Cultivating donors – Aim is to build trust

By Todd Cohen

Only 8 percent of its 65,000 living alumni contribute to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

The school generates about $7 million to $8 million a year from alumni, parents and other “friends,” and has raised more than $37 million in the quiet phase of a planned $100 million capital campaign.

Now, it aims to nearly double the percentage of alumni who contribute, and to increase support from other donors.

The difference, says Tom Martz, vice chancellor for university relations, will be a new marketing effort to build relationships with alumni and others by using email and the Web to deliver news and information tailored to their individual interests.

“You can’t have good giving to the institution unless there’s a strong relationship that exists between the alumni, or even the parent or friend, and the university,” he says. “Increased giving is going to be an outcome of this.”

UNC-Charlotte has hired Seurat Company, a consulting firm in Waltham, Mass., to create a marketing strategy and customize a relationship-management tool it has developed for its commercial clients.

The school is the first nonprofit client of the firm, which will apply lessons it has learned working with commercial clients to acquire new customers, strengthen ties with existing customers and retain them for future business.

The key, says Jerry Tylman, a Seurat managing director based in Charlotte, is to create a “virtuous circle of trust-building – acquiring knowledge about customers, using that knowledge to create branded personalized experiences” and in the process creating trust.

Companies can measure trust based on purchases, repeat purchases and “sharing by the customer of more information that the company can use to personalize and craft experiences geared to you,” he says.

“Trust is not just the fact that you buy from me,” he says. “Trust is the fact that you share information about yourself with me that allows me to do a better job of serving you.”

After analyzing gift-giving rates at major universities and finding them to be modest at best, Tylman concluded that even small increases in those rates could quickly generate big increases in contributed dollars, and fuel huge increases over the long term as alumni get older and make bigger donations.

At UNC-Charlotte, for example, which produces 2,000 graduates a year and expects enrollment to grow to 25,000 by 2010 from 18,300 now, most alumni are only 22 to 40 years old.

Yet universities miss a great opportunity to connect with most alumni by cultivating mainly those donors likely to make big gifts, Tylman says.

He says the strategy will be to tap “a small portion of the mountain of content” that UNC-Charlotte has in the form of articles, publications, papers and knowledge – and customize it for alumni and others based on what it knows and they are willing to share about their jobs, families and hobbies.

Seurat sent a team of three people to UNC-Charlotte for several weeks this summer and fall to identify available content, and then “tag” it by category.

Using mail, email, phone calls, reunions and other events and forms of communication, the school in September started asking alumni and donors for information about themselves, and for permission to send them email messages with content geared to their individual interests.

Those email messages, in turn, will direct people to a Web site featuring content tailored to their individual interests.

Based on the initial effort, the school hopes to transfer to its own much of the work of continuing the relationship-building strategy. The school also hopes to serve as a pilot for the 16-campus University of North Carolina system, Martz says.

Tylman says the strategy is designed to help schools build long-term relationships with “customers” by delivering content that helps them continue to learn throughout their lifetimes.

“The essence of relationships is that there is a two-way transfer of value,” he says, “and I believe a lot of people don’t give gifts because they don’t see any value beyond the warm fuzzy feeling associated with giving.”

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