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4 Ways to Drive Donations Like Universities

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Published March 7, 2017 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Universities and colleges stand as fixtures of their local, and sometimes national, communities. They’re pillars of success that recruit new advocates and engage with potential donors almost every day of the year.

In many ways, they’re not unlike nonprofits, especially where fundraising is concerned. These institutions rely on fundraising and alumni donors to keep their wheels turning. And when push comes to shove, there’s a lot to be learned from the way universities interact with their alumni donors.

It’s Not All About Size

If someone asked which universities have the highest level of alumni donor engagement, who would you throw out there? Harvard? University of Texas at Austin? Another massive institution?

Surprisingly, large schools don’t have the highest levels of engagement with their alumni donors. A recent list lays out the top 10 universities and colleges based on how well they engage alumni donors. The first number is their total student population to indicate size, followed by what percentage of alumni donate to the university:

  1. Princeton University: 8,138 (63 percent donate)
  2. Thomas Aquinas College: 385 (58.7 percent donate)
  3. Williams College: 2,099 (55.8 percent donate)
  4. Bowdoin College: 1,805 (55.7 percent donate)
  5. Davidson College: 1,950 (52 percent donate)
  6. Wellesley College: 2,474 (51.7 percent donate)
  7. Middlebury College: 2,526 (50.9 percent donate)
  8. Carleton College: 2,014 (49.8 percent donate)
  9. Washington and Lee University: 2,264 (48.9 percent donate)
  10. Amherst College: 1,792 (47.9 percent donate)

If this list is shocking, remember that it’s curated based on how many alumni donate, not who brings in the most money.

Smaller universities are making a sizeable impact. They realize securing major gifts isn’t as easy for them, so they instead focus on activating as many alumni donors as possible to donate.

In the same way, there’s a lot for nonprofits to gain from appealing to a wide range of potential supporters rather than solely focusing on large gifts from a select donor pool. Peer-to-peer fundraising maximizes this strategy. When you empower people to solicit their own networks on your behalf, they can contribute more than they could donate out of pocket, and you reach exponentially more people.

To engage a large pool of supporters, it’s mission-critical to build strong relationships with them.

More Than Just a Paycheck

Your donors are more than just a paycheck. They have personalities, families, interests, and hobbies. There’s a difference between…

“Hey, give me money. Also, how are you?”


“How are you doing these days? We care about you and want to know about your life.”

Amherst College, for example, calls alumni to catch up on their lives and learn about what they’re doing. Then, an entirely separate follow-up call comes from a current student to inform alumni about the latest and greatest at the university.

Clearly Amherst’s calls are about getting me to donate, but they never force it. I’m never pressed on the phone, and they take the time to get to know me—who I am. I spoke with a young man recently who talked with me about my writing for 10 minutes. That was the entire call.

Dr. Carlton Floyd

Associate Professor of English at University of San Diego, Amherst Class of 1980 alum.

The result is a population of potential alumni donors who feel like their alma mater cares about them. However, it might be too much for your nonprofit to take the time to call each donor in your database to connect with them like this.

After all, universities have entire departments of people dedicated to maintaining these relationships. However, the evidence suggests that if you can go out of your way to build a relationship with your donor base, it makes the ask for money that much easier.

For instance, you can implement fields in your donation forms that help you learn more about them and their specific interests. If you ask what motivated their donation, you can send up follow-up communications touching on that. Operation USA uses its donation form to ask why people donated, tell their stories, or leave words of encouragement.

alumni donors

In fact, with the right fundraising software, you can even ask custom questions to dig into the specific programs they care about.

Custom questions alumni donors
Custom question creation in Classy’s New Fundraising Suite

Mental and Emotional Connection

Throughout their post-college careers, alumni fondly recall their time and experiences at university. When universities want to encourage a donation, they can tap into this emotion.

As Floyd says, he’s well aware that the overall purpose of these Amherst calls is to elicit a donation. However, he’s okay with that because he feels that the school is taking the time to stay informed about his life.

The same goes for your nonprofit. When people first interact with your organization, you want to lay the foundation for a mental and emotional connection that will stick for years.

What do you want them to remember about their experience with your nonprofit? You should do everything in your power to ensure their interactions with you are positive and friendly. This will be a deep well to draw from when appealing to them for donations later on.

A Nonprofit’s Guide to Customer Service

A delightful message can go a long way in building brand affinity. Take the time to craft a humorous email, donor appreciation video, or personalized tweet to make someone’s day.

Winning over one donor is a victory to be celebrated, but it’s even better if you can engage a crowd of donors.

Emphasize the Shared Experience

When activating a large group of donors, you have to examine their shared experience. What gives them specific memories and emotions you can factor into your asks?

For example, if a university is engaging with the class of 2011, they make connections about what bonds the alumni together. Maybe it’s the fact that they entered a bad job market, but the university offered extra guidance, programs, and assistance to help them lock down jobs. Chances are that this shared experience among the class of 2011 also translates into the class of 2010 and 2012 as well.

When it comes to the shared experience for your nonprofit donors, look at what unites as many of them together as possible. The surface level is obvious: they wouldn’t want to donate to your cause if it didn’t resonate with them on some level. But dig a bit deeper to strengthen this emotional connection.

  • Is there a common trend in lifestyle that ties your donors together?
  • Have your donors experienced a negative situation you can help them through?
  • Can you help make a positive life event more special, like having them host a birthday fundraiser?

The main point is that you need to understand your audience and what drives them.

The Know Your Donors Field Guide
Develop donor personas and identify untapped opportunities for new donors—templates included!
Download now

Successful fundraising initiatives shouldn’t depend on locking down one big donor. Rather, they should seek to engage an entire population of supporters that can fuel a mission for years to come.

So, the next time you feel stumped by your nonprofit fundraising, don’t be afraid to take a page from universities. They’re there to teach us, after all.

green forest leaves

The Anatomy of a Successful Peer-to-Peer Campaign

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