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GW Reverses “Donor Decline” with
Video-first Donor Engagement Center

The trend of donor decline is real and few organizations are immune. While many colleges and universities continue doubling down on traditional tactics that return increasingly diminishing results, George Washington University (GW) has invested in a new strategy – video-first donor engagement and digital warming to prepare donors and prospects for student outreach and solicitations. 


After one full year in 2023, the results are clear – GW’s innovative approach through a partnership with firstname has reversed annual fund decline with substantial wins at the campaign level and a nearly five percent gain in total donors year-to-date from the previous year. Read on to learn how GW is revolutionizing student fundraising and annual giving with a strategy driven by authentic video content.

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Recruiting video-savvy student fundraisers

Flashback to fall 2019, just a few months before the global pandemic. That’s when George Washington University joined a growing number of academic institutions and closed their student calling center. Then, in 2022, GW experienced a nearly full turnover on the annual giving team. The newly hired annual giving leadership made one thing clear – student-donor engagement would be a crucial element to their work. 


“Building a solid base of donors is important for a number of reasons,” said Daniel Burgner, Executive Director of Annual Giving at George Washington University. “A solid base builds your future pipeline. But even beyond the pipeline, a robust annual giving program produces energy and enthusiasm around giving to an institution. It’s marketing and engagement that pays immediate and long-term dividends.”


Burgner was a lead voice in bringing student fundraising back to GW. However, Burgner also knew that the tactics and strategy around student fundraising needed reinvention. 


“We wanted a modern strategy to meet today’s donors where they spend their time,” said Alan Ham, Director of Participation and Direct Response at GW. “That meant a more robust presence online, with compelling content that connects with alumni and supporters.” 


With that in mind, the GW team launched a selection process that included multiple vendors. Requirements included omnichannel outreach inclusive of phone (voice and text), email, social media, and video. All of which would align with existing programs like direct mail to build a truly omnichannel Donor Engagement Center.


After the search, GW selected to build a video-centric “Donor Engagement Center” or DEC. The new program launched in January 2023, just four months before George Washington University’s April giving day. GW and recruited and hired a team of eight graduate and undergraduate students and started training and video production in February. The team, known as the “George Washington Digital Ambassadors” or “GWDAs” would be a central figure in donor outreach and solicitation in the year ahead.

First opportunity – GW’s giving day

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With a renewed focus on reversing the declining participation trend, GW made plans to improve on the previous year’s Giving Day campaign in several key areas:

     • Leading all digital channels with authentic, student-video content
     • Increasing email volume by 300% (not audience, actual emails)
     • Increasing investment in digital advertising by 400%

With a new strategy in place, GW set a Giving Day donor goal of 2,750.

The George Washington Digital Ambassadors (GWDA) student team would be central to achieving this goal, with content that “stops the scroll” and connects with donors in a non-intrusive way, via social media news feeds.

With the new students on board and producing dozens of videos to warm, energize, and steward donors and prospects for the April Giving Day, the new omnichannel approach was underway, reaching donors and prospects through direct mail, email, social media, digital advertising, and an on-campus event at the center of campus.

“Early on, the engagement with our video content on social media was particularly exciting,” said Ham. “We were seeing interaction with the videos that suggested a larger number of potential donors were aware of and ready for the giving day.”

“This is different from what you might think of as ‘stodgy higher ed video,’” said Burgner. “It’s not just that we have students on video, but this video is entirely produced by the students, under the supervision of our team. It’s authentic, not contrived, and it has resonated strongly with our alumni and donor audiences.”

Check out these GW Giving Day student video examples:

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And the authentic video program works. When the dust settled on the giving day, it was the institution’s biggest to date. George Washington University’s 2023 Giving Day, the first campaign to feature authentic student video content, saw significant year-over-year increases:

  • Total Donors: 3,198 (up 29%) from 2,483 in 2022

    • Online Donors: 3,001 (up 50.6%) from 1,993

Digital warming never stops

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With the success of the Giving Day providing early proof of concept, the GW team went to work preparing for a busy fall. Along with the video content, students were active using the VanillaSoft platform to call, text, and email donors and prospects. This one-to-one outreach, in combination with the authentic student-produced video, served as continued engagement and warming ahead of the fall campaigns, enriching the overall donor experience.

Next big wins – Buff and Blue & calendar-year-end campaigns

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With an increasingly warm and engaged alumni and donor audience, GW turned to fall campaigns. The next significant effort would be the Buff and Blue Fund Challenge (BBFC); an annual, two-week crowdfunding campaign for GW Athletics, raising funds at the end of the first quarter to help cover student-athletes' scholarship costs, travel, nutrition, academic support, and the overall investment necessary to compete for championships. 


Unlike Giving Day, BBFC is a competition between each of GW’s 17 Varsity Athletics Teams with monetary prizes going to the top teams in:

  • The most donors

  • The most dollars

  • The most improved on total donors from last year

  • Highest former student-athlete participation rate

Once again, the GWDA students went to work producing videos with a creative,  Sportscenter-themedapproach to content for donor engagement and solicitation. 


“This was an opportunity to really let loose and allow the students to have some fun,” said Ham, “The results were incredible. Student creativity led the way and produced video content that was truly unique and funny.” 


And once again, the donor and dollar numbers were substantially higher than the previous Buff and Blue Fund Challenge campaign:

  • Donors: 54% growth in donors year-over-year

    • 2023: 1,733

    • 2022: 1,122

  • Dollars: 123% growth in dollars year-over-year

    • 2023:   $462,796 

    • 2022:   $207,314 


Following the Buff and Blue Fund Challenge, the GW Digital Ambassadors took the lead in supporting GW’s traditional fall direct response campaigns by producing video to warm GW’s audiences and by conducting one-to-one engagement via phone, text, and email. From the faculty and staff campaign and the student organization giving challenge to #GivingTuesday and the calendar-year-end push to renew last year’s donors, the GWDA team was front-and-center. 


Campaigns throughout the fall semester also provided a laboratory to test the new video-first tactics. One important finding was that reaching out to each person just once via phone call, combined with genuine video outreach through various digital channels, resulted in better fundraising outcomes. 


Perhaps counterintuitively, making multiple call attempts on a core audience didn't yield better results. While the volume of calling to date does not yet allow us to draw statistically significant conclusions, these results underscore the value of using high-volume authentic videos as a core element for success in omnichannel campaigns.

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Overall, donors and dollars are up from 2022

After the books were closed on the fall campaigns of 2023, the results were in – a re-envisioned Direct Response Annual Giving program with the GW Donor Engagement Center at its core had produced an observable lift in results in year one. Instead of the decline so many higher education institutions are experiencing, the George Washington University saw its base of supporters grow by nearly five percent year-to-date over 2022.


“Video-first works,” said Burgner. “An outbound engagement center can still produce strong annual giving results. It was really exciting to see this strategy coming together–from months of online warming work before and after solicitation to the integration of authentic student voices at all levels of outreach–but we were even more enthusiastic about the response from our community..” 

Understanding Our Donors’ Journey

The growth in GW’s base of supporters was validation of a concept based on the understanding the donor journey is not linear, meaning a donor does not always give immediately after receiving a solicitation. Months later, a donor may return to an old email after seeing a post on social media. Or they might see the institution on their caller ID, not answer, but head to the website to make a gift because online is that donor’s preferred method of giving. In this scenario, attributing the donation solely to a specific channel or solicitation would overlook the contributions of the social media post and website interaction.


By looking at the actions of a segment, in a given period of time, the GW team has seen firsthand evidence that the donor journey is not linear. 


Members of the calling pools make gifts from links sent out years ago. Some send in checks, which often get labeled as “white mail”. Others make online gifts by searching “institution name” and “donate” into a search engine. 


The GW team uses the Donor Engagement Center to unite messaging, through video, with the understanding that it provides lift to the rest of their marketing efforts. Instead of relying solely on appeal codes and tracking links, they've been able to expand the way they look at annual giving performance. 


And the early results are encouraging, leading to widespread excitement across the GW Advancement division about what lies ahead. 


Next up – growth and expansion in 2024 and beyond

The success of the George Washington University Donor Engagement Center means program expansion is in store for 2024. A nonlinear approach to engagement and solicitation will be applied to new segments, with more students hired to deliver the content and outreach necessary for success. 


“We know this works for annual giving. So now what happens when we apply this to leadership annual giving?” asked Burgner. “How much more successful will discovery calls be if students warm a portfolio with personalized authentic video before the first call is made?”


Whether its annual giving, leadership annual giving, or eventually major donor engagement, one thing is clear – no longer does GW need to submit to the narrative of “donor decline.” With dynamic, authentic student video and an omnichannel Donor Engagement Center, growth is the mindset going forward. 


Interested in reversing the trend of annual  giving decline? Click here to set up a call with a team member to learn more. 

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