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Communications Strategies: Finding the Balance

Interview with Amy Ferguson, Executive Director of Annual Giving, Boston College

Ask an annual gift officer what has had the greatest impact on fundraising strategies in the past 20 years and the answer is likely to be “technology.” And the greatest challenge facing today’s fundraisers? Also “technology.”

There seems to be no disputing that marketing, communications, outreach, volunteer recruitment, stewardship and the many other facets of annual giving programs have shifted to dependence on e-mail, social media and more recently mobile fundraising and digital payment platforms. But technologies such as these are constantly evolving, so as the “newness” of Facebook and Twitter fades and innovative newer technologies crop up, savvy annual fund teams need to take stock of emerging trends and how these might be used to augment current practices.

Striking a balance between traditional practices such as one-on-one meetings with donors and prospects and holding events to draw donors back to campus or to regional gatherings and using social media to generate buzz and stimulate engagement is (and may always be) a big challenge. And, figuring out how different generations of alumni from a given college or university use and respond to “old school” vs. social media based communication complicates matters. At BC, Amy explains, a lot of thought has gone into segmenting the donor base. But with finite resources and staff, how best to do this is still an elusive question. Should it be generational (baby boomers vs. Millennials)? Based on how different cohorts engage and respond? By class year or affinity? “Different cohorts respond and engage in different ways with the institution…perhaps we should think about engaging and communicating differently as well,” Amy muses.

The concept of “meet your donors where they are” is one that BC’s annual fund is embracing. Admittedly we are all on our phones some part of every day, but young graduates (aka Millennials) are on their phones almost every hour of every day. Optimizing web pages for mobile viewing is essential. And as more opportunities for giving via mobile apps and through social media are becoming available, colleges and universities need to make this a cornerstone of their fundraising best practices.

Affinities offer another opportunity to connect with donors and prospects. The need to identify messages that will resonate with alumni with specific interests or affiliations prompts Amy to comment, “This is where the partnership with our colleagues in alumni relations become really critical.” Of course, individuals tend to affiliate with more than one group, so deciding which affinity to capitalize on (as a female, a person of color? The LGBTQ community? Student government?) is a central question. This then becomes a question of data. At BC, Amy admits, they’ve only just begun to track affinity in the recent years so the data for this is still fairly scarce.

Asked where strides have been made, Amy answers that leadership giving is an area where there has been growth in recent months. At BC, “leadership giving has been focused on gifts of $10,000 and above, and we’re seeing quite a bit of growth, especially with parents because there’s a very strong strategy for that.” Portfolios are organized around region and capacity. This aligns with the major gifts team although their prospects have capacity at $250,000 and up.

Finding and retaining talent is a persistent challenge, especially in Boston. “The Boston market is a tough one. Right now it feels everybody is about to go into campaign, so many shops are beefing up their teams.” Amy comments that with annual giving staff there is a “about a two to three year window,” before people are looking to move on. Knowing this, Amy recruits people who can articulate why they want to be part of the team at BC—what excites them about the opportunity, who has good intuition and asks thoughtful questions. Skills can be taught in some cases, but demonstrating a strong drive, communication skills and ability to present well with alumni and administrators, as well as represent the institution are key attributes that Amy seeks in job candidates.

For the past 25 years, Amy Ferguson has held various roles in annual giving, alumni and parent relations. She currently serves as Executive Director of Annual Giving at Boston College, overseeing a multi-faceted annual giving program that includes leadership annual giving, multi-channel marketing, volunteer engagement, current-use fund stewardship and special event fundraising. She is responsible for increasing overall cash and commitments for the University from alumni, parents, and friends by marrying traditional outbound marketing channels with innovations in constituent engagement and management. Amy came to Boston College most recently from Boston University where she served as Director of Annual Fund Leadership Giving, as well as other leadership roles within the Annual Giving department for seven years. Prior to BU, Amy led a variety of increasingly senior development and alumni relations roles at the Simmons School of Management, the Harvard College Parents Fund, Boston Latin School Association, Connecticut College, and Denison University.

In addition to presenting at several CASE District 1 conferences and workshops, Amy has served on the CASE District 1 Program Committee, chaired the 2015 Parent Fundraising Conference, and is a longstanding volunteer for Denison University. Amy holds a B.A. in English from Denison University.

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