When I transitioned from a 30-year career in corporate sales and marketing to serve as the administration and advancement director at Logos Evangelical Seminary, my challenge was clear. Logos had just begun a $6 million campus renovation project, and the administration was counting on me to use the business skills I had honed at AT&T and Emerson Network Power to generate support for the project.
On the surface, the similarities between corporate marketing and seminary fundraising are obvious. Labels and terminology vary — substitute “donors” for “customers” — but the objectives are the same. In both worlds, the goals can be summarized as:
Retain current donors/customers.
Win back former donors/customers.
Acquire new donors/customers.
Stimulate more donation or usage from existing donors/customers.
But then there are the differences: The seminary advancement team is small, our resources are limited, and we’re committed to building lifelong relationships rather than meeting seasonal sales targets. We do this by reaching out to donors one-on-one with prayers, phone calls, notes, and visits. We choose our words carefully as we share our school’s vision in honest and humble terms. Whereas corporate advertisements are aggressive, even boastful, our promotional materials are low key. Three years into my campus assignment, I’ve concluded that corporate marketing principles have a place in seminary settings, but only if we modify them.
Retaining current donors
Like most theological schools, Logos doesn’t have the funds to conduct expensive customer-satisfaction surveys, but we can draw lessons from the principles I have learned in corporate marketing.
One lesson I learned well back in my AT&T consumer marketing days is that an organization needs to spend three times the effort to win back a lost customer than to retain one. I often remind my colleagues, “Don’t create any events that give donors a reason to leave.” With a well-run database, we are able to participate in and care for our major donors’ critical life events such as birthdays and wedding anniversaries. And, a personal email or call always follows a donation immediately. All correspondence is warm in tone and conveys a feeling of togetherness. Our message is that donors are part of the Logos family, and the bond is permanent.
Losing donors means we have to mount a “win-back” campaign that often involves hosting special events and trying to identify and correct errors in information or perception. Win-back efforts sometimes require months — or even years — to unfold. So the first lesson is not to lose a donor under any circumstance.
Acquiring new donors
As our supporters become more senior, their earning ability decreases. We understand and strive to deal with the inevitable “churn of donors” — new donors coming in while some donors rotate out. As we attempt to grow support, we apply the principle of “personalized marketing” that I initiated at AT&T to reinforce donor acquisition and retention. The concept is simple: Our work is at its most effective when we craft interactions that customers (or donors) are most comfortable with. So age, ethnicity, language, and cultural background are factors to consider when building relationships with each donor or customer. Advancement staffs need to be highly sensitive to know the subtle nuances that distinguish donors from one another, especially for major donors. It is also critical to maintain strong ties with our alumni. Logos graduates are involved in ministry around the world—more than 600 have served in more than 20 countries — and this means they can be instrumental in introducing new donors to us.
As an example, shortly after I joined the seminary advancement team we invited some of our elderly Chinese donors to visit us for a Wednesday chapel service. Our intent was to introduce them to the campus community and honor them publically for their generosity. Despite our good intentions, most declined our invitation. When I later spoke with each of them on the telephone, I heard explanations that ranged from: “I’d rather stay low profile” to “There are others who offer more” to “It will be enough for me to receive my reward in heaven.” We learned our lesson, and now we give them plaques of thanks, signed by the seminary president and presented to them in private.
We’ve also come to realize that allegiance to the seminary isn’t necessarily passed down from one generation to the next. The children and grandchildren of our senior Chinese donors are American-born, speak only English, and may be less loyal to Chinese-speaking communities.
It’s up to the advancement staff to know donors’ expectations and preferences. This translates into another corporate practice that has application on a seminary campus. We need to offer our staff ongoing opportunities for professional development. Businesses set aside a portion of their budget to upgrade employee skills, and we should do the same if we expect our staff to understand multicultural trends and have the ability to reach out effectively to persons of different ages and backgrounds.
Working with existing donors
We also use the personalized marketing principle to stimulate more donation from existing donors. We do this through ongoing and transparent communication, employing the media that each target audience prefers. At Logos, our current challenge is to articulate the need for support beyond our annual operating budget. This involves explaining our renovation project and linking it to our school’s mission and ministry.
We’re casting a wide net and enlisting the help of pastors to carry our message. We have a tradition that we call “Logos Sundays” when our president and faculty members visit various churches to preach and invite members to attend a presentation on the seminary’s vision. At these events, we are careful to jot down the name of every person we meet for follow up within a few days. We’re also building a global network of alumni because our graduates are influential members of their communities, and their word-of-mouth recommendations are the most powerful way to build support for the seminary.
As we have learned in Association of Theological Schools advancement conferences, sowing our message widely and diligently is our foremost duty. Because of our efforts to sow our message, follow up diligently, and communicate constantly, we believe that some donors will increase their donation, as we have seen many successful cases.
Whenever possible, I rely on my experience to guide me in my current work. An old Chinese proverb says that “other people’s mistakes can help prevent our mistakes.” Having had a foot in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, I also believe that other people’s successes can serve as models for our successes.
Logos at a glance
Name: Founded by the Evangelical Formosan Church General Assembly in 1989 as Tai Fu Evangelical Seminary, the school changed its name to Logos Evangelical Seminary in 2007.
Location: El Monte, California, with an extension site in Chicago.
Distinctions: About half of Logos students come from overseas, including Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere; many classes are taught in Mandarin. The Logos e-campus is the first ATS-accredited Chinese online campus, providing theological training to Chinese-speaking Christians worldwide.
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