3 ingredients to one university's crowdfunding success

How to capture the hearts, minds, and gifts of young alumni

Cornell University has raised nearly $900,000 through crowdfunding—mostly through small donations from young alumni who tend to be disengaged.

How did they do it?

As Kathryn Masterson reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the school used a few communication tricks in their fundraising appeals designed to engage Millennial donors.

Younger alumni have often been the hardest for advancement professionals to captivate. Engaging them requires a different approach than what worked for previous generations, according to Cornell University's Andrew Gossen, an executive director in the office of alumni affairs, and Dayana Kibilds, assistant director of digital marketing and participation for the annual giving program.

Millennials' expectations are different. For example, as Kibilds noted, "we believe it is more appealing to young alumni to give to something very specific that they know exactly what is going to happen with that money."

Some schools, such as College of the Holy Cross and Hamilton College, have seen success using a crowdfunding strategy with Millennial alumni, combining a resonating message with an all-hands-on-deck approach to advancement. Crowdfunding, a method of fundraising by collecting small donations from a vast number of people, has become a popular way for colleges to raise much needed dollars from their alumni donor base. 

Also see: 3 things you can do now to build future donor loyalty

Gossen and Kibilds also report that they're also pleased with the results of crowdfunding efforts. According to the Chronicle, Cornell has used crowdfunding to finance 70 projects and raised nearly $900,000 since 2013, though most of the donations were only $25, and nearly half of those who gave had graduated within the last decade.

Gossen and Kibilds say they've used three strategies in their fundraising appeals to make them more engaging for young donors:

  1. A sense of urgency, which is helpful in overcoming millennials' concerns about student loan debt and being new to the workforce;
  2. Transparency about how much is needed and how much is being raised, as lower giving solicitations against a specific goal allows them to see what kind of a difference they are making; and
  3. A tangible cause, such as Cornell’s focus on student affairs and campus life projects, makes the ask for a gift more compelling, than for example, a wide-ranging $40 million capital campaign.

Learn more about crafting gift appeals that inspire young donors

Mr. Gossen acknowledged that a large driver of their crowdfunding success has been the grassroots nature of its fundraising teams, which are made up of students, professors, and alumni, all of whom use their own networks to spread the word about the campaign and its goals. "If the project teams do the work, they succeed. If they don't do the work, they don’t succeed," he said (Masterson, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/26).

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