Advancement Blog

Why marketing efforts matter for university fundraising success

by Dena Schwartz

“Marketing is the art of telling stories so enthralling that people lose track of their wallets,” shares Charles Duhigg in a recent New York Times article. However, he notes that nonprofits traditionally fail to make their causes appealing to new donors because they:

  • Don’t use taglines that would look good on a t-shirt
  • Focus on the negative side of the problem they’re solving
  • Assume that people are already interested in the issue or cause

On one hand, it may seem like these traditional nonprofit issues don’t relate to colleges and universities: alumni already have an affinity to their alma maters and we have plenty of uplifting stories about things that can only happen with institutional donor support. (And campus bookstores can confirm that there are plenty of attractive university t-shirts on the market.)

However, when thinking about principal (and transformational) gift donors, higher education cannot ignore the nonprofit space. Donors at this level can give anywhere, and they are most likely to direct their philanthropy to organizations (of any type) that are best positioned to solve the problems that interest them. In short, they care more about specific issues than giving to their alma mater.

In fact, these “donor investors” no longer base their philanthropy on which organizations they want to support. They set goals for the impact they want to have in the world, then they evaluate which organizations are best positioned to help them meet those goals. If one organization doesn’t lead to the results they seek—or doesn’t share data on how the gift was used—the donor investor will direct their philanthropy elsewhere.

Donor Statistics

To beat the competition for donor support at the top of the giving pyramid, it is no longer enough to have the best big ideas—those ideas need to be branded to appeal to any donor who is interested in the problem they solve or the issues they touch.

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For an example of nonprofit branding done right, Duhigg points to Charity: Water. Inspired by firms like Apple and Nike, the organization has created branding principles that appeal to anyone, even prospects who were not originally interested in global water issues. Charity: Water doesn’t use guilt or shame to encourage giving. Instead of talking about how communities are limited by a lack of clean drinking water, they trigger a sense of hope in donors by describing all of the things that community members are able to do when they have reliable water supplies.

Charity: Water's successful marketing campaigns can teach us lessons for how to pitch big ideas to donors:

  • Keep it positive: tell stories that focus on improved outcomes, not what caused the problem
  • Make the donor a hero: explain how philanthropy will enable them to change the world
  • Brevity wins: get the point across in catchy, short phrases that donors will remember

Ultimately, you don’t have to have Apple’s advertising budget to market big ideas, but thinking like a marketer and incorporating these lessons can make your case for support compelling to anyone who sees it.

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