Cornell University and the Future of Advancement Operations

Many universities have turned to fundraising as the means to keep doors open.

Cornell has been listed in the top five universities for fundraising each year and is known for is willingness to take risks and try new things with digital technology.

We recently had a very insightful conversation with Ashley Budd, Director of Digital Marketing at Cornell University, about advancements in alumni tools and technology that are drastically changing engagement and fundraising at Cornell.

Here’s what we learned.

Fundraising: A Necessary Evolution for the Sustainability of Higher Education

Ashley spent the first half of her career in enrollment before she made the switch to fundraising. Although hesitant at first to switch over to the “dark side,” she did because she realized most of the business models in higher education were tapped out on the enrollment side.  

She was curious to see what would shift as tuition-driven programs had peaked. Bigger classes, and rising tuition costs—it wasn’t sustainable. Now Ashley is in a digital vertical within the advancement operation at Cornell.

Advancement handles both the alumni affairs and the development wing for Cornell, where they work to engage alumni and help them stay in touch with the university. They also work to tie in the fundraising aspect of Cornell, which is extremely important as the university relies heavily on development to keep funding new student enrollment.

Taking Advantage of the Digital Renaissance in Higher Education

Advancement operations are at the forefront of this digital renaissance, with new tools and technologies, making alumni engagement and fundraising more effective than ever before. But universities are still behind in terms of what technology is available and how it’s used.

One of the things Ashley is excited about is their new website, which currently is in the soft launch phase.

This new website should play a big role in how Cornell’s alumni and donors are able to interact with the university. The website will offer new tools that will help keep people in touch with the university in the way they interact with most other brands—digitally.

3 Ways the New Website Will Make it Easier for Alumni to Participate

The new website will connect alumni and university in three important ways.

1) It has been reoriented to create logical pathways for people to interact, instead of presenting everything that the university offers based on assumptions of what an individual might want.

The website has been opened to be more exploratory. Paths are based more on a person’s life stage, which Ashley and her colleagues have found to be key for people returning to interact with the university. What they want out of it varies at different times in their life.

2) There is also the functional aspect. They are going to be looking more at transactional communication and clear feedback options on what people are looking for. This will keep the content fresh and all parties connected.

This can look like offering a chat box or something that will help them source what they’re looking for more quickly on the website.

3) Personalization is key.

The advancement office recently found that they needed to get more personalized than ever before.

Cornellians have been known to have a lot of different interests, and their interests change over time. This caused a big switch in the university’s philosophy on personalization. In order to personalize, they began thinking about the ways that they could crawl some of their reports, and surface important information about a person or trend.

Both behavioral algorithms and predictive algorithms surface from event activities and help make these connections, whether it be in-person or online events. They source keywords through reports on what people are talking about and what kind of causes they care about. Then they match them with similar things that Cornell is doing, either in research or student experience.

How Digital Engagement Can Count As Participation for University Rankings

While rankings are a blessing and a curse, the reality is that Cornell’s alumni base cares about where Cornell shows up in national rankings. Prospective students will use it when looking at schools, and the trustees of the university also care—a lot. Not only about rankings, but about the university’s participation rates.

Traditionally, participation calculation has been based off of the number of constituents who are

  1. Giving to the university
  2. Volunteering on behalf of the university
  3. Attending events

Now, there is a trend to start counting digital interactions as participation.

The main idea behind this is, how do people truly interact with the university in a meaningful way?

Some of the ways this is calculated is through counting livestream participants while live streaming an event and recording who they are. Cornell is also counting people who volunteer online and looking at facebook interaction.

Tuition-driven programs have peaked, and fundraising is keeping universities open. This new digital age helps make alumni engagement and fundraising more effective than ever.

Personalize, personalize, personalize. There’s no better way to make meaningful connections with students, alumni, and donors.

This post is based on a podcast interview with Ashley Budd from Cornell University. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.