Gift lift: How higher ed can build donor support

Practical and affordable approaches any institution can employ to engage donors

Stephen Wilson, director of annual giving at Virginia State University, identifies donor prospects at no cost on LinkedIn. Using keyword searches based on profile information such as college, industry and job title, he finds potential matches and requests the connections. About half will respond and show interest in happenings at the university.

“With 20,000 alumni on LinkedIn, that’s a terrific return,” says Wilson.

In 2017, alumni gave $11.4 billion to their U.S. alma maters, an increase of 14.5 percent over 2016, reports the Council for Aid to Education.

Sidebar: From Facebook to pocketbook

Still, the average institutional advancement department faces big challenges and limited budgets in the search for practical ways to find new prospects, address generational differences in philanthropic approach, and use technology to market to the masses while trying to meet donor demand for personalized communication.

Following are four effective strategies any advancement team can use to build donor support.

14 MORE practical and affordable ideas for institutional fundraising

1. Be succinct with messaging— people are deluged with information and solicitations.

2. Reconsider direct mail, which is seeing higher returns as more organizations have cut back on it.

3. Engage current students through career networking and mentoring to keep them connected after graduation. $ Works for: St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, which offers online and in-person opportunities for alumni

4. Cultivate young alumni with fundraisers planned on and promoted through social media, email and Skype.


1. Target the online community

Three of four donors surveyed in the 2017 Public Interest Registry’s study of global trends in giving said social media was a primary news source for staying current on the work of their favorite organizations. One-quarter of them said social media most often inspired them to give.

“Using technology to personalize your message for online communities is absolutely a necessity today,” says fundraising consultant Phil Hills, president and CEO of Marts and Lundy. “The golden nugget of annual giving is how to do mass marketing and make it seem like it’s one-on-one.”

In just two years, Carrie Collins, chief advancement officer of Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and her team have almost doubled fundraising results. They got a big boost from an alumni platform (created with iModules Software) that capitalized on the college’s social media presence.

Event registration, online giving and broadcast emails are also handled by iModules.

“We are extremely cognizant of our costs to raise dollars, and this contract allowed us to consolidate our resources by using one technology,” says Collins.

#OneDaySJU, the annual online day of giving for Saint Joseph’s University, also in Philadelphia, challenges alumni to give a certain number of gifts, with pledged money going to specific projects.

Donors can set up challenges, as well; for example, one active challenge for the 2018 day was to get 100 parent donors between 3:30 and 5 p.m. to release a special gift.

In 2017, #OneDaySJU raised more than $290,000, at a cost of $20,000, spent mainly on technology and marketing. Tom Chaves, associate vice president of advancement operations, targets each alumni segment with projects matching its interests.

“This is a great way to acquire new donors and has significantly higher retention levels than we achieve with other fundraising initiatives,” he says.

14 MORE practical and affordable ideas for institutional fundraising (cont.)

5. Create a personal web experience that each visitor can relate to.

6. Make giving online as seamless as possible; all online donor tools and pages should be mobile friendly.

7. Consider restructuring the advancement department. $ Worked for: Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, which increased the number of individuals with prospect portfolios, and reworked positions to add frontline fundraising responsibilities


2. Track donor prospects

Baby boomers are expected to pass $30 trillion on to their children and grandchildren over the next several decades, according to research from the wealth management organization U.S. Trust. Pipeline development is critical, and new tools help major gift officers find new prospects within oceans of data.

One of the most cost-effective strategies is to mine the tremendous amount of information available on social media.

“Even the smallest, most resource-restrained institutions have built significant social followings over the last 10 years, but few have harnessed the engagement that can be built on that pipeline,” says Brent Grinna, CEO of EverTrue, a provider of advancement automation technology.

EverTrue technology helps Weber State University in Utah follow posts on 10 alumni Facebook sites and determine each graduate’s affinity for the university. Matt Spencer, associate vice president of the Office of University Advancement, has successfully followed the trail from online “likes” and comments to face-to-face meetings and new major donors.

For example, a young alumnus who is now a business executive funded a business school scholarship and joined the Weber State president’s national advisory council. In addition, Spencer and his major gift officers have cultivated dozens of new president’s club donors who each give an annual gift of $1,000 or more.

“This tool is helping us turn over stones and discover folks who didn’t respond to phone calls or direct mail,” he says.

Spencer, along with Wilson at Virginia State, also uses WealthEngine—a provider of data-based software and consulting services for fundraising and marketing—to screen alumni databases to determine individuals’ giving capacity.

Collins at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, meanwhile, has had success with the Reeher fundraising platform’s proprietary predictive model. The fundraising management system analyzes and scores the giving behaviors and characteristics of prospects so advancement teams can target those with the highest potential.

14 MORE practical and affordable ideas for institutional fundraising (cont.)

8. Spend time with your CFO, providing information about the fundraising process and timeline.

9. Keep up on news about local companies, corporations and foundations to identify new prospects.

10. Target couples who met at the college, whose strong affinity makes them good prospects. One idea is to organize a Valentine’s Day event for these alumni.

11. Collect contact information from parents at move-in and during parents’ weekend. $ Works for: Virginia State University, which has done an e-solicitation already and may contact these parents via direct mail as well


3. Cultivate young donors

Millennials, 80 million strong, will constitute 46 percent of the workforce by 2020 and 75 percent by 2025, reports the EAB Advancement Forum, a higher ed research and services firm.

Those in this generation, who were born between 1980 and 1999, are currently “advancing in careers and accumulating a little bit of wealth, but the playbook for engaging them is substantially different than we are used to,” says Jeff Martin, senior consultant of EAB Advancement Forum.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) recently asked a panel of young donors about their giving preferences.

“They rejected the word €˜philanthropy,’ ” says Sue Cunningham, CASE’s president and CEO. “They see themselves as investors who choose based on where their dollars will have maximum impact, and they want to be involved in the outcome.”

With this audience, colleges should emphasize the huge impact an investment in higher education has because it prepares people to find long-term solutions to the problems other nonprofits are addressing today, she says.

Young alums may complain that their colleges contact them only for donations. Small schools with limited budgets should therefore maintain a constant stream of communication—pre-ask—about topics other than fundraising, Martin says. Administrators can do this by capitalizing on existing channels, such as academic department newsletters.

Millennial alumni can be recruited as social media ambassadors who share messages to drive interest in the institution.

Short-term volunteer opportunities—such as participation on a strike force that tackles one problem for a designated time period—are another idea, Martin says. He recommends targeted, low-cost Facebook posts and ads, as well as crowdfunding initiatives.

“Millennials and GenZers want to be part of a movement, and they respond well to things they see as viral,” he says. At Saint Joseph’s, Chaves crowdfunds to tie donor interests to projects such as purchasing equipment for medical students.

He will use ThankView—which allows users to design, record and deliver personalized video messages—to send individual thank-you messages featuring students. Virginia State has effectively brought in gifts via social media as well, raising $100,000 in five days with a campaign that featured a giving challenge and videos of its president and alumni.

Compared to sending pricey mail pieces, social media is helping “to move the needle for dollars and donors at very little cost,” Wilson says. The Philadelphia osteopathic college’s PCOM Pillars program has received a tremendous response from alumni who like to participate in distinct activities, such as mentoring students, speaking on campus and hosting events.

The program’s aim is to give alumni opportunities to share practical knowledge and provide guidance to current students. One 2017 networking reception event, for example, connected third- and fourth-year students with young alumni.

14 MORE practical and affordable ideas for institutional fundraising (cont.)

12. Use telephone fundraising selectively—reaching donor segments that have a home phone and may pick up and talk to a student.

13. Organize alumni and donors by location and by giving history to guide major gift officers’ visits in a specific area. $ Works for: Weber State University in Utah, using an alumni mapping feature provided by EverTrue

14. Showcase alumni success stories to help find donor prospects (and recruit students, too). $ Works for: Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, which asks students and alumni to record their stories for commercials and other marketing materials

4. Build partnerships

Forming alliances with internal and external stakeholders is a good way to gain valuable resources. This is a job for everyone, says Cunningham. “A small team of advancement professionals can succeed only if there is ownership across the college.

Collins partners with Jay Feldstein, PCOM’s president, to articulate compelling fundraising priorities—and her alumni are responding. The president recently met with prospective donors at seven salon events across the country, sponsored by alumni, to discuss the college’s strategic goals. The effort has secured $35,000, with an additional $25,000 to come.

At Virginia State, Wilson relies on partnerships with volunteer board members of the VSU Foundation and university administrators to make connections with donors and corporations.

He takes a strategically selected group to the local Richmond Forum speaker series—which is attended by influential people in the community—and finds that the contacts made there are a great first step in cultivating major donors.

Bess Littlefield, vice president for institutional advancement and strategic partnerships at Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Virginia, is also a big believer in the importance of community connections.

The school’s culinary arts and hospitality management program is increasing in popularity as the local need for chefs and restaurant workers grows. This means more teaching facilities are needed.

Several college board members connected Reynolds’ team with a local philanthropist who is launching a mixed-use real estate development project focused on addressing food insecurity and workforce development in a low-income section of the city.

He offered Reynolds a 25,000-square-foot facility as part of the project, says Littlefield, who is also raising funds for kitchen and classroom equipment.

“We tell donors that we are an important part of the puzzle for workforce development in an industry that is an economic driver, as well as a participant in a project that will strengthen the East End community,” she says. “They are responding with donations.” 

Harriet Meyers is a Columbia, Maryland-based writer who frequently covers higher ed advancement.


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