Online giving rises again; how colleges can capitalize in 2021

A new study shows how donations came in during the pandemic and what strategies will be necessary to win them back again in 2021.
By: | February 9, 2021
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The deep uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic did not dissuade online donations from pouring into higher education institutions, which saw a 10% overall bump in 2020, according to a report released Tuesday by Boca Raton, FL-based solutions provider Anthology.

In its annual online giving analysis and strategic considerations study, Anthology highlighted the particular success of four-year public institutions in raising funds online, which garnered a collective increase of 16% year over year. The total number of gifts increased by 6%.

“It’s both incredible and heartening that colleges and universities largely experienced a boost in online giving, despite the many uncertainties about the level of support for higher education during the pandemic,” said Jim Milton, CEO of Anthology. “Based on this latest data and understanding the importance of providing both personalized engagement and a variety of giving options, institutions have a real opportunity to continue refining and improving their online giving strategies.”

Some 220 public and private four-year colleges and universities were included in the study. All of them did well again this year – institutions have seen a two-year rise of 21% in dollars given – though public universities managed to top their private counterparts this year in both number of donations and dollars raised (by 2%). Private institutions received roughly the same number of donations they did during the previous year.

For a while, it looked like online donations were going to be a major pain point for higher education as giving stalled during the early months of the pandemic, dropping by more than $6 million from March to May. But a Giving Tuesday Now event held the week of May 3 provided a huge bounceback that led to a yearlong rally in gifts for colleges and universities. The day saw $2.5 million more than the previous year in gifts, and donations the rest of way jumped by nearly $15 million. The final difference from 2019 was $38 million.

Private institutions made up a bit of ground in average individual gifts, which were $464 compared with $428 for public colleges and universities.

Considerations for 2021

The Anthology report authors noted the propensity of those donating to give via digital wallets. More than 57,000 transactions were done by these payments (typically via apps such as GooglePay, Venmo or ApplePay) for more than $12 million. Huge growth was seen in both number of donations (54%) and amounts given (48%), which leads Anthology’s team to speculate that this trend will continue.

Researchers say it is important for higher education leaders to keep their options open for potential donations. During the pandemic, more consumers have made the switch to digital payments. And although many of the gifts may be small – for example, you’ll often see a GoFundMe page generate lots of $10 donations – the report did point out that five of the donations were for $40,000 or more. They note that Days of Giving are ideal for these sorts of initiatives and transactions.

Other considerations:

Don’t discount email. When it comes to reaching alumni or others, higher education institutions tend to generate pretty solid click rates. Depending on how well the email is presented and how personalized, getting potential donors to open them will give the institution far better odds – nearly 3 to 1 over other strategies – for getting that gift.

Know what you’re asking for during COVID-19. Anthology says the odds of getting a donation depend on the ask – in this case during a pandemic, potential donors are more likely to give to emergency funds or the annual fund. Again, it doesn’t hurt to get personal here, the team suggests, by providing them with a history of their donations and the impact it has made on the college or university.

Check your data. Are there alumni or others who continually engage via email or other platforms that may donate from time to time? They might be willing to go that extra step again, but maybe haven’t been asked. Anthology says tracking data and potential donors can help make strategies more targeted. And it also allows the institution to turn its attention those who haven’t given … or haven’t do so for a long time.

Bookmark Giving Tuesday. The absolute crème-de-la-crème day for donations – nearly $2.5 billion last year – could be make or break for an institution’s annual bottom line. So, plan ahead and have one overarching message to deliver to potential donors. And don’t be afraid to create a little competition. Researchers highlighted the work of Spelman College, which used that very model, pitting regions against regions, to achieve a 287% increase in donation amount over 2019 for a total of more than a half million dollars.