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How to Achieve Better Giving Days

Why your financial prosperity depends on something far less tangible

September 17, 2019

When faced with the statistics from various universities’ Giving Days, it becomes impossible to argue with the effectiveness of the practice. In a mere 24-hour time period, Vanderbilt managed to raise over $9.4 million from 8,283 donors, Cornell University garnered over $7.8 million from 13,803 donors, and Columbia raised over $20 million. But none of these numbers compare to those of the behemoth of alumni giving: Purdue University. During its latest Giving Day, Purdue managed to raise $41,596,596 in the form of 21,420 discrete gifts. You read that right — over 41 million dollars.

So, how do these universities manage to inspire such a large portion of their alumni network to give back? 

Why Giving Days Work

Giving Days are extremely effective in mobilizing alumni to give, as they entail 3 key factors that differentiate them from other advancement initiatives.

First and foremost, offering a small window of time to give makes alumni feel a sense of urgency. They can’t take days to deliberate about whether to give or not give, because there’s a strict deadline for when their gift can be “counted.”

Secondly, Giving Days provide advancement professionals across the university with a singular, shared goal. Because advancement processes can be streamlined into one single day, the return on effort reflects this efficiency.

Finally, a generalized, mass-marketing campaign has the advantage of not allowing alumni to say “take me off your call list, please” as phonathons do. The university, therefore, retains a pool of alumni they can target in giving initiatives, rather than alienating them via phone calls with the sole intention of asking for their money. 

The Risks of Giving Days

While “Giving Days” can deliver large amounts of funding to some universities, other universities are far less successful at reaping the event’s benefits. That’s because many universities’ “Giving Days” neglect to acknowledge the link between engagement and giving. 

According to CASE, alumni engagement is a term that embodies alumni’s feelings of pride in their university, their sense of “home” when they walk on campus or revisit their old dorm, their memories of late nights at college bars, and their friendships that have persisted for decades post-graduation. Engaged alumni are the ones that take it upon themselves to give major gifts of millions of dollars, or agree to commit to smaller monthly or annual gifts.

Unfortunately, Giving Days often fail to engage alumni in the process of asking them to give. The result? A marketing initiative that comes across as gimmicky, and fails to remind alumni why they should give to their alma mater in the first place. The practice of blasting marketing materials for your Giving Day across various social media channels can be effective when your alumni Giving Day is a cherished annual event (à la Purdue), but otherwise runs the risk of translating into a desperate grab for cash. Furthermore, offering nothing more than a standardized “thank you” email in return for alumni giving likely won’t make the alumni feel inclined to give again in the future. 

Fostering a Willingness to Give

An effective solution for schools that have less-successful Giving Days is to center the Giving Day around emotional appeals and active engagement. The “Giving Day” model leaves almost the entire year available to build a relationship between alumni and university. Priming the pump well in advance will ensure a more successful outcome when “Giving Day” finally appears on the calendar.

The first step is to ensure that your alumni are kept up-to-date with the changes and events happening on-campus. Finding a way to target individual alumni who would be interested in donating to specific causes or attending niche events is a great avenue for a potential giving boost.

Penelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research found that 47% of respondents who made an unrestricted gift recently would have given more if they had been asked to support a specific program or initiative.

In addition, it’s important to address the fundamental question: why should your alumni spend their charitable dollars on their alma mater as opposed to another worthy cause?

Last year a family friend developed breast cancer. I donated to the breast cancer society for the first time because I now have a strong emotional connection to their cause.

Have you done anything for your alumni recently that reignited their emotional connection to your institution? If not, consider leveraging nostalgia to foster gratitude.

Remind them of the formative years they spent at your university; the life-long friendships they formed, the knowledge they gained that helped them in their career, or the experiences which shaped their character.

Not only are nostalgia-based appeals more effective than non-nostalgia based appeals, but they are also a powerful method of strengthening alumni identity - a proven predictor of giving.

The key though is to use personalized nostalgia. There’s no value in showing an Alpha Phi Omega bookworm pictures of the wrestling team winning a big match during her student days if she never attended a single athletic event. Nostalgia only works if it’s meaningful to the individual.

Blasting out identical content to all alumni runs the very real risk that the content will be perceived as irrelevant at best or spam at worst. Instead, universities need to micro-target alumni so that they are interacting with content that is relevant and meaningful to their time at your university.

Your university’s digital archives are an untapped content asset that can be used to creatively spark engagement, nostalgia, and reminiscing. 

And don’t forget to leverage the engagement opportunities that arise after your “Giving Day” has passed. 

If an alumni was willing to give, you must demonstrate your own gratitude by showing them how their dollars were utilized to make a positive difference. Whether this means sending out a customized email highlighting where their donation went, sending photos of renovations that their dollars helped to fund, or creating “thank you” videos that show the overall impact of “Giving Day” — advancement professionals have to take a personalized, sincere approach. Without this oft-overlooked final step, a university fails to foster goodwill in its constituents — and future giving will suffer as a result. 

Emotion is at the Heart of Giving

Simply put, capitalizing on emotional connection is the key to having a successful “Giving Day.” People give to a university not because they are asked to, but because they are invited to make the institution they love better. This affinity for your alma mater is why some individual gifts total millions of dollars, as well as why some alumni pledge to make annual payments for the rest of their life. A “Giving Day” must not be a last-minute and urgent plea for cash, rather, it should be the conclusion to a year of fostering an emotional connection between a university and its alumni.

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