Lindsay Curtis

by Lindsay Curtis

In the world of higher education, fundraising is integral in advancing the mission and vision of your institution. As an academic leader, fundraising likely demands a portion of your time and attention, and for good reason. With reduced government funding, rising operating costs, and increased competition, your institution’s fundraising efforts are more important than ever.

In the 2018 academic fiscal year, colleges and universities across the United States raised a record $46.73 billion, according to an annual survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE).(1) Higher education institutions rely heavily on philanthropy, and most of us need an “all hands on deck” approach to fundraising campaigns. But where to begin?

According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Alumni give more than any other philanthropic source except foundations.

According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, Alumni give more than any other philanthropic source except foundations.

Create a campaign

An integrative fundraising campaign that includes alumni relations and communications activities along with your fundraising efforts is a major driver for success. Your campaign is an opportunity to highlight a path forward and describe how philanthropy — and your donors — can help you carry out the mission and vision of your institution.

Alexander Graham Bell’s quote, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success,” is fitting for the world of fundraising in our modern era. In order to successfully carry out your fundraising campaign, a considerable amount of preparation and planning is key.

Creating a campaign is never a one-person job, and shouldn’t be left to just your development and advancement teams. Your campaign will require input from a number of stakeholders, including administration and leadership, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and current donors.

A comprehensive campaign creates a clear and ambitious vision for your school and should outline a focused set of priorities that the funding will support. Ultimately, your campaign is about more than just meeting your fundraising goal — it’s about fostering a sense of community, of belonging, of being a part of something larger than ourselves.

Set your sights high — but do the research first

Philanthropic support for educational institutions in the United States rose by 470 percent between 1998-2008, which is encouraging for those of us in the world of higher education fundraising.1 Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of successful fundraising campaigns.

Over the course of its 10-year Boundless Campaign that ended in 2018, the University of Toronto raised $2.641 billion, setting a new record for Canadian philanthropy.(2)

That same year, the University of Michigan surpassed expectations to become the first public university in the United States to raise $5 billion — the most successful fundraising campaign in the University’s history, only five years after the campaign was launched.(3)

The University of Michigan shattered records as the first public university to raise $5 billion

The University of Michigan shattered records as the first public university in the U.S. to raise $5 billion.

These examples are proof that you can dream big when setting your campaign goal. But before you do, it’s important to understand your institution’s current needs as well as your future projects and priorities. In order to do this, you’ll want to conduct a thorough needs assessment. Things to consider in the needs assessment include:

  • Does our institution have an overarching strategic plan with objectives and priorities that donor dollars could support?
    • What priorities and projects can we identify that philanthropic support can help us achieve?
  • What are our community’s philanthropic interests?
    • How can we tap into that to encourage philanthropy to our institution?
  • Does our wider academic community support fundraising?
    • Do faculty members, development/advancement, and communications staff need fundraising-specific training to help us reach our goals?

Once you’ve conducted a thorough needs assessment, you can set your fundraising campaign goal based on your findings. Aim high — this is your time to shine.

Make donating easy and offer multiple ways to give

You want to make it easy for your donors to give, and you can do this by diversifying the ways in which they can. Providing a menu of options for donating ensures that every donor finds something that works for them, which increases the likelihood that you’ll receive a higher number of donations. Options for giving typically fall under these common categories:

Give Now: One-time credit card donations on your website or at events, check by mail, wire transfers, and mutual fund transfers.

Give Over Time: Recurring gifts (such as a set monthly amount), multi-year pledges, and payroll deductions.

Give Later: Memorial and honorary gifts, planned giving, and IRA charitable rollovers. This type of gift typically involves a number of conversations over time with the donor.

Tip: Provide contact information for an individual (such as your development officer) on all websites and communications that solicit donations. This personalizes contact with your donors, which helps build trust.

Showcase impact

Donors not only want to know where their money goes, they also want to know their philanthropy has made an impact. In a recent survey, 78 percent of Millennials said they are likely or somewhat likely to stop donating to an organization if they didn’t know how their donation has made an impact.(4) No matter their age, donors want to feel like they’ve participated in the success of the institution or program their money helped support.

The best way to demonstrate impact is through storytelling. Not only does storytelling showcase the impact of donor dollars, but it lends authority to your campaign. Philanthropic storytelling can be done in a number of ways, including:

  • Personal letters to donors: Let your donors know exactly what has been done with their financial gift. If a major donor has made a gift to a particular Faculty, this letter should come from the Dean, for example. Adding a personal touch goes a long way in fostering relationships.
  • Impact videos: Use the art of visual storytelling to let your donors know how the funds were used. Perhaps a new research lab was added to your campus, or a number of marginalized students are now supported through student awards and scholarships, thanks to your donors. Show them the impact through video testimonials and footage.
  • Student connections: Help your donors connect to the students their gifts have made a direct impact on. Hold a donor luncheon with students present, or invite your donors into a physical space their money helped support, such as a new simulation laboratory or research lab. Involve students in the facilities tour so donors can witness how current students benefit from their donations.
Cindy Yip came to U of T from Hong Kong on a scholarship—an experience she treasured so much that she’s now contributing to scholarships for others.

The University of Toronto profiled Cindy Yip, who came from Hong Kong on a scholarship—an experience she treasured so much that she’s now contributing to scholarships for others.

Following up with donors on the specific impact of their gifts not only builds trust for your organization, but it makes them feel good about what they’ve done, which encourages future donations.

Build relationships

The advancement and development officers at universities and colleges have long been forging and fostering relationships with alumni, friends, and their communities in order to build a donor base. But it’s not enough to simply add individuals to a list and email them asking for money every now and again.

Many institutions grapple with questions about why donors give and what motivates them to make a gift. People are motivated to give for a wide variety of personal reasons, many of which are not always obvious. Getting to know your donor base and making personal connections is crucial to successful fundraising.

Many institutions start relationship building with alumni, but there’s no reason why you can’t start community building with your current students (who eventually become alumni!). Foster a collaborative, cooperative culture by creating positive experiences for your students outside of the classroom. Let their voices be heard by giving them opportunities to work on projects and initiatives at your school. Encourage them to join clubs and committees so they feel invested not just in their education, but your school as a whole.

Your relationships with your alumni must go beyond simply asking them for money when you need it. You can offer your alumni perks and incentives to encourage them to keep in touch. Invite them to participate on boards and committees, and give them early access to special programming throughout the year. Organize alumni reunions, send new graduates job-seeking tips, and maintain some correspondence to help them stay connected to their alma mater. The more connected to your institution they feel, the more likely they are to contribute when asked.

Thank your donors

Philanthropy has always helped advance the goals of your institution, and you wouldn’t be where you are now without the generosity and support of your donors. Make sure they know it! The type of thank you for your donor depends on the size of the gift — smaller donors may get a personal letter or phone call from your development or advancement office, whereas major donors may get lunch with the Dean or a personal gift of appreciation.

You can get creative with your ‘thank you,’ too. In 2013, the University of Brighton students took part in a mass ‘thank you’ day to recognize the donors who supported their education experiences. Students covered a wall with messages of gratitude, and a Twitter campaign was launched using the hashtag #brightonthanks. Students even called donors to personally thank them.

A thank you helps your donors not only feel appreciated, but if done correctly, will help them feel like they are a part of something wonderful — a bright future for a student, a supportive community, and a legacy of excellence at your institution.

Closing Advice

Running a successful fundraising campaign can feel like a daunting task, particularly at the onset. In order to make money, you have to spend money investing in your fundraising capabilities. Your institution likely has a team of fundraising professionals, so rely on them and their expertise to open doors, provide the necessary research, and attract and steward donors and manage large gifts.

Fundraising is not an exact science — there is no prescribed way to do it, so understanding your community and catering your campaign activities based on not only what your institution needs, but what speaks to your community, can help your fundraising efforts be a success.

About the author

Lindsay Curtis is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Canada, where she also works as a Communications Officer for the University of Toronto. She writes about higher education, healthcare, research, parenting, and LGBTQ issues. She spends her spare time tending to her indoor plants, cycling, and volunteering for hospice. Learn more about Lindsay at or follow her on Twitter.


[1] Voluntary Support of Education: Trends in Alumni Giving:

[2] The University of Toronto Boundless Campaign: 

[3] U-Michigan raises $5B, shattering records for public universities:

[4] Top 100 Findings from the Millenial Impact Project:

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