Is your university fundraising campaign out of touch?

My friend recently received a fantastic example of institutionally-focused communication from his university. This leading institution, to which he is a donor, was writing to inform him of a milestone in their current fundraising ‘campaign’.

I’ve put ‘campaign’ in inverted commas here because I feel it needs defining, especially for those reading this blog from a non-profit or charity background. You’re probably wondering what the big deal is – ‘Campaign milestones are good stewardship opportunities,’ you say, ‘what a great way to update everyone on progress towards something they care about!’

Let me tell you our UK university campaigns are very different.

UK university campaigns defined

In UK HE, campaigns usually bring together multiple causes (sometimes referred to as priority projects) from across the university. The campaign will have a name or brand proposition that tries to encompass these causes with varying levels of success. It often sounds something like ‘changing lives’ or ‘believing in a better world’ (I do know there are some memorable brands out there but you get the point).

The most important aspect of a university campaign is the financial target. In the UK, it is commonly in the millions, sometimes billions. It is the most significant part of the campaign because it’s usually the first thing that is determined and not the projects that require support. While the financial target is what’s most agonised about, there is also a date by which this total must be raised, some 2-10 years in the future. This end date is sometimes vague and subject to change.

Again, you might be thinking – what’s the problem? Well, I do think that campaigns are valuable, but there are a few challenges and limitations to be aware of. The most significant challenges are:

  • the multiple causes – how do we pitch this?
  • the length of time campaigns typically run for – how do we keep people interested?
  • the fundraising target being so prominent – are we risking alienating our audiences and reinforcing a perception that universities are wealthy?

Know your campaign audience

In my previous role at the University of Nottingham, I held a debate with the development office on the subject of campaigns. We organised the office into six teams, three arguing for, and three arguing against – each taking turns to respond to the arguments of the previous team and present their own. It was one of the most fascinating and entertaining debates I’ve seen, and the arguments for and against were very well made. But it was clear the outcome was mixed; university campaigns (as defined above) were felt to be useful only in certain circumstances, and this is mostly when the primary audience is staff. This is because most donors and nearly all alumni are unlikely to care about the campaign.

Thinking about it from the perspective of an average alumna, the causes are often too diverse to be easily digested, the proposition too vague, and the target too big to conceive of – especially if you can only commit to a small monthly direct debit. In fact, the complicated messaging works against fundraising to the point where some universities have chosen not to mention it in mass fundraising literature and calling scripts.

I had previously thought that major gift donors were the most likely audience to be receptive to a campaign, but have since had several development managers tell me otherwise. Even if a few of these donors are interested, it is a lot of trouble to go to with branding and mass communications to reach a small number of highly relationship-managed individuals.

Of course this doesn’t mean that lots of people won’t donate. They’re just more likely to give because they are an alumnus who has a strong connection to the institution and/or because they are interested in a particular cause – and not because the campaign proposition has engaged them. They may not even be aware they are giving to a campaign.

Staff and board members however, find campaigns very useful. It’s an excellent opportunity to take philanthropy on the road within the institution to inform campaign priorities and raise the profile of the development team.  It’s also a useful way to lobby executive boards in the university for greater investment. For those working in the development team, campaign literature and KPIs can be referred to when planning programmes and measuring success. In this way, the campaign is functioning as a well-branded internal university advancement strategy.

The internal value of the campaign is further reinforced by the quirks of how the campaign fundraising total is counted. It is common to count any gift, regardless of its designation, towards the campaign total if it falls within the campaign period. This means that the total represents a mixture of funds raised for campaign projects and for other causes. The total is therefore more akin to a team performance measure and means that at the end of the campaign, while the total may have been achieved, the number of beneficiaries helped/projects funded may not match.

Why it matters

So, back to my friend’s campaign milestone email which illustrates part of the problem. Rather than feeling proud or motivated by it he was actually pretty annoyed because:

  • He had forgotten that he donated to them back in February – as was the complete lack of stewardship communication he has received since (a thank-you letter and one general supporter e-newsletter that he found after a bit of digging)
  • Once he remembered that he was a donor, he was miffed because the email was not written to him as a donor and included such gems as “Thanks to the generosity of our alumni and supporters, we’ve raised…” and “If you would like to get involved with our Campaign by contributing with a gift…”
  • The email repeatedly makes mention of a multi-million pound fundraising total, further reinforcing a feeling that his gift of £30 was not valued (although this was a big gift for him).

It can be easy to get caught up in celebrating our success and want to share it widely, but before sharing campaign news direct with our alumni and donors, we must first try to view it from their perspective. Here are some questions to think about:

  • Do they know we’re in a campaign? Do they need to know we are, or is it OK that they give to their chosen cause without this knowledge?
  • Are they likely to care about our campaign? Can they connect with it?
  • Will hearing about the campaign milestone make them feel more warmly towards the university, or is it more likely to confuse them, make them feel insignificant or think you’re out of touch?
  • Does the communication fit with their journey? Does it make sense in terms of their narrative and can it be tailored to them personally?

I think it’s quite rare that you would want to send a message out to all alumni about a multi-priority, multi-million-pound campaign, but there may be certain circumstances where this makes sense. I am yet to encounter them personally. Even so, what will help you decide ‘when, how and to whom’ is understanding your alumni and supporters’ interests and why they give. If they are giving to the campaign, it of course makes perfect sense to update them on progress. If they are giving for any other reason, perhaps it’s not worth the time and effort. Maybe have a staff party instead?

Let’s start a debate 

Some institutions may define a campaign more similarly to how charities do, where the most important element is the number of beneficiaries aided/programmes delivered and not the campaign total. They may also refer to campaigns as comparatively short marketing efforts for a specific cause and tailored to a particular audience. I can certainly see the value of this.

I hazard a guess that the campaigns that do engage large numbers of alumni, donors and members of the public are successful because they’ve thought carefully about their audiences and asked some version of the questions above before diving in.

Should we be debating the future of campaigns as we know them at the next CASE annual conference? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially examples of where campaigns are working/not working and why you think that might be the case.

2 thoughts on “Is your university fundraising campaign out of touch?

  1. Simon Buttenshaw says:

    I was involved in a CASE Forum on Campaigns a few years back which was led by the University of Toronto Mississauga. It was really obvious that the huge scale of their campaign had raised the bar in terms of the perception of what can be achieved through philanthropy – both to staff and principal gift donors. Which of course is a good thing. But I 100% agree with you Holly that the broad campaign message and the multi million target is unlikely to inspire most people to give. For that to happen, we need to engage in dialogue with our audience, to understand them better so that we can give them the opportunity to make a difference to something they care about – not expect them to drop their £30 into the campaign ocean. I agree this would be a great topic to debate at the CASE annual conference.

    • hollypalmerconsulting says:

      Thanks, Simon! Yeah, I’m definitely not anti-campaign, but if we’re pouring money and time into communicating it to an audience that don’t care that doesn’t seem terribly responsible and may crowd-out our more targeted messages/annoy people.

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