How Colleges Can Advance Their Fundraising Campaigns

November 21, 2017

November is the month of gratitude. We give thanks to friends and family, invite them over for Thanksgiving and football, and ring in the holiday season together.

We’re thankful for our education, too, and our alma maters know it. That’s why Giving Tuesday has played such an important role in college fundraising over the past few years. On Giving Tuesday, usually the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, many colleges run fundraising campaigns to engage with supporters and alumni.

But what happens if the holiday season overshadows Giving Tuesday? It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle of trying to navigate airports during the holidays, trying not to burn the turkey on Thanksgiving, and keeping your cat from knocking over the Christmas tree.

I came across this dilemma while I was director of marketing at Empire State College, where I helped the development staff promote their springtime giving event. We did everything from interacting on social media to making online graphics that simulated a room filling with donors, as well as putting Post-it notes on walls to form the shape of Empire State College’s shield. Through smart, creative marketing strategies and the hard work of the development staff, we were able to exceed our campaign goals.

A lot of our clients have asked me how we went about these advancement campaigns, why we did them in the spring, and how we were successful. Below, I answer the most frequently asked questions and share our strategies and ideas that you could replicate at your own school.

What were the goals of the advancement campaigns you worked on?

The two advancement campaigns that I worked on while at Empire State College were both 24-hour giving events. In both cases, the goal was to generate as much participation in the event and not to focus so much on the dollar amount raised. Empire State College primarily serves adult students, many of them with jobs and families, who take classes online and at 35 locations across New York state. With busy adult students, no traditional campus and no sports teams, we couldn’t rely on the same kind of nostalgia or school spirit that you might find at other schools to encourage giving.

Why should colleges shift their focus from November campaigns to spring ones? 

In the last few years, 24-hour giving events have become popular at many institutions as a way to focus people’s attention and create a buzz and sense of urgency. The development staff who planned our events deliberately chose to do it in the spring so it would not get lost in the giving month of November (during school breaks and other holidays).

What strategies were used at Empire State College? 

In both years, the overall strategy was to generate some anticipation ahead of the event, then on the day of the event provide a landing page promoting it and making it easy to give online. To build momentum, we had several donors who agreed to put up challenge grants at specified points in the day—Think “[Name] will give $50,000 if we get 200 donors by 10 a.m.” Each time a challenge was met, another (pre-arranged, but previously unannounced) donor would step up with a second, or third challenge.

We generated excitement and anticipation around the event by sending out a “Save the Date” postcard and several reminder emails to alumni and the entire college community. The postcard and email linked to the event landing page, which had a countdown clock on it until midnight on the day before the event. At midnight, it automatically switched over to actual content. This was particularly effective the first year as no one knew what was going to be announced on the date.

How were the campaigns promoted on the day of the event? 

We used a number of different tactics to get things started and keep them going.  Emails were sent out on the day reminding people of the event and driving them to the landing page.

 Because the goal of the event was increased participation rates, the messaging on the landing page, in emails and in social media posts focused on getting enough donors to meet each challenge. As a reward for giving and to encourage others to participate, donors were redirected back to the landing page immediately after submitting the online giving form, where they could see their names appear on the landing page in real time.

In both years we used a combination of video and social media to promote and report on the event throughout the day. This included messages from the president and other senior administrators, as well as development staff, and other members of the school community (staff, faculty, students, alumni). Many of the posts were fun or downright silly in order to get people interested and excited about the event. The vice president of finance offered to shave half of his mustache if we met one of the challenges. It was. We then took a video and posted it on social media.

How can colleges promote students and alumni to get involved in volunteerism and giving back to their alma mater? 

The approach we took was to focus on people, make it easy and fun, and to remind everyone how much students benefit from the education they receive.  Many of Empire’s students are working adults with families, who are looking for an education to get a job, a promotion or to switch careers, so there was a very direct “feel good” factor to it all.

Like these ideas and want to hear more? Get in touch with us!

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