The ReachBright Blog > Alumni Development > How Colleges Can Improve Giving Campaigns by Taking a Page from the 2016 Presidential Election

How Colleges Can Improve Giving Campaigns by Taking a Page from the 2016 Presidential Election


When it comes to the 2016 election, we can all agree on at least one thing: this last election cycle was unlike any that came before it. It was packed with a lot of firsts and plenty of strange occurrences. However, there is one uncommon phenomenon that isn’t getting as much attention as the emails, Twitter, and Russia: the ability to turn small donations into major campaign contributions. It was a trend started by Senator Bernie Sanders in his run for the presidency and it was quickly adopted by his opponents. But politicians aren’t the only ones who’ve embraced Sanders’s plan. Colleges and universities are also discovering the big advantages small donations hold.

How $27 Changed the Way Donations Were Made

While other politicians may have relied on the money of big donors and super PACs, Sanders relied on the average donation of $27. By March 2016, he was neck and neck with Democratic primary opponent Secretary Hillary Clinton. He had raised $185.8 million on about 4 million individual donations. She had garnered $186.7 million. Sanders’s campaign quickly discovered that smaller donations were more manageable for the average person, influencing more people to donate.

Because more citizens could get involved, they felt more connected to Sanders and his campaign. They forged a movement of dedicated supporters rarely seen and relatively uncommon in the political arena.

It was an exciting surprise to many, but perhaps not to the Sanders campaign itself. “We find that people develop a deeper investment and appreciation for the campaign when they’re being counted as part of something bigger than themselves,” the Sanders campaign’s digital-production director, Robin Curran, told The Atlantic last March.

Colleges and universities can and should take a page out of Bernie Sanders’s electoral playbook. While big donations are nice, if colleges and universities want to build a broader base of engaged alumni, they cannot expect all of their alumni to donate $1 million or even $1 thousand on a whim. However, alumni may have no trouble donating $5, $10, or $15 dollars once in awhile. Such costs are merely the price of a cup of coffee or a movie ticket. More students will donate and, as a result, engage themselves in the college and its future. Although their donations may be small, they’ll feel as if they now have a larger stake in the school and its continued success.

Crowdfunding Lady Liberty

In some instances, crowdfunding already does what Sanders’s campaign did so successfully. Online crowdfunding campaigns and days of giving rely, not on a major donation made by a single successful alumni who’ll probably request that a new building or auditorium be named after him, but on thousands of smaller donations made by current and former students.

Many of the higher education crowdfunding campaigns KDG helps launch focus not on the monetary goal, but on the donor goal. It’s difficult, but important, for university officials to put the question of how much money the campaign can raise to the back of their minds and instead ask: “How many donors can the campaign get?” It’s the number of engaged students or alumni that matters most. When the U.S. News & World Report or any other college ranking system measures engagement, they aren’t doing so by measuring donation totals. They’re measuring donors. More donors means more engaged students or alumni.

However, crowdfunding campaigns can only be as successful as their marketing. And, surprisingly, people have been seeking the best way to market crowdfunding campaigns for over 100 years.

When the Statue of Liberty was shipped from France in the 1880s, Lady Liberty didn’t have her famous granite pedestal. Committees tried and failed to raise the $100,000 (well over $2 million in today’s currency) still needed to construct the platform. However, newspaper tycoon Joseph Pulitzer placed an add in The World for small donations. In only a few months, 160,000 individual donors contributed the money. More than ¾ of these donors gave less than one dollar.

The campaign for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal could perhaps mark the first crowdfunding campaign in America. The campaign may not have been able to raise the staggering amount of money in 24 hours, like so many schools today are capable of. However, considering Pulitzer made the call during the midst of America’s Industrial Revolution, when slums were growing and workers were barely making a dollar per day, its turnout is pretty incredible. As Sanders’s campaign made the average citizen feel as though they were given a role in politics, Pulitzer’s made the average citizen feel as if they were given a role in constructing the famous monument. And, in reality, the pedestal probably wouldn’t have been built. New York Harbor would look shockingly different today if not for their help.

Pulitzer’s strategy worked, not only because of its call for small donations, but also because of the medium in which that call was made. In the 1880s, the newspaper was the only means of sharing and spreading news among average citizens. Pulitzer realized that the campaign would get more support if more people knew about it. And he was right. Had this campaign occurred today on one of the many crowdfunding websites available, Pulitzer would be one of the most successful modern-day crowdfunders. In fact, the campaign was so successful that The World started “calls to action” for other crowdfunding campaigns, like a memorial for General Ulysses S. Grant.

What The World did for the Statue of Liberty’s campaign, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram do for today’s crowdfunding campaigns. Social media is changing how the crowdfunding game is

played. Some campaigns, like the ones developed and designed by KDG, are built around the involvement of social media. With referrals and shares, a ripple effect occurs. If one alum donates and shares the act of giving on his or her profile, friends and followers are also more likely to donate. In fact, between 15% to 20% of the funds a campaign raises comes directly from the “first level” of an initial donor’s social network.  

It’s these bursts of social media, the Twitter retweets, Facebook shares, and Instagram photos, that prompt people to donate. This method reaches far more people than Pulitzer’s did, and in a much shorter amount of time.

In With the New   

There was a dedication among Sanders donors, a commitment perhaps unseen in any other political election. Even when Sanders lost the Democratic primary, his supporters continued to rally behind him. His supporters, many of them young millennials, perhaps had never felt a connection to a political figure before. But when they donated to the Sanders campaign, they felt as if they finally had a voice and that their donation mattered.

This strong commitment and fierce loyalty is something all colleges and universities should seek to replicate in their own crowdfunding campaigns. A series of smaller donations can turn into stronger engagement. If colleges always rely on the same select group of donors, they’ll never achieve the engagement they strive to. Small donations present the perfect opportunity for colleges and universities to recruit new donors.

Sanders didn’t want the same old groups donating to his campaign and holding him accountable to their beliefs and their wallets. He wanted new donors, men and women who were rarely given attention or a voice. Similarly, colleges and universities do not want to rely on the same donor every single year. In some cases, schools may feel indebted to these lucrative donors and such indebtedness can turn into something as minor as a building’s name change or as serious as an influence in the curriculum.

The power of social media, its availability to all and its ability to spread news faster than ever before, makes amassing new donors simpler than ever. However, “in with the new” doesn’t always mean “out with the old.”

The “Two Ponds”

In an article about nonprofit donors, Joe Garecht used the metaphor of a “shark pond” and “guppy pond” to describe large-scale donations vs. smaller gifts. He called it unwise for nonprofits to solely depend on one and not the other. Both, he argues, are needed to not only help the organization stay afloat, but also grow.

Colleges and universities should also approach their donors in this way. Small donations from average citizens are so important because those are what helps the school operate on its most basic level. Small donations can buy library books or a new computer. They can help pay bills and salaries.

However, colleges should not forget about their big donors, those who give thousands to the school at once and millions over a lifetime. Those are the donors that help the school grow. With their donations, new buildings can be constructed, new shuttle buses can be bought, and more students can enroll thanks to scholarships. So while smaller donations are important and can engage a base of alumni who may not have otherwise been engaged, it’s important not to replace large donors with smaller gift-givers. While they’ll help schools maintain regular operations, smaller donations may struggle to help schools grow to their fullest potential.

Reach for More Donors with ReachBright

The popularity of Sanders’s campaign showed the power soliciting smaller donations can have. It can build a broader, more engaged movement than traditional big donations can. As colleges and universities across the country search for ways in which they can capture the engagement of more alumni, students, and others, they should consider the large impact small gifts have.

Based on KDG’s more than 15 years of experience in helping colleges and universities boost engagement and raise more meaningful gifts, we’ve developed ReachBright. Using the power of ReachBright, a school can record any donation, no matter its size. When alumni, students, or other members of the campus community give a dollar, five, ten, or even more, ReachBright will keep track of those gifts.

Thanks to the software’s innovative tagging feature and its ability to track web and email activity, however, school administrators will be able to see so much more than donations a contact makes. They’ll see their interests: which part of the school’s website they visit most, which emails they open, which events they attend, and more. Administrators can come to a better understanding of who these contacts are as people, perhaps an even better understanding than they had of them while they were students on campus.

So it’s time to take a page from the election and start building a more meaningful, more engaging relationship with alumni and others. As recent politics and even history have shown us, it’s alright to start small.

Filed Under: Alumni DevelopmentCampus Engagement

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