Anne M. Berry

Since our founding 26 years ago, WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK has been known for the quality of our feasibility study interviews and our ability to synthesize quantitative and qualitative information from those conversations into actionable recommendations for campaign planning and execution.

So, it’s no surprise that clients have asked us to apply those same skills to design custom studies and surveys to meet their needs. We share a few of those project designs and outcomes here, along with an update on how feasibility studies fared during the pandemic. We learned some new ways of working, all to the campaign planning and financial benefit of our clients.

Feasibility Studies

Campaigns and campaign planning continued apace during the pandemic year, and we completed four full campaign feasibility studies from the start of the pandemic in March 2020 through May 2021. Travel restrictions and social distancing required us to shift our traditional in-person interviews into a virtual format. We wondered if we would connect as well with the donors and glean the essential information we needed to provide the very best recommendations to our clients.

We learned, just as many of you did in your major gift work, that we could.  The silver linings?

Greater ease in scheduling interviews without having to accommodate consultant travel logistics, which saved our clients the staff time and patience to arrange (and often rearrange) scores of appointments.

More interviews accomplished in each day’s time, reducing the number of days of service required to complete the study.

Limited or no consultant travel expenses.

We passed these savings directly on to our clients, significantly reducing the average overall fee for a feasibility study. We will continue to offer video interviews as an option in our studies, along with in-person conversations, as requested by our clients. As we begin several new studies this summer, it looks like our clients are choosing a hybrid approach. We’ll conduct about 90% of the interviews via video conference, with a small number of appointments reserved for participants who prefer an in-person discussion.

Many of you have told us how much you appreciate the context and depth of information that our study benchmarks bring to these important projects. We now have data on 18+ study interview data points from almost 2,700 major and prospective donor interviews.  We will continue to build that bank of data in the coming years so that we can provide context for our findings and recommendations.

Soundings Studies

Just as campaigns have evolved, our studies to support those campaigns have too.  In response to client inquiries, we have custom-designed “Soundings” studies to yield very specific information to inform institutional decision-making. Soundings studies involve fewer individual donor/prospect interviews than a full campaign feasibility study and can often be accomplished in a shorter period of time. In the past several years we have:

Tested a single-purpose campaign plan with a limited group of potential major donors;

Measured reaction to a new leadership team’s institutional vision statement and the related goals and priorities, to ensure success after a previous campaign failed to launch;

Gathered confidential feedback on a once-in-a-century institutional real estate purchase decision that would change the physical footprint and capital assets of the campus.

We are currently in conversation with a college to test a few potential institutional opportunities emerging from a strategic planning process, to provide donor feedback for a new president and the chief advancement officer as the final campaign priorities are chosen.

We designed each study after extensive conversation with the client, to ensure that every question we pose to current and potential donors will yield information that could be used to shape a final decision. We helped our clients choose the interviewees, shape the letter of invitation to the interview, and identify specific additional topics to be probed during individual conversations.

Our interviews revealed previously unidentified philanthropic interest, unanticipated donor and institutional issues that could derail a fundraising initiative, and reactions to the key messages that were proposed for the future case for support.

Our Soundings study final reports include a documentation of the study process, the findings from our interviews, and recommendations for moving forward. In some cases, depending on the lines of inquiry, we provide further supporting information from the benchmarks that are a hallmark of our full campaign feasibility studies.

Post-Campaign Assessments

In the past 18 months, we have conducted a number of comprehensive post-campaign assessments. For example, one long-term client, upon conclusion of a very successful $1 billion campaign, asked for a formal review of the campaign’s strengths and weaknesses. Using stakeholder interviews, a survey of campaign donors and non-donors, a benchmarking study of the client’s peers and data analysis, we provided a comprehensive report on campaign highlights and lessons learned, as well as practical recommendations to set the stage for future campaigns. We are also working with our colleagues at More Partners on a post-campaign study for a More client that will include a donor/non-donor survey and stakeholder interviews with US residents.

Surveys and Data Analysis Services

As client chief advancement officers seek to support recommendations with solid quantitative data, WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK has expanded its data analytics services for clients, putting our powerful tools and knowledge to work.  Some recent projects:

Wealth screening data only provides an external view of donor potential, yet many institutions use these “ratings” as the sole determinant of prospect pipeline value, to populate gift officer portfolios, and to inform major gift strategies. Knowing that past donor behavior is an equally powerful indicator, we worked with two clients to analyze ten years of donor records, scoring past and current donors on factors like frequency of giving, recency of giving and demonstrated leadership giving. We then provided recommendations to reshape individual gift officer portfolios, including swapping out some long-standing but under-performing prospects for new donors who were already demonstrating the behaviors that could indicate future major gift support.

Another client asked us to help them conduct their first alumni survey in 20 years and study the extent to which age, geographic location and giving history affected how graduates connected with the school and each other, how they promoted the school, and how they felt about philanthropic investment — including where the institution stood in their individual list of philanthropic priorities. We worked with staff and volunteers to shape the study instrument (including an alumni board test run of the survey), identify five lenses for deep data dives, and design the marketing plan. Over 40% of the graduates with email addresses completed the survey, and provided multiple-choice question responses and over 6,000 additional written comments.  Our final project report included detailed data analysis and our recommendations and opportunities to build engagement. The results are now informing a new strategic planning process for the alumni organization.

Another institution, a public university, asked us to evaluate their alumni engagement program. The university is in a remote location with a small alumni staff; the engagement program had not been refreshed in several years.  We used three different methods to gather qualitative and quantitative data:

In-depth personal interviews with a small group of internal and external stakeholders;

Three regional focus groups in areas of high alumni concentration;

An online engagement survey administered to all alumni to expand the scope of the assessment.

This approach allowed us to apply a data-driven engagement score to the university’s current program, understand the similarities and differences between the engagement experiences of different groups, and identify ways alumni wish to be engaged and what might inspire them to give.

In the coming 12-18 months, and working closely with our consulting partner Chris Marshall, one of the nation’s leading experts on alumni engagement, we will continue to take on new projects in which we will provide counsel on alumni engagement and strategic planning for alumni/constituent programs, and pair that work with our data analytics capabilities. Stay tuned!

Please reach out for a consultation

If you and your colleagues want answers to probing questions and find your interest sparked by what you’ve read here, please be in touch and we’ll think out loud with you and prepare some ideas for your consideration.