking to their boss instead, in university fundraising, you won’t encounter such a problem – you know you’re talking to the right person about donating to their alma mater. However, they might not be a candidate for a major gift, and maybe Annual Giving is a better option for them. That’s why you must figure out and place them on the right cadence. 

The Permeability Element 

The tiers within the donor pyramid are mostly permeable. 

Donors who give transformational gifts will stay at the top of the pyramid forever. 

But, below this top level, especially in the lower levels of the pyramid, prospects will move back and forth or change tiers throughout their donor journey. And as we pointed out in the previous installment of our webinar series, donor journeys span someone’s entire lifetime – they’re always connected to their university, and this journey is always ongoing. 

5. Blocked Funnel – Call the Plumber! 

When you have a regular influx of alumni being added to your funnel, the odds are that it can get clogged. 

And, in this case, you have to be the plumber. 

So, how do you run diagnostics and find the congestion?

Start Working Backward 

If you notice that not the expected number of prospects is coming through the end of the funnel and that you’re not hitting your objectives at a fair rate, then it’s a symptom that something is off.

The problem might be you’re not getting enough people through the top of your funnel. Maybe your messaging, subject lines, and emails don’t resonate with your audience. Or perhaps the cadence you’re running is too long so that new records aren’t getting into the funnel. Check your statistics and see where exactly the bottlenecks are. 

Look at the Bigger Picture 

When we talk about the funnels, it’s worth mentioning that various departments have their own funnels, and each funnel represents a different level in a general, institution-wide funnel. 

So, the Engagement Center is one level, while LAG, mid-level, Annual Giving, and so on are others. 

For a better flow of the big-picture funnel, it’s essential to zero in on each individual funnel, optimize it, and see how you can get your prospects to the next tier using a cadence-based approach. 

A/B Test Your Funnel 

Running a cadence isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it business – you have to constantly test new things if you want to evolve. This means analyzing every element of your outreach and refining it accordingly. 

Also, when you get a winning result, you shouldn’t stick with that way of doing things. If your A works well, come up with a new B and see whether it might yield even better outcomes. 

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to borrow from sales and implement in your university fundraising campaigns. Cadences, lead scoring, the qualification process, and the funnel concept can help you organize and streamline your outreach efforts and segment your donors based on their engagement level.

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