College fundraising is a fact of life. Many institutions, especially private colleges and college foundations, rely on donations from alumni. Those donations are important, but colleges need to have a thoughtful approach to fundraising.
A while ago, I wrote about how colleges should NOT raise money. Here are some ideas about how you SHOULD raise money! And hey — these tips are great for non-college nonprofits, too!
College Fundraising Tip: Start Before Graduation
Do This: set expectations about relationships after graduation
When I was in college, I never once heard about donors to the school. I could tell that wealthy families and local businesses donated (we had buildings named after them), but I never once saw any donors mentioned in programs, materials, or speeches. We had an alumni services department, but we never saw or heard from them. As far as I knew, contact with the school stopped when we graduated.
This made getting an out-of-the blue phone call asking me for a sizable donation a little shocking. The student caller told me they depended upon alumni support, but I’d never seen that in practice! Knowing in advance that the school had relationships with graduates and needed their support would have made me more open to an ask.
Don’t Do That: ambush new grads with solicitations
College fundraising is challenging, but so is post-graduation life. My first ask came less than 6 months after I graduated. I was still adjusting to a new schedule, looking for a (second) job, and trying to get my life together. I was totally unprepared for a sudden solicitation. I didn’t even get a “soft” ask like an invite to a fundraising event or a note congratulating me on graduating. Instead, I got a scripted call asking me for $300. Talk about blindsided! Colleges should seek support from grads, of course, but warming up prospects is important.
College Fundraising Tip: Be Deliberate When Approaching Your Alumni
Do This: use segmenting to make appropriate asks
Non-college nonprofits segment their donors. There’s a reason for that. Segmentation allows you to tailor your asks to be relevant to the person you’re asking.
In my “how not to fundraise” article, students got calls asking for a $300 donation. Not bad, right? But each student had just graduated during the peak of the recession. A $300 ask would have been appropriate for other segments, but it was a miss with us. Segmenting could have saved the college some hassle (and us some consternation). Many of us probably would have donated $20 or $30 if we could, but starting the call with a $300 ask and “negotiating” for less was off-putting.
Don’t Do That: take a one-size-fits-all approach
Each graduate who talked with me about college fundraising was annoyed by the way they were asked for money. The calls were obviously scripted and the asks were tone-deaf. We’re now long out of college, and some of us support the school that asked for donations. But all of us still cringe about that first interaction. Don’t make your alumni cringe with a one-size fits all appeal! Don’t ask your brand-new grads for $300, but don’t ask established supporters for a $30 gift. Be deliberate about your asks so you’ll get better results.
College Fundraising Tip: Make a Case for Why We Should Donate
Do This: tell donors what their money will support
I started getting college fundraising appeals from my alma mater in 2009. I still don’t know how or where they use those donations.
When I got a call from the school’s fundraising center, they told me that they depend upon graduates’ support… but they didn’t say why. I got letters appealing for donations, but I didn’t know where that money would go. I couldn’t donate online at the time, so I couldn’t choose a restriction to fund.
Let your donors know how you’ll use the money they give you. Then follow up with a progress report! People love knowing their gift makes a difference — show them how they’ll do that by supporting you.
Don’t Do That: make asks that aren’t relevant
This could fall under the segmentation point, too. Your appeals will be most successful if you ask donors to donate to areas that are important to them. If a student received scholarships that enabled them to get their degree, ask them to donate to your scholarship fund. Someone with a graphic design degree would probably support the graphic design program, but they may not be interested in giving to the business department. A graduate who owns a landscaping business may want to donate to the campus beautification fund.
You can tell so much about a graduate by looking at their history with your school. Tailor your asks to their interests to get the best results!
College Fundraising Tip: Consider Donors’ Preferred Communication Methods
Do This: make your appeals where they’ll be seen
I see tons of schools sending pamphlets, fliers, and fundraising appeals through the mail. And that’s great! Direct mail is still one of the most lucrative fundraising channels. But the times, they are a-changin’, and not all graduates respond to direct mail.
When I graduated in 2009, every interaction I had with my school was digital. We used digital portals to turn in assignments, get our grades, and communicate with professors. Everything was online. So I was a little perplexed when I started getting fundraising calls and letters. We were such a digital generation; it didn’t make sense!
Part of what makes college fundraising so tricky is the diversity of colleges’ donor base. Older donors and major donors are not as likely to give online as recent graduates. New alumni probably won’t respond to direct mail. Effective communication is important with any kind of fundraising. Make sure you’re communicating effectively with all segments!
Don’t Do That: make boring appeals
Regardless of your donors’ communication style, they want interesting appeals. Tell a good story! What are you doing with the money you receive? How do alumni donations make a difference in students’ lives? What cool things are students accomplishing because of our support?
Storytelling is so important to nonprofits, and colleges are no exception. However, stories from colleges are often ignored in favor of boring form letters. Stop sending us boring form letters! Your alumni want to support you and they want their money to make a difference. Tell them how their support makes a difference.
Are you a college fundraising expert? What do you do to engage your alumni and turn them into donors?
Are you a student who’s gotten college fundraising appeals? What did you think of them?