Higher ed fuels donations

How mobile-friendly platforms and social media are fueling donations

While direct mail and phone remain strong methods of courting donors, advancement offices face the reality that younger alumni may not even have a landline or use a checkbook.

More than 1 in 5 online donations were made on a mobile device in 2017, according to research from the Blackbaud Institute for Philanthropic Impact. In other words, engaging with digitally driven donors on their preferred devices is not just a nice idea but a necessity.

Administrators at Davidson College, a private liberal arts school in North Carolina, began to notice points of friction in their donation process. Change began a few years ago with the transition of databases. “There was a complete overhaul of our online giving form to make it more user-friendly,” says Caitlin James, Davidson’s director of annual giving.

Online exclusive: Fundraising providers on challenges to setting up mobile giving

Those changes—along with a number of online and mobile initiatives—have paid off. In fiscal year 2017, 73 percent of alumni donations were generated online.

“Most institutions are doing some form of fundraising online or through social media,” says Caryn Stein, vice president of marketing at higher ed consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz. “They are leveraging those channels to reach new donors and existing alumni, and to reduce the barrier to entry for giving that first gift.”

Sidebar: Key criteria for choosing a mobile donation vendor

In this age of easy-to-navigate GoFundMe campaigns and Amazon one-click shopping, most institutions have barely scratched the surface of the latest innovations in mobile fundraising. Here are key actions recommended by those who are making headway.

Simplify giving forms

Donors should be able to make a gift inside a minute, and prefilled forms are a big convenience, says Dana Peterson, vice president of product development and monitor services for Corporate Insight, which conducts independent third-party research on alumni.

Bucknell University, a private liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, has ramped up its mobile friendliness, allowing gift-givers to use PayPal, for instance. “Donors don’t want to scroll or flip left and right, and fields have to be easy to populate,” says Tasha Williams, senior assistant director of annual fund outreach and analysis.

Not every advancement team has the resources to add a one-click transaction experience, says Peterson. For starters, some popular payment platforms, such as Venmo, do not support nonprofit giving. And many institutions do not want to work with services that take a percentage of each donation as a fee.

Also, most colleges don’t have the technology infrastructure that allows them to be agile. “When a school launches a microsite or mobile app, they’re stuck with it,” says Peterson, adding that universities aren’t “nimble machines that can just drop legacy systems.”

A 10-year contract with a campus payment platform has prevented Purdue University from achieving its goal of adding a PayPal button to its online giving forms, says Amber Turner, senior director for annual giving and stewardship.

Still, Purdue is making other improvements. For instance, if donors click on a “give now” link in an email, they land on a form where fields—except for credit card and contribution amount—are prefilled.

“It definitely helped shorten the time spent on the form,” says Turner. “It’s not the one-click system we aspire to, but we are actively looking for the best way to facilitate that.”

Provide choice and build excitement

Crowdfunding platforms, such as Kickstarter and GoFundMe, allow donors to earmark contributions to a particular cause—making higher ed gift-givers less eager overall to donate to a general fund.

“That’s a barrier we have in annual giving, whereas with crowdfunding, you believe your gift is really going to make a difference,” says Rob Henry, vice president of education at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).

At Middle Tennessee State University, polling shows that alumni—especially younger graduates—have less interest in funding the institution, says Kristen Keene, associate director of annual giving and special projects. “They want to give to a specific cause or effort.”

The university’s donation forms now provide giving options, such as the Band of Blue marching band or microgrants for students in need of emergency funding. “A big part of our effort is to allow alums to see that small gifts do add up and make a difference,” says Keene.

Crowdfunding also helps attract first-time donors, with 31 percent of advancement professionals identifying it as the most effective tactic for new donor acquisition (tied with giving days), according to a 2017 research report by Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

The savviest schools don’t just collect the one-time donation, though. They gain insights into donors’ passion points and use that to build an ongoing relationship for future giving, says Stein.

Use giving days to experiment with tools

Days of giving have become quite popular, not only for generating huge amounts of donations in a 24-hour period, but for engaging alumni online.

“The folks doing it right are not universities that just launch giving days online and expect them to blossom, but those who put strategy around them and integrate them into the bigger picture,” says Stein, of Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

Middle Tennessee State ventured into new territory—a texting-based day of giving—when leaders realized that 60 percent of the university’s alumni had graduated in the last 20 years, says Keene.

Since its True Blue Give campaign took place near Valentine’s Day, the 100-year-old university used the theme “show your love to MTSU” to promote it, and partnered with MobileCause to facilitate the text-to-donate option.

The platform also featured a live ticker and tote board as the donations came in, as well as a place to share video appeals from other alumni, including a graduate who now plays for the Tennessee Titans. The goal: Raise $250,000 from 500 alumni and friends. The result: $330,000 raised from 567 people, including 120 who had never given before.

“We still had people who sent in checks or even stopped by campus or called in their donation, so we definitely kept those traditional ways of giving,” says Keene. “But adding the social media and texting aspects was what made it successful.”

Purdue holds the record for the most successful day of giving, raising $37.6 million from 18,672 gifts during its 2018 event. Hourly and full-day challenges gave donors the chance to earn bonus funds for their favorite student group.

Gamifying the giving process aims to add an element of fun and inspires some friendly competition among the various alumni classes and groups regarding which one could raise the most.

The university’s advancement team has also picked up valuable lessons each year to create a more intuitive mobile user experience, such as ensuring that forms don’t get jumbled up on a mobile device and making sure it’s clear which action you want the donor to take next, says Turner.

Deploy digital ambassadorson social media Colleges amplify their fundraising messages on social media by deploying alumni volunteers (sometimes called digital ambassadors or advocates) who donate their time to encourage giving.

“Schools need to put more resources on building that donor pipeline and adding funding opportunities into their social media messaging,” says CASE’s Henry. Doing so can provide a big return on a relatively small investment, as Davidson officials realized this year.

For its 2018 #AllinforDavidson challenge, $55,000 came in directly through links within social media posts—double the amount of the previous year. Davidson’s volunteer class ambassadors are trained to maneuver the college’s giving day fundraising platform from GiveCampus.

GiveCampus initially provided consultation on training best practices and offered training webinars on how to become an advocate.  Ambassadors now have access to a digital toolkit with talking points and examples of posts that performed well in the past.

Colleges incentivize volunteers with free T-shirts and other prizes. Social media advocates, by using their personal accounts, can also get their messages past the recent changes to Facebook’s algorithm, which has made it more difficult for organizations to get their posts into followers’ feeds, James says.

To remain competitive for donations and to generate brand awareness, colleges must deploy a comprehensive plan that focuses on connecting with people via social and mobile, says Peterson of Corporate Insight.

More importantly, institutions should shift toward making giving easier, faster and even fun, says Stein. “We’re conditioned to expect that experience now,” she says. “When people go to give or interact with their university, it really has to be about, €˜are we meeting the expectations of our donors?’ ”

Dawn Papandrea, a Staten Island, New York-based writer, is a frequent contributor to UB.

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