Alfred Harrell III is executive director of the SouthernUniversity System Foundation.
When Columbia University raised more than $7.8 million in a 24-hour period during its online Giving Day campaign in 2013, the institution set a new model for fundraising in higher education. The institution set up a website to serve as a central hub, then mobilized social media (primarily through Facebook), designated alumni fundraising champions and social media influencers, hosted on-campus events with expert panels that were livestreamed on the web and recorded video projects to thank donors, among other initiatives.
Nearly 10,000 gifts came in from all 50 states and 53 countries.
Slowly, people around the country began to take notice. Lacrecia James, annual fund manager at Xavier University of Louisiana, was one of those people.
James says that, after reading about Columbia’s success the year before—the first year of Columbia Giving Day—she thought her institution could adopt a similar model. James and her team began to identify top social media influencers in the Xavier alumni network and set out to launch “Give. Love. Xavier Day.”
“We wanted to make this campaign different by having more of a peer-to-peer asks, so we started targeting people who already had a huge social media following,” says James. But they didn’t recruit just anyone who was active on Facebook and Twitter; the targeted captains were also past donors and could convey the importance of giving to their alma mater.
After identifying the champions, James says she created a detailed posting calendar for her champions to use that included text they could copy and paste onto their own networks for easy sharing.
“I knew that, to get them on board, I had to make it as easy for them as possible,” she says.
When the day came, no one knew what to expect, says James, but any expectations they may have had were blown out of the water.
“They didn’t know how it would take off,” she says of her fellow staff members. But when “we reached $50,000 by noon, we knew we were on to something big that day.”
The first year, the team raised more than $120,000 on Give. Love. Xavier Day. The second year, they added a “challenge gift” component, where four different types of challenge gift opportunities, including classes and fraternities and sororities and other campus organizations, competed to see who could raise the most money. In all, $87,000 was raised from challenge gift s, and the school more than doubled its fundraising to hit $275,000.
But, despite the success of the second year, James says the progress stalled early in the day.
“Once we reached that [posted fundraising] goal, people stopped giving,” she says.
So, in 2015, Give. Love. Xavier Day’s third year, James says the university published a target number of donors, but not a target fundraising amount, to see if that would raise more money. In addition to changing the goals, the captains retained their own landing pages to promote and encourage people to donate, text giving was added and there was a greater effort to engage donors via Instagram.
This June, Give. Love. Xavier Day raised almost $450,000, with support from 2,711 donors.
Changing the business model
While Columbia and Xavier universities focused on a single day of giving, the Southern University System Foundation’s True Blue campaign employed a longer approach to online giving.
“At the beginning, we targeted mostly our pace-setter donors who had already been giving,” says Alfred Harrell III, executive director of the Southern University System Foundation. The foundation implemented the “Million Dollar March”—a viral fundraising campaign mainly targeted toward alumni and low donors to raise $1 million for the schools in the system.
“We thought it was a way that we could get people engaged and have it in place when they came back in the fall for football season,” says Harrell of the campaign, which launched July 1 and ended October 1, 2014. Over the course of the 90-day campaign, nearly $1.2 million in cash was raised; Harrell notes that the total did not include future pledges.
For Harrell, the decision to take fundraising online was a no-brainer.
“I don’t care if it’s an HBCU or a PWI or nonprofit, you need to be moving your fundraising model online for people to give virtually,” he says.
“If you read any fundraising journal, it tells you the move to viral is where you need to be,” adds Harrell, referencing the ease and speed with which information—and thus a fundraising campaign—is disseminated online.
“Rather than looking at an old mailing list that we had that we probably hadn’t updated in years when our team came on,” says Harrell, the Southern Foundation team decided “social media would be the quickest and cheapest way” to reach a broad group of donors.
“There’s a certain group in our constituency that their entire communication model is social media,” he continues. “We knew that [by not being online] we weren’t communicating with a certain constituency that we knew had the capacity to give.”
That constituency, says Harrell, does not exclusively consist of millennials and recent graduates, whom folks traditionally think of as being the primary users of social media, but “Generation Xers and even some baby boomers,” too. “We had to change our business model, because that’s the way fundraising is moving.”
Follow the crowd
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are not the only online tools being leveraged for fundraising in higher education. From sites such as Gofundme.com to USEED.org to custom platforms designed for individual schools, crowdfunding is quickly emerging as a way to attract more donors from the Internet.
Some use the platforms to raise money for endowment funds, others for specific programmatic needs and still others for specific causes such as building restoration.
Matt Racz, co-founder and chief operating officer of higher ed crowdfunders USEED, says the most successful campaigns he has seen are those for specific projects or causes—causes to which personal stories can be attached and by which personal passions are fueled.
“When you talk about crowdfunding, it’s really about surfacing the stories,” Racz says. For that reason, he says, the projects that tend to raise the most money are student driven or cause driven.
“Crowdfunding inside of higher ed is best for groups of people who have specific projects they want to see be successful,” he adds.
Campaigns for general endowment funds or general scholarship funds have not taken off as well as campaigns for specific initiatives. For instance, recently on USEED, a group of University of Washington students worked to raise money to launch their own satellite to the moon while a group of female students at the Rochester Institute of Technology exceeded their $10,000 fundraising goal to build a Formula One race car as part of a class project.
Experts say donors—particularly those with little to no prior connection to the campus or to giving on campus—want to know that their money is making a difference and funding something they believe in. It can be difficult to evoke a personal connection to a general fund unless the potential donor already has a strong connection to the institution.
“It’s not about the money, it’s about an educational experience,” says Racz. “And that’s why social media is so powerful, because you’re sharing these very personal stories that these students are involved in and they’re sharing why it matters to them, why it matters to society, why it matters to the institution.
“And these are stories that are very organic. They’re told very authentically and very genuinely. So that’s why I think crowdfunding is so empowering for these institutions.”
So why should universities even bother with crowdfunding, if it is the smaller projects that yield the most success?
“It’s a natural progression, in terms of where society is moving,” says Racz. “Inside higher ed, it’s all about connecting the community, the alumni, to stories happening on the ground.”