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How to Crush Fundraising in Higher Education

April 03, 2023 (6 min read)
Fundraise for education with these tips

There are significant advantages to fundraising for higher education, whether it be for a distinguished university or a small, rural college. These institutions have an extensive network of prospective donors who already have a relationship with the school, either as current or former students. But with so much competition for their time and attention, how do you find alumni and engage them in a meaningful way? And how do you identify major donors capable of funding large projects?

Fundraising is a careful combination of strategic thinking and building and maintaining relationships. We’ve worked with countless universities and colleges to find and retain donors, and we take pride in making this essential task easier.

Why is fundraising in higher education challenging?

Fundraising for a college or university has its own unique set of challenges. Declining alumni participation rates may make it hard to engage donors, and you might spend a lot of time pursuing large, one-time gifts that may or may not materialize. Additionally, younger donors have grown accustomed to sophisticated, data driven marketing through websites and social media, so a phone call or email from a university may go unnoticed.

Perhaps most significant, if you fundraise for a college or university you may face criticism about the size and use of endowment or the systemic racism that has plagued academia for centuries. It’s smart to approach donors with specific asks addressing these issues, and to tailor your communications to maximize fundraising efforts.

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The best ways to fundraise for education

Despite these challenges, online giving is on the rise, and colleges and universities have the advantage of an extensive network who want to support the cause. To crush your keep up with higher education fundraising trends, you must engage your alumni, be strategic in your marketing efforts, and pursue major donations from both philanthropic organizations and large corporations looking to have a positive impact.

Build your community

One of the biggest advantages of fundraising for a college or university is the built-in network of people who want to support the school and see it thrive for years to come. In addition to having a personal connection to the institution, alumni are often incentivized to donate because it’s one way to pursue different job opportunities. Consider hosting alumni networking events or, at the very least, promoting professional networking webinars and networking events in your newsletter or on social media. Invite successful alumni to give a talk on campus or do a virtual panel and Q&A. An alumni directory or magazine is another great way to keep former students engaged with the school and their peers.

Always remember that an alumni’s relationship with the school begins long before the ask. Open lines of communication with your existing student body, whether it be with online surveys or events like a “President’s Brunch” where they can mingle with the administration. Find out what students feel is missing from their college experience, and use that information to appeal to current and future donors alike. Are students struggling to meet rising housing costs? Do they dream of a new and improved community center?

Fundraising is all about building and maintaining relationships, so leverage your community of alumni to create an extensive, lifelong donor base.

Focus on your communication

Communicate regularly with your donor base and meet them where they’re at. Offer multiple ways to stay connected and informed, including newsletters, texting, emails, and social media. Consider the ages of the donor before you reach out, with the understanding that older donors might prefer a phone call or card instead of a text or email.

Personalize your communications whenever possible. Addressing a donor by name is ideal, but it’s even better to tailor emails or texts so that they align with the donor’s career and interests. For example, a successful director might be more excited by news about the university’s film school than their biology research lab. Know your donors before approaching them with an ask.

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Tie your request to campaigns or funding goals

Be specific about how contributions will be used to better the university and its students. Will a donor’s generosity fund scholarship programs? Will it allow for visiting professors or the renovation of the fitness center? Whenever possible, consider allowing donors to invest directly in projects that interest them. For example, an alumni who had a young child while completing their PhD might prefer to contribute to a university daycare center rather than building a new wing of the library.

Now more than ever, foundations and corporations are interested in funding historically underserved student populations as well as equity and inclusion programs. When approaching major donors, be sure to tie your donation request to any initiatives you have to fight systemic racism.

Donors want to make an impact. By tying your request to a specific goal, you’re showing them they can effect positive change.

Make donating easy

Before approaching donors, it’s important to use a donor research tool understand who they are, what their giving capacity is, and how they’re most likely to make that contribution.

Don’t overcomplicate the process by asking elderly donors to navigate websites or social media. Often its best to approach them directly via phone or mail. For all other donors, keep it simple. Offer an online fundraising platform like DonorDrive or DonorBox that’s easily accessible to your community. Integrate the donation button into every page on your website, customizing it for both mobile and desktop. If you’re hosting a silent auction, gala or other fundraising event, QR codes are one of the fastest and most efficient ways to secure donations. Consider customizing your ask ladder by describing the impact different donation amounts will have and include an option for recurring donations. This is your chance to turn a one-time donor into a source of sustainable funds.

Develop a relationship with major donors

While every donation counts, receiving a large, one-time donation from a corporation can fund special projects for years to come. Before you can approach a prospective donor, you must know who they are, and understand their interest and capacity for giving. Consider using a donor research software like Nexis® for Professional Development, which combines highly informed donor profiles with intuitive search functionality to make researching your donors as efficient as possible.

Recognize major donors publicly with a press conference, ribbon cutting ceremony or awards dinner. Press releases, as well as social media posts, are standard for large donations. Most importantly, now that you’ve established the relationship, maintain it for years to come.

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Demonstrate the fundraising impact in both qualitative and quantitative ways

Showcase your fundraising achievements in social media posts or monthly newsletters. Donors already feel connected to your college or university, so foster that connection by delivering thoughtful, personal narratives right to their computer. Use creative storytelling in videos and blog posts to show just how meaningful their contributions are. What did that scholarship mean to a student who otherwise couldn’t afford tuition? How did it change their college experience?

Consider sending out regular impact reports. Impact reports often include real-life stories from students or teachers, infographics presenting your financials, milestones and important announcements, and allow donors to feel more connection to the institution’s goals.

Solicit philanthropic donations

Before approaching any charitable organization, it’s important to do your research. Do they align with your university’s core values? Are there certain foundations that are more likely to give to historically black colleges or underserved communities? The more strategic you are about which foundations you approach, the better your chances for success. (Pro tip: consider using Nexis for Development Professionals to jumpstart your research!) 

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Achieve success with your higher education fundraising

Now it's the fun part--putting those tips into action. Remember, fundraising starts with connection, and you have a built in audience at the ready. Build on that base with other outreach and philanthropic donations. Then, set up a system to monitor results and watch the money start rolling in.