Fundraising Success at Lincoln Memorial University

Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) is a private university founded in 1897 as a living tribute to President Abraham Lincoln. LMU offers over 30 undergraduate and professional programs through its main campus and the DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine located in Harrogate, Tennessee; the LMU College of Veterinary Medicine located in Lee County, Virginia; and the John J. Duncan, Jr. School of Law located in Knoxville, Tennessee.

In 2010, LMU embarked on a project aimed at increasing donations, with QualPro, Inc., a Knoxville, Tennessee-based company with a twelve-step process that uses data analytics and statistical experimentation to identify actions that improve key metrics, had been successfully applied across a wide range of sectors including manufacturing, retail, healthcare, telecommunications, and state and federal government. LMU’s project was an early application of the MVT Process in the higher education sector.

The First LMU Test

The first test at LMU took place under the leadership of Cynthia L. Whitt, vice president for university advancement. Fundraising is a critical component of any private university, and the advancement division employs a variety of fundraising methods throughout the year including direct mail, phonathons, donor visits, and special events.

In addition, the division includes university publications, public relations and marketing, alumni affairs, prospect research, and social media. Because university fundraising is measured in terms of dollars raised and gift count, these two primary metrics formed the basis of the first test.

Finding What Helps, What Hurts, and What Makes No Difference

Throughout the years, the company assisting LMU in their fundraising efforts has learned that on average only 25 percent of the ideas tested actually help an organization, while 25 percent hurt and 50 percent make no difference. For this reason, a critical first step in planning the test is the process of brainstorming a large number of potential ideas.

This brainstorming process brings in potential factors from all levels of the organization, in order to avoid simply recycling practices that are already presumed to be successful. LMU’s first brainstorming process generated over 200 potential test ideas, yielding 23 final factors including direct mail solicitation versions, publications and donor visit strategies.

These factors focused on measuring both gift dollars and individual gift count. Once the factors for the initial test were selected, staff then divided LMU’s database of 28,000 active, addressable alumni and friends into 60 groups that were ready for analysis. Using these test groups, QualPro’s analysts provided advancement staff with sets of test factor combinations called “recipes.” Using these recipes as the road map, LMU implemented the test and reported weekly results for each of the 60 test groups.

Examples of Test Factor Implementation

Very quickly, the first test at Lincoln Memorial University revealed the power of the new process in place on campus. At a time in which many universities experienced significant declines in giving, Annual Fund gifts at LMU rose by a phenomenal 83 percent during the test period.

In addition to fundraising increases, however, the insights gained during this initial test also yielded benefits in the form of efficiencies and cost savings. For example, analysis revealed that the longstanding practice of mailing Christmas fundraising solicitations in bright red envelopes actually had no impact on giving rates. As a result, this extra cost could be eliminated without impacting contributions.

Strategic Application of Data Analysis

In addition to direct mail testing, the process has generated valuable lessons over the years in terms of maximizing the effectiveness of personal visits and direct donor contact. For example, many universities frequently use student callers during special phonathon events throughout the year. However, would a company that offers professional, scripted calling services produce better results than student callers? If so, would it be worth the extra cost? This question was evaluated in two separate tests that considered a number of factors including variations in scripting, solicitation amounts, and pre- and post- email announcements.

The results of the phonathon tests have been particularly instructive. Tests revealed that professional callers do indeed have a greater impact on converting non-donors, which is an important goal each year in fundraising. However, student callers generated larger dollar amounts per gift. So, it was determined that in different scenarios both strategies could be effective. Armed with this analysis, LMU now has the ability to apply these results strategically as they focus on specific fundraising goals, costs, and opportunities throughout the year.

Expansion into Enrollment and Retention

Throughout the past several years, LMU has expanded its application of the MVT Process into additional areas of the university including marketing, recruitment strategies and social media. When the MVT Process was applied to new student recruitment, for example, the result was a 30 percent increase in freshman applications, and a dramatic 900 percent increase in scores of 30 and above on the ACT among applicants. In 2013, LMU tested multiple strategies designed to increase the undergraduate retention rate, and the impact was immediate: the next year LMU’s retention rate increased from 73 to 79.3 percent.

Five years and eleven test cycles later, the lessons learned at Lincoln Memorial University have been far-reaching indeed. Not only has LMU identified dozens of factors that can be improved or eliminated in order to enhance programs and achieve target goals, the new system in place has helped to establish a culture of increased attention to detail and quality. Cynthia Whitt describes it as bringing “discipline and energy to fundraising.” Furthermore, an attitude of evaluation is now “baked in” to the university’s processes, and longstanding practices that once were simply assumed to work are now routinely tested.

Managing Multiple Dimensions of Data

From an information management standpoint, the experience of coding and tracking test data has also challenged LMU to grow in its ability to manage multiple dimensions of data, and to develop new and innovative ways to maintain test factors in its database.

Because of this, LMU is now much better equipped to leverage test results and identify insights revealed in its donor data. Furthermore, because multiple factors can be tested simultaneously in a twelve-week test period, strategic decisions can be made much more quickly with a level of confidence that was previously impossible to obtain.

In November 2015, Lincoln Memorial University will embark on its 12th test cycle focusing on Annual Fund, faculty/staff giving, and corporate relations strategies. Whatever the outcome of this test, it is clear that the new systems have shaped LMU’s attitude toward process improvement, and that LMU’s goal is nothing less than breakthrough performance.

About the Author
Frank W. Woodward is assistant vice president for university advancement at Lincoln Memorial University. He also serves as an adjunct instructor in LMU’s master of public administration program. He can be reached at frank.woodward@