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Giving Day 2020: How Cornell University Moved Ahead

We sat down with Ashley Budd, the Director of Digital Marketing for Alumni Affairs and Development at Cornell University. She shared insights from her experience managing the annual Cornell Giving Day on March 12, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Cornell Giving Day 2020
Cornell Giving Day 2020 Results

Marketing for Cornell Giving Day launched on February 27, 2020, for the big event two weeks later. The university’s main headquarters in Ithaca, NY, was only just beginning to experience the indirect impact of COVID-19. But in the days just before March 12, an announcement would be made with a plan to send all Cornell students home.

With a fully dedicated team behind this event, Ashley described the university’s Giving Day as a “unicorn” in the space, acknowledging that the size of the team and the resources available enabled them to move forward.

A similar situation likely wouldn’t play out the same way at other institutions. However, the insights she gained from this year’s experience in particular shine a spotlight on some important aspects of how to approach alumni engagement when things don’t go according to plan.

Gathering Feedback With Social Listening

1. When faced with a global crisis like the one we’re currently in, what would you say are the most important factors to consider when deciding how to execute a Giving Day?

As director of Digital Marketing (besides knowing that my boss is okay with solicitations moving forward), I’m paying really close attention to what our audience is saying. That means tracking email replies, social media reactions, and the broader sentiment among the public.

2. How did your team track sentiment leading up to the Giving Day, and what trends did you see that impacted your strategy?

Leading up to our Giving Day on March 12, we saw public opinions changing fast. We were tracking sentiment on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

We launched early giving with our most loyal donors on March 3rd. And that first week we saw these donors show up at the same rate they had the year before and their generosity was overwhelming. This year was the largest early giving year we’ve had on record.

We continued to send email announcements as planned and saw very little pushback to moving forward with our Giving Day.

On March 9th, we opened early giving for international alumni. After seeing gifts come in from the most affected countries in Asia, we started to understand that Cornell Giving Day could coexist amidst such turmoil.

Pivoting Communication Strategies

3. What pivots were made to your communication strategy because of the crisis?

The week of our giving day we started to see our local community was impacted. Students were told that Cornell would make a shift to online learning and to start making plans to head home. We made a decision to pull students and current parents from our email communication for the remainder of the campaign.

The decision was twofold. First, we didn’t have time to change all of our messaging in a way that wouldn’t seem tone-deaf. Second, we wanted to ensure that our messages were not drowning out more important messages that needed to come through their email inboxes that day.

For the rest of our community, we included a new message that acknowledged the rapidly changing environment we found ourselves in.

Because we manage all our email communication centrally, we were able to do a quick scan to make sure we were setting the right tone. And while everything couldn’t be re-written, we were able to adjust language in some places that seemed overly celebratory for the moment.

4. Were there any changes made to your Giving Day site due to the crisis?

Yes! We were able to use the intercom feature on the Giving Day website to share the same acknowledgment message we included in our emails.

Cornell Giving Day 2020

5. How much additional work had to go into this Giving Day compared to last year, and what percentage of your Giving Day team was involved to make it happen?

Cornell Giving Days are familiar with crises. So, in many ways, this was no different from when we had to pivot away from the fake news that blind-sided us in 2015 or the blizzard that closed campus in 2017. Like all years, and all Giving Days, it’s an all-hands-on-deck effort.

A Tailored Approach

6. Can you provide some insight into the uniqueness of your Giving Day team, and how this could impact the strategy for other higher-ed institutions?

Our Giving Day team works year-round on this project. We’re fortunate to have staff, resources, leadership support, and support from campus partners.

Our ability to manage the communication efforts centrally was crucial. We otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make changes so quickly or have the confidence that our messaging would be striking the right tone.

7. Did you see any giving trends that were particularly different this year?

I wouldn’t say any of the trends were different. We had fewer parents and students participating but that was to be expected–because we didn’t communicate with them on Giving Day. The real shock was in the thousands of students and parents that showed up anyway.

8. What is your primary takeaway from this experience? Do you have general advice for other higher-ed Giving Day teams based on your experience?

Be ready for anything. Make the case for managing communication centrally. Use one email tool where you can review communication and manage audiences in one place.

Learn more about Cornell Giving Day 2020 in the Cornell University Advancement Team’s Day of Giving Roundtable Video.

Cornell Giving Day 2020

About Ashley Budd:

Ashley Budd is a digital strategist and designer based in Saratoga Springs, New York. She’s the director of digital marketing for Alumni Affairs and Development at Cornell University.