Getting alumni, especially younger graduates, to open their wallets is a challenge for many colleges and universities, especially those that rely on old-school approaches that land their pitches in voicemail or the garbage — or, even worse, end up annoying potential donors. Because schools rely on gifts of all sizes to fund scholarships, renovations and endowments, direct donations are especially critical as public universities contend with dwindling state investment and small private colleges struggle with the revenue loss of sluggish enrollment.
“The quality, the affordability, the accessibility of education in this country is heavily dependent on private philanthropic support. And that’s a dependence that is growing,” said Kestrel Linder, co-founder of GiveCampus. “The irony is most people don’t view schools as charities, and they don’t treat education as a philanthropic cause.”
Although charitable contributions are on an upswing generally, alumni participation is on the decline, according to the Council for Aid to Education. And part of that is a disconnect between traditional approaches to engaging alumni and where young people spend much of their time: online.
“We all live on social media, so getting friendly reminders from your alma mater to give is not only effective, but appreciated,” said Tatum McIsaac, who graduated from Holy Cross in 2001 and donated via the GiveCampus campaign. “It’s a lot easier for me to make a quick contribution online than to wait for an envelope to arrive in the mail and write a check. I don’t even know where my checkbook is.”
Linder and his partner, Michael Kong, came up with the idea for GiveCampus in 2014 after reading about colleges having to lay off staff, raise tuition and eliminate classes because of budget cuts. The pair understood that charitable giving could make a difference, but they thought college fundraising tactics were too impersonal to attract many young graduates. At least that’s how they felt about the efforts of their own alma mater, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“The messaging didn’t really resonate. It was very impersonal. And for a decade, neither of us had been responding, even though we had a strong affinity for our school,” Linder said, noting that many of his friends felt the same way. “These were people with means who were supporting other causes. If a bunch of people with the capacity and inclination to give weren’t giving, something was clearly broken.”
GiveCampus has helped more than 70 colleges, high schools and elementary schools raise $10 million since it launched last year. The model is based on websites such as Kickstarter.com and Indiegogo.com, but GiveCampus works directly with schools as a measure of quality control, Linder said. Schools are charged a subscription fee based on the amount of money they aim to raise. Subscriptions start at about $1,000.
Expanding the donor base was the key reason administrators at Hamilton College reached out to GiveCampus earlier this year, said Dick Tantillo, vice president for communications and development at the liberal arts college in Upstate New York.
“We wanted to engage a new generation of alums who need to be communicated with in a very different way,” he said. “We haven’t had immense difficulty, but it has been an area that has been much more challenging than in prior years.”
Hamilton’s 24-hour Leap Day challenge netted $900,000 in donations from 2,868 people, quadruple the number of alumni who gave when the school ran a similar campaign by itself four years earlier, Tantillo said. The difference between the two campaigns, he said, was the use of multiple social-media outlets to drive donations.
“The real trigger was that with social media, donors themselves became advocates for the whole enterprise,” said Fred Rogers, director of annual giving at Hamilton. “People were making gifts and then posting to social media that they had done so, and that had an enormous snowball affect. That’s a new model — suddenly you’re getting donors to be fundraisers for you.”
All of the money Hamilton raised will be used to fund scholarships, Tantillo said.
Campaigns on GiveCampus run the gamut from projects to fund scholarships to initiatives to renovate old libraries.
Last month, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., launched a campaign to fund undergraduate research fellowships for 87 students. Each student had their own micro-campaign with the goal of raising $6,000 by April 19. The money will cover the cost of conducting the research under the direction of a faculty adviser over the summer. With about nine hours remaining in the campaign, the students had raised more than $300,000.
“We chose the crowdfunding model so the students could do peer-to-peer and social fundraising on behalf of the program,” said Mitchell Vander Vorst, executive director of marketing and advancement at William and Mary. “It helps us democratize the process, and students can share their projects on social media.”
Hearing about the success other colleges had with one-day giving challenges, Holy Cross wanted to give it a shot and researched companies that had tried similar campaigns, said Tracy Barlok, the school’s vice president of advancement. She said an online campaign was attractive because it is a simple, convenient way to reach donors.
“The ease of the platform … on your phone or your iPad, it translated so beautifully that it just didn’t require us to do all of that programming work ahead of time,” Barlok said. “We raised a lot of money in a short time and had a lot of gifts from people who had never made a donation before.”
Like those of Hamilton and William and Mary, Holy Cross alumni could appeal directly to their peers to join them in donating to their alma mater, allowing a school to capitalize on active social networks.
A group of classmates that graduated from Holy Cross in 1982 vowed to give a half-million dollars to the Give Purple drive in February if a total of 2,500 other alumni also made gifts. They advertised the offer on Facebook and Twitter, the same social media platforms that school officials used to herald the campaign. By the end of the 43-hour drive — a nod to school’s founding in 1843 — Holy Cross exceeded its goal with the help of 6,226 donors.
“This was a challenge that was mostly about engagement and donor participation,” Barlok said, noting that it was about far more than just money. “It built on the foundation that we have in terms of the loyalty, compassion and competitiveness of our alumni population.”
While a majority of the contributions came from people who had given to the school in the past, Holy Cross did win over 122 new donors, more than three-quarters of whom graduated in the past decade. More than 50 percent of all donations came from alumni who graduated after 1990, with a vast majority of those gifts made on mobile devices.
“When people see something come through their feed, it grabs their attention. And if its easy to donate, they’re going to do it immediately,” said Stephanie Jeskey, a member of the Class of 2001, whose company Embryo Creative helped Holy Cross design the campaign. “The new crowdfunding method speaks to my generation.”
Barlok said her team was apprehensive at first about using an outside vendor to secure donations. Legal counsel at Holy Cross, she said, went over the GiveCampus contract several times to make sure it covered any liabilities.
“When you’re talking about online giving and credit card data, you have to be really careful,” Barlok said. “There’s a little bit of a leap of faith that you take with something like this because you just know that the benefit is going to outweigh the risk. We had great confidence. They had not had any breaches, and issues with data security.”
Given the success of the campaign, Barlok said Holy Cross is considering using the platform later in the year for a senior class fundraiser, hoping to engage a new batch of graduates before they head out the door.
With endowments inching toward the $1 billion mark, Holy Cross, Hamilton, and William and Mary are not in dire need of aid, but they do want to create sustainable relationships with as many donors as possible instead of relying on just a few large one-time gifts.
“It’s important to keep your existing donors happy, but to really move the needle and increase overall support, schools need to engage new donors,” Linder said. “We built GiveCampus to primarily be a tool for finding new donors, getting those people who only give every three or so years to give more consistently. That’s how you change the status quo.”