Building a Digital Donor Engagement Strategy at Penn GSE

When I joined the Penn GSE team as Vice Dean for Development and Alumni Relations in 2016, I was thrilled to come back to my alma mater and build connections with the amazing alumni and donors who are pushing education forward across the globe.

When Dean Pam Grossman joined the School, she had recognized the importance of fundraising and built out her administration accordingly. As an alumna of the School myself, I was drawn back to Penn GSE by the opportunity to jumpstart fundraising under Dean Grossman. I was excited by the chance to support the transformative work being done by Penn GSE’s students, faculty and staff — work that is changing lives locally, nationally, and globally through education.

While the school had so many things working in its favor — high alumni satisfaction rates, unparalleled social impact, groundbreaking programs, and its Ivy League status — alumni giving levels, both in terms of participation rate and total giving — represented an opportunity for growth. The focus over the previous decade had been primarily on grant support and program growth, which were both very successful. Under new leadership, the development and alumni programs were to be revitalized and strengthened.

I know firsthand the benefits of a Penn GSE education and was confident that alumni and friends would be eager to support the social impact of the School if we communicated it in a way that was authentic and resonated. So we set out on a mission to better understand our audiences and how we can communicate with them most effectively.

Why user research was mission critical

As we prepared to launch the Extraordinary Impact Campaign, a multi-year fundraising initiative representing part of Penn’s University-wide Power of Penn Campaign, we agreed on the need for updated messaging and a fresh online look to support our efforts. We knew that if we were going to succeed in reaching new donors, it would be crucial to do user research and big-picture thinking beforehand.

With a pivotal fundraising initiative underway, our team realized the need for in-depth user research conducted by a trusted partner with an intimate knowledge of education fundraising. We chose eCity Interactive as a partner because of the agency’s experience in education fundraising and track record of success on other Penn projects.

What we learned throughout the user research process

Alumni and donors are not necessarily the same people, and we needed an agency that could help us communicate with multiple constituencies in a more personalized manner. eCity understood the nuances of fundraising communications and was able to dig deep into who our users are and how to reach them online.

eCity provided:

  • An audit of our current website
  • Digital content strategy, including user personas and messaging guidelines based on user surveys and interviews
  • A 3-month content calendar
  • Website recommendations, including updated information architecture and wireframes
  • SEO recommendations
  • Designs for key pages
  • An email template for future campaign communications

Working with eCity was an incredibly seamless and organized process. The eCity team never missed a deadline, and they did a great job coordinating with our internal communication workflows. We knew what all of the steps in the process were ahead of time, which gave us a structure to get the right people together and make important decisions in a timely fashion.

How we’ll use these newfound audience insights moving forward

Going through this process with eCity has been extraordinarily beneficial to us as a GSE team. Internally, we’ve gained clarity about our brand that is grounded in user research and will inform our communications efforts well after the new website is launched.

Getting different departments involved in this process has been a powerful way for us to collectively realize that what resonates with us doesn’t necessarily resonate with the people we are trying to reach. The user personas we’ve developed are so important because they’ve encouraged us to think differently about the way we communicate with our various audience segments. The message may be the same or similar, but the way we deliver it will vary based on persona. For example, we might send a hard copy of something to older alums who may not have email. However, we know that millennials won’t read our solicitation letter, so we’re now thinking about ways to communicate through social media or texting.

This shift in messaging has shown encouraging results early on. Already, Penn GSE is 27% ahead of our previous fiscal year in dollars raised through the annual fund, a key strategic goal of the School. The only thing that’s changed is the way and frequency with which we communicate with our audience.

We recently launched our updated alumni and donor relations web presence and communication plan in synch with the University’s campaign launch and alumni weekend, and I feel confident that we will continue to see an increase in donor participation and dollars raised. As we continue to plan our digital content strategy beyond the website, the insights uncovered by eCity will help us stay focused on who we’re trying to reach, how we can reach them, and how we can best serve their needs.


melissa-calvertMelissa Calvert is Vice Dean for Development and Alumni Relations at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. A senior advancement professional with over 20 years experience, Melissa relies on an entrepreneurial spirit, innovative perspective, and a passion for fundraising to lead exceptional advancement programs that have secured operating/unrestricted, capital, and endowment gifts in the range of $100,000 to $12,000,000 and extensive comprehensive campaign experience with campaigns ranging from $60,000,000 – $500,000,000.

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