How Hillsdale College Lifted Year-End Revenue by 69%

Published by Nathan Hill

Hillsdale College, located in Hillsdale, Michigan, has been providing students with a classical liberal arts education since 1834. In addition to the college, Hillsdale offers free online courses related to politics, government, the Constitution, and more.

Each day, Hillsdale has over 1000 new online course enrollees, and their most popular course – Constitution 101 – has more than 800,000 students across the world. As a result, Hillsdale College has become a national leader in training students, opinion leaders, and policy makers.

The Problem

As Hillsdale College has increased their focus on online courses, they have seen significant growth of their email file and pool of potential donors. Although they see a lot of success in acquiring instant donations after a user signs-up for a course, the year-end season remains an essential time for growing their overall revenue and bringing in donations from donors that have been cultivated throughout the year.

Across the board, organizations see stronger and more valuable donors when they are engaged across channels. Hillsdale hypothesized that by engaging donors with an integrated multi-channel campaign during the year end season, they could see greater donor conversion and lift their overall revenue.

The Plan

To accomplish this goal, Hillsdale ran a fairly simple, but clever experiment. They pulled a list of their donors and split it in half. The first half entered into their standard year-end campaign path.

They sent two emails around Giving Tuesday. During December, they sent 10 emails to their file starting with emails focused on their value proposition, and ending with a more urgent ask as the December 31st deadline approached. They also made a special year-end appeal to people who signed up for their online courses during that time. Like many other organizations, some of their appeals included a gift matching opportunity.

All in all, it was a fairly robust campaign, utilizing all of their available channels to ask for a year-end donation.

The second half of their donor file was put into the exact same path, but with one distinct difference. These donors received a hyper-personalized post-card from the president of Hillsdale College, Dr. Larry Arnn, right around Thanksgiving.

This post card gave a short message from Dr. Arnn inviting the recipient to view a video he had recorded giving his thoughts on the holiday and its history, and thanking them for their partnership with Hillsdale. To view the video, the recipient would go to a URL and enter their personalized code.

The resulting landing page had the video, as well as a donation form; although, there was not an overt donation ask or further call-to-action.

The Results

The results of this experiment were astounding. After the year-end fundraising season ended, Hillsdale reviewed their data to see what effect the post-card had. They found that people who received this Thanksgiving post card were 204% more likely to donate during year-end than those that did not receive the post card.

View the full write up of their experiment.

This experiment, along with Hillsdale’s robust use of all of their available channels to present a unified value proposition and year-end appeal, resulted in a 69% overall increase in year-end revenue when compared to the year prior.

The Learnings

Year-end campaigns can tend to become formulaic and routine. Most organizations pull out all the stops in order to send more emails, put display ads and banners on all of their web sites, and make sure they’re always emphasizing the year-end goal.

As a result, it can be difficult to think creatively and find new ways to address your audience in a manner that re-enforces your value proposition and prompts greater generosity. That’s why we gave Hillsdale College a 2017 Nonprofit Innovation & Optimization Award. They were able to cut through the traditional campaign strategy, engage donors in a new way, and see a substantial lift in revenue as a result.

One of the biggest learnings that others can take away from this experiment is that multi-channel engagement can influence a more generous donor. It can be incredibly difficult to get an offline donor to start giving online, and even harder to get an online donor to give offline – even though we know that a multi-channel donor has more value. But effectively engaging an online donor through an offline channel can strengthen their affinity towards your organization, increase the likelihood of an additional gift, and increase your revenue.


About the author:

Nathan Hill

Nathan played a snare drum in the 2008 Presidential Inaugural Parade.