Higher Education Fundraiser

School pride is a unique loyalty unmatched by other motivations of support. People take pride in their schools by cheering on their athletic teams, making family traditions out of attending that school, seeking out fellow alumni and fans, and wearing branded merchandise. No other organization has quite the same unifying quality as an institution of higher education.

This is why your supporters should be your most important consideration when planning a fundraiser for your school. Who shows their loyalty and pride for your school? Are they potential donors? Have you given them all the details for your fundraiser? Have you communicated the importance of their giving?

In this guide, we’ll cover five steps to run a successful higher education fundraising campaign: 

  1. Research your potential donors
  2. Create audience profiles
  3. Place donors at the center of your message
  4. Promote your fundraiser across multiple channels
  5. Show your appreciation

Effectively researching and engaging with your audience can help you create a sustainable giving pipeline to support your higher education fundraising efforts for years to come. 

1. Research your potential donors

Who are your donors? This question might seem difficult to answer before any donations have been made. However, you can speculate who would be interested in donating based on two factors: the financial ability to donate and a strong connection to your university. Researching donors based on their giving capacity and motivation is called prospect research.

In this process, look for donors who exhibit the following characteristics: 

  • Wealth indicators: These include real estate, stock ownership, business affiliations, and other markers that imply the capacity to give large gifts. 
  • Affinity indicators: These include a history of giving to your university, relevant political donations, and volunteer history with your institution or similar institutions. 

Identifying prospective donors can make your fundraising campaign more efficient by narrowing down where and how to focus your campaign efforts first. You’ll want to know who your audience is and what motivates them. 

BWF’s fundraising tips suggest getting to know your donor pool’s unique interests and motivations. For example, if you’ve singled out the wealthiest potential donors but they don’t care about your school’s traditions, it wouldn’t be helpful to use videos from your archives or messages from famous alumni to promote your fundraising campaign.

Investigate which of your potential donors may be eligible for matching gifts through their employers. You can create matching gift videos to spread awareness of these valuable opportunities. 

2. Create audience profiles

Once you’ve identified who your donors are, you can group them into segments based on their shared qualities. You might group audience members based on known characteristics and prospect research assumptions such as:

  • Graduation year
  • Geographic location
  • Degree type
  • Average past donation
  • Expected giving level
  • Affinity level

Understanding where your audience members overlap can help you create more personalized marketing content for each segment. Use similarities among these clearly-defined groups to determine your audience’s interests and target your marketing campaigns accordingly.

You can also prioritize these groups. For example, if your fundraiser is an in-person event, you might prioritize finding supporters who live close to your school. Alumni who have moved across the country wouldn’t be as likely to show up, and reaching out to them might not be as effective. Or, you might start a large-scale fundraising campaign by focusing heavily on a small group of potentially high-impact prospects first, directly reaching out to initiate conversations and eventually solicit a major gift.

If you don’t want to establish the criteria for audience segments yourself, consider using an algorithmic approach which allows audiences to sort themselves into groups automatically.

3. Place donors at the center of your message

It’s no mystery that donors are crucial to the success of your fundraiser, so they should also be at the center of your message. You should illustrate the potential of future gifts, the impact of past gifts, and the results of supporters’ giving. You might do this by:

  • Using specific data points to illustrate the impact of donors’ gifts. For example, visualize the gift by showing that a $1,000 donation can fund a one-semester scholarship for a student.
  • Showcasing the impact of past fundraising campaigns using visual aids, like infographics or charts.
  • Sharing videos and photos that highlight the programs, projects, and people that donors were able to support.

By showcasing your donors’ impact, you’re reminding them that your school couldn’t accomplish its goals without their support. Include this material on your fundraiser’s landing page on your website. Not only can a landing page show supporters how important they are, but it will also consolidate the necessary information about your fundraiser and host your online donation form. The best higher education websites focus on accessible information to enhance their users’ experiences when trying to get more information about a school.

4. Promote your fundraiser across multiple channels

Your website isn’t the only place you should promote your fundraiser. Your digital campaign can reach wider audiences beyond just your top prospects by using a multichannel marketing strategy. Consider using these platforms to reach out to supporters:

  • Your website
  • Your email newsletter
  • Your social media pages
  • Press releases
  • SEO marketing 
  • Direct mail 

No matter which communication tools you decide to use, make sure your message is compelling and consistent on each platform. Telling a story through your marketing materials is a great way to grab the audience’s attention. Then, the same story should be told across platforms but presented in different ways to best suit the medium. 

For example, when communicating with alumni, highlight a student who benefitted from scholarships and their journey to graduation and success. You might include the full story on your website, tease the story in an email with a link to your website, and post photos of the student on social media. Your audience will be hooked by a compelling story no matter where they initially encounter it.

5. Show your appreciation

Most importantly, your donors should feel appreciated for their support and contributions. To show your gratitude, you might:

  • Write personalized donor thank-you letters. Kwala’s tips for donor thank-you letters highlight the importance of making your letters personable. 
  • Create donor thank-you videos with the help of students who have been impacted by supporters’ gifts. Services like {{firstname}} can help create personalized thank-you videos for your donors.
  • Create a physical or virtual donor thank-you wall to display the names of top donors to each campaign.
  • Call donors to thank them for their support.
  • Keeping major donors in the loop about updates and new projects at your school.

Your follow-up can influence your relationship with donors, so put extra thought into showing your appreciation for their support. You can also use this as an opportunity to gather feedback from your donors on the fundraising process. This is especially helpful for repeating opportunities to give, like annual giving campaigns. 

To have a successful higher education fundraiser, you’ll need to know who your audience is, center your fundraising message around them, and reach out for their support. Your donors might already be influenced by school spirit, so incorporate inspiring stories into your fundraising campaign. Make sure your donors feel appreciated not only for their contributions but for their overall support of your school’s mission. After all, a successful fundraiser for your school can further your school’s work in the lives of its students, community, or the world.

James Barnard

James Barnard

As Associate Managing Vice President of Annual Giving and Digital Marketing, James is an integral part of the team at the global fundraising consultancy BWF. He helps nonprofit clients develop digital strategies for fundraising and marketing. James has been active in CASE for a number of years, participating as a conference speaker and CASE District II board member.