Case Study:

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

THE CLIENT

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a world leader in the study and conservation of birds. The Lab uses science, research and technology to advance the understanding and protection of the natural world and engage people from all walks of life to make new scientific discoveries, share insights and observations, and galvanize conservation action. Although the Lab is a unit of Cornell University, it is a distinct nonprofit conservation organization that depends on the support of individuals, including its 137,000 members, donors and supporters, as well as research revenue, grants and other income, to fund its vital work.

The Lab is home to several citizen-science programs, such as eBird, NestWatch, Project FeederWatch, Celebrate Urban Birds and Great Backyard Bird Count, which together engage several hundred thousand participants. It also manages dozens of interactive and educational websites, including All About Birds, which alone attracts over 12 million unique visitors a year.

As long-term partners, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Schultz & Williams (S&W) have worked together, along with digital and data partners, to advance a donor-centric, multichannel direct response program that builds on the Lab’s unique ability to interact with members, donors and supporters. By connecting people emotionally with birds and providing access to tools and resources that promote research and conservation, the Lab allows its supporters to become more deeply engaged and to see the direct impact of their actions and generosity. Our work together has been guided by comprehensive analysis, an understanding of the Lab’s unique supporters, and insight into what motivates its constituencies to act on behalf of the birds.

Highlights

Fundraising Climate

An increasingly difficult fundraising climate makes it challenging for many organizations to expand their base of support and to continue actively engaging a committed donor base. Therefore, advancing program goals for CLO requires an ongoing strategic and collaborative approach—one that allows investment to be driven by analysis and research.

Innovation x 4

CLO & S&W work together to advance a donor-centric, multichannel direct response program that builds on the Lab’s unique ability to interact with members, donor and supporters. We devise innovative ways to find new members who support the Lab’s mission; to more deeply engage a broader community; to increase revenue; and to enhance the member/donor experience.

Growth Strategy

In 2016, CLO reached 100,000 supporters as a result of our work together. That number continues to climb every year, with an average of 12% annual growth over the past five years. We achieved this milestone by building a community of support that leveraged the Lab’s internal assets—scientific knowledge, rich content and citizen-science programs.

The Challenge

An increasingly difficult fundraising climate makes it challenging for organizations to expand their base of support and to continue actively engaging a committed donor base. Therefore, advancing program goals requires a strategic and collaborative approach—one that allows investment to be driven by analysis and research. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and S&W continue to work together to devise innovative ways to find new members who support the Lab’s mission; to more deeply engage a broader community through multiple communications channels; to increase the organization’s revenue; and to enhance the member/donor experience.

Over the last ten years, the program has experienced steady growth, often in contrast to industry trends. While some organizations in the conservation sector have experienced stagnancy or even a drop-off in new donor acquisition, the Lab has been able to grow through a strategic combination of direct mail and online communications techniques. By pursuing targeted rented lists, lapsed donors, modeled prospects, citizen-science participants and qualified online leads, the Lab has achieved response rates consistently above industry standards. The challenge is to maintain this growth as economic concerns loom for 2020. In addition, organizations that have served as reliable sources of new names continue to experience declines in their files, making it more difficult to expand the universe for the Lab.

The Solution

In 2016, we celebrated a significant milestone with the Lab as the result of our work together—reaching 100,000 supporters. That number continues to climb every year, with an average of 12% growth per year over the past five years. We achieved this milestone by building a community of support that leveraged the Lab’s internal assets—scientific knowledge, rich content and citizen-science programs—as well as the expertise of its external partners in social media and digital engagement. Together, we combined an aggressive direct mail acquisition strategy with creative social media, digital engagement and list-building tactics that leveraged the Lab’s interactive and compelling website and technology to engage visitors and elevate the conversation about birds. Guided by testing and analysis both offline and online, we focused on conservatively increasing volume in direct mail acquisition, selecting targeted lists and employing predictive models to identify the most qualified donors. At the same time, we developed compelling creative communications to appeal to and convert diverse audiences into members.

The goal continues to be growth of the file—not growth for the sake of hitting a specific number of names, but managed and strategic growth that targets members, donors and supporters who care about birds and conservation and who want to engage with the organization’s mission over the long term. We continue to employ the same acquisition strategies, incorporating what we have learned about the Lab’s supporters’ behavior and motivations. Comprehensive analysis guides conservative yet consistent increases in acquisition investment each year.

In concert with acquisition efforts, we employ a comprehensive focus on retention efforts—renewing, cultivating, converting and engaging current supporters. Our strategy includes encouraging multichannel behavior among existing supporters, as analysis shows multichannel donors to be highly engaged. Cultivation efforts are aimed at renewing and upgrading members and donors as well as converting donors to monthly contributors to create a pipeline of quality donors with the inclination and capacity to do more. The Lab’s many interactive tools and resources and rich content available provide the ideal foundation for successful retention efforts.

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