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Fundraising for colleges and universities can be a tricky balancing act. While unrestricted donations are vital for sustaining and developing financial aid, research and several other institutional initiatives, excessive solicitation risks alienating alumni and provoking responses like “you only call when you want money.” Former students may feel their tuition payments were already more than sufficient and would prefer to spend their hard-earned dollars on the world’s most vulnerable, rather than the perceived highly privileged pursuing university education. Regardless, universities including Duke and Princeton achieved record donations this year, and there are many success stories suggesting methods for schools to improve their fundraising efforts.

Coordinating media channels

Online resources have revolutionized donation management, reducing reliance on more costly and intrusive techniques, such as telephone and direct mail contact. Effective fundraising strategies integrate existing media channels as early in the process as possible, leveraging ongoing campaigns to coordinate the timing and messaging of outreach. While web-based return on investment can be efficiently measured for each channel using Google Analytics, other traditional channels may still be driving traffic to your website.

Nurturing lifelong relationships with alumni

Developing strong, lifelong relationships with your alumni is the most sustainable path to a healthy philanthropic community. Not many schools have the luxury of billionaire grads to fund massive investments but nurturing a mutually beneficial giving environment can culminate in substantial donations over time. McMaster University’s last campaign raised $470 million in four years but most of their top donors started small with over a decade passing before their major gift. Donors are prompted by the realization they have the means to help the university make a difference. Once they have given, they need to be told what their gift has achieved so they will know they can achieve more by giving again. This thoughtfully written “thank you” correspondence may include customized stories demonstrating how gifts were put to good use, providing donors with a satisfaction that cannot be underestimated.

For schools to build successful giving cultures, they must reconsider how they are earning the financial allegiance of young donors. While those under 35 don’t always give as much as older alumni, they are more likely to have a closer connection with their alma mater, and if they aren’t interested now, they aren’t likely to be later when they have greater means. Conveying the value of alumni relationships can begin from a student’s first contact with the institution, under the premise: “treat students like alumni, treat alumni like students.” Content strategy and development utilizing social media networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook make it easier than ever to connect with graduates. The interaction and subtle peer pressure of status updates and sharing on these public forums can leverage the involvement of so-called “elite” alumni to encourage the participation of disconnected former students.

Developing your donation page

For most of your donors, visiting your website is the primary means of interacting with your institution. If receiving donations is a priority, that should be just as visible on your home page as the “Apply Now” button. A donation or giving page should be kept as simple and functional as possible. Visitors who have chosen to arrive at this page must be interested already – it is your job to convince them and to make the transaction quick and painless. Listening to donors and understanding what they are interested in helps to target messaging. Help them understand what their money is going towards and give them every option to choose how they would like to direct their contribution and make payment, including a monthly installment option. Convey your inspiring story based on your school’s role in shaping a better world.

Example: The University of Alberta is an acknowledged leader in donations strategy. Every word of their copy is carefully chosen to inspire confidence and action, and potential donors are given numerous ways to give and interact through social media, find answers to frequently asked questions and learn about upcoming alumni events. The stirring “Together We Can” video makes light of their cold climate before emphasizing the importance of philanthropic support, featuring academic leaders, donors and students, including one who is literally moved to tears. The “Give to the U of A” call-to-action is prominent throughout the entire site.

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Example: The University of New Brunswick’s donor relations page is also excellently comprehensive. Potential donors can peruse information about fundraising priorities, student stories (some with video), and extensive payment options, including via payroll deduction. “Giving to UNB” is tastefully but prominently featured on their home page banner.

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Example: Wilfrid Laurier University understands the reality of its reputation as a source of business leaders and makes a good argument for the tax benefits of giving. There’s even a tax credit calculator and other tax tips! It likewise uses videos and words to show why, where and how to make a gift, and builds credibility by including examples on campus of how money was spent.


Making the most of resources

Social media marketing continues to grow in popularity for integrated fundraising campaigns, with their viral and visible nature providing reminders to give and generating momentum for coordinated drives. Some universities have experimented with creating their own social networks but it’s generally best to go where your audience already is on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Increase online engagement with contests that first require participants to Like your page.

Earlier this year, the University of Massachusetts Amherst Alumni Association launched an online campaign called UMassGives, which raised over $80,000 in just 36 hours by recruiting loyal, influential and passionate online ambassadors to lead the push.


Other campaigns have harnessed friendly competition between departments or graduation years to boost involvement, or used the crowdfunding resources of sites like Kickstarter to heighten awareness. Some school have found fundraising success by looking beyond the obvious sources. Drexel University reached its target a year early after receiving $25 million from a local businessman who wasn’t an alumni but praised the work ethic of several of its students who he’s hired over the years. The school also started a Parents Council, which has attracted donating participants in exchange for special perks, such as meeting with the university president.

What strategies has your school used to solicit donations?