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CASE STUDY

Whitworth University

Learn how DRG has partnered with Whitworth University for more than a decade to transform their donor experience, improve donor retention, and raise more funds.

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The Challenge

Having a robust donor relations program was once considered a luxury rather than a necessity in higher ed. 

The terms ‘stewardship’ and ‘donor relations’ were used interchangeably. 

Facilitating meaningful relationships with donors was left to major gift officers. 
 

Donor Relations tasks were strictly transactional:

  • Receipts

  • Acknowledgments (only for gifts over $2,000 of course)

  • Endowed scholarship reports

  • Donor honor rolls
     

Tad Wisenor of Whitworth University, a small private Christian liberal arts university in Spokane, Washington, recognized that this was not a sustainable approach to donor retention.

Much like Donor Relations Group founder Lynne Wester, Tad was unsatisfied with the status quo. Whitworth wanted to level up their operation and knew they needed professional guidance to make it happen, so they hired Lynne to enhance their fundraising efforts and establish a more comprehensive donor relations program.

Wisenor, then Director of Campaign Planning, sought out Lynne at a conference to discuss their shared desire to positively disrupt the Advancement space.

It was clear that together, they could accomplish just that at Whitworth.

Such were the beginnings of a long and fruitful relationship between Whitworth and DRG that has stretched over a decade.

Whitworth was looking for a consultant that would partner with them from conceptualization to execution. 

 

“Once I met Lynne, we never considered working with anyone else,” admits Tad. DRG had a reputation for being innovative and knowledgeable. In his words, Lynne was “wicked smart and lived on the cutting edge of the industry.” 

The primary objective was to retain donors by deepening connections with Whitworth’s donors and friends. Although increased giving was a likely byproduct, the focus remained on relationships. 

To get there, DRG would evaluate Whitworth’s existing program, eliminate any inefficiencies, and elevate the donor experience.

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The Strategy

Evaluating the Existing Program

After several productive discussions and brainstorms, Whitworth and DRG worked together to identify their best starting point — a survey. No more relying on what had always been done. The data would hold the key to elevating the donor experience at Whitworth, which became the underlying theme in their 10+ year relationship. 

Instead of assuming what donors wanted based on widely taught “best practices,” they used actual feedback from the survey to determine next practices. 

They surveyed alumni donors and non-donors, and they surveyed non-alumni donors.

DRG and Whitworth systematically evaluated the day-to-day functions of the donor relations team in relation to the findings. Every responsibility requires time, and a team member’s time is valuable real estate in the nonprofit space. 

The results verified Tad’s suspicion that donors simply wanted to know how their gifts were making a difference. 

With limited financial resources and a small team, doing one more thing was not an option unless something big came off their plates.

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The Solution

Eliminating Program Inefficiencies

Choosing which practices to discard meant identifying what they were currently doing that yielded minimal results.

Each task had to pass a litmus test: Did it positively impact the donor experience? 

The alumni and friends of Whitworth had spoken: Merely acknowledging donors on a tiered list was not enough to retain them or deepen the relationship. It was evident from the results that honor rolls should be among the first to go. 

Some find it challenging to convince leadership to cease a practice that is so deeply ingrained in institutional history. Yet, thanks to the survey, there was data to support the recommendation — and Whitworth stopped their donor honor roll immediately. 

Elevating the Donor Experience

Now unencumbered by the honor roll, Whitworth’s team had the capacity to take on tasks that actually strengthened their relationships with donors. 

Together, they developed a strategic plan focused on key areas as outlined in Lynne’s book The Four Pillars of Donor Relations

  1. Acknowledgment

  2. Stewardship

  3. Recognition

  4. Engagement

Filtered through the Four Pillars framework, DRG worked with Whitworth to implement sweeping changes to its donor relations program. This included:

  • Improving the user experience on online giving forms 

  • Updating web pages

  • Revamping communication strategies

  • Enhancing events

  • Hiring, training, and mentoring staff 

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The Results

With DRG's help, the university better engaged and retained donors, resulting in more dollars in the door.

Tad Wisenor speaks highly of his experience: "Attention to detail and solutions that meet us where we are at every stage of program development" were the biggest advantages of working with DRG.

The Donor Relations Group understands the challenges that nonprofits face when it comes to donor relations and fundraising. That is why we work closely with clients to create customized solutions that meet each organization’s specific needs and goals.

Whether organizations are just starting with donor relations or looking to enhance their existing programs, DRG is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you elevate your donor experience.

Business Presentation
"Attention to detail and solutions that meet us where we are at every stage of program development were the biggest advantages of working with DRG."
– TAD WISENOR
Senior Associate Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Whitworth University

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