Best. Giving Day. Ever.

With proper planning, a 24-hour fundraising event can re-energize your donor base like nothing else

By Charles Coxe

Best. Giving Day. Ever.

On April 26, 2017, Purdue University raised $28 million. That's not a typo. And the Indiana institution did it in 24 hours, from 15,000 gifts, both large and small. That shattered the previous world record—which Purdue set the year before—by 83 percent.

I'm a content marketer who has helped create several record-breaking giving efforts, from Purdue's to Columbia University's pioneering 2012 Giving Day (which beat its best single-day total by 500 percent and drew a significant number of new donors). Along the way, my colleagues and I have learned a few key things to do—and not do—to make your day one for the history books.

1. Give to donors—don't just take.

Don't ask people to give back without giving them something of value first. It doesn't have to be expensive swag-it can be as simple as digital content that entertains and informs, reconnecting alumni with their alma mater and reminding them of the value of their education (and gently urging them to pay that opportunity forward). For Purdue, we created a summer blockbuster-esque trailer that tied nostalgic campus footage and reminders of university impact to some tongue-in-cheek inside jokes to drive excitement for the daylong event. If you lead with content your audience values, they'll be more receptive when you ask them to contribute.

2. Brand your day and own it.

Many launch a giving day only to give up ownership to a larger effort like Giving Tuesday or a third-party vendor's "set it and forget it" template. Their totals suffer as a result, as their identity gets lost amid a thousand competitors-or worse (in 2016, many groups blamed a tech vendor and its templated approach for "completely overpromising and overselling, and then flat-out failing them" when their efforts fell short).

Create a consistent look and feel that will anchor your efforts across channels, from print collateral to website design to branded frames for social media graphics. Build a team that crosses departments, disciplines, generations (along with outside help if you need it)—and don't overlook students. As we've learned with Purdue and Princeton University, students are often your most energetic volunteers, as well as a fresh voice that alumni want to hear. Recruit them, arm them with content to share on social media, and thank them profusely for their efforts. Student-generated content (inspired by your careful strategy) gets shared farthest and widest.

3. Don't set a specific goal (at least not publicly).

This contradicts what many fundraising pros advise, but we've seen this backfire too many times. A public goal only works if you hit it—fall short and your audience feels like a failure. If you reach your goal too early, donors lose motivation to give. (Both Purdue and Columbia spoke internally about giving day goals in the $2 million range—if they'd made those goals public, they might have left millions of dollars behind.) Saying you need $10 million emphasizes dollars rather than participation or impact, which can seem greedy. Focus more on altruistic goals, like increasing financial aid or creating interdisciplinary programs. The more noble your goals, the more likely you are to succeed.

4. Appeal to emotion—but make a rational argument.

Three main triggers motivate alumni to give back: emotion, nostalgia, and rationale. It's tough to predict which will work best, so try all three: Show how the university is making the world a better place. (Columbia's slogan, "Changing lives that change the world," has anchored countless stories of student impact.) Remind your audience why they love their alma mater by showing traditions that endure throughout the years. Purdue gave a clear rationale for gifts: They would enable the institution to freeze student tuition for the sixth year in a row. It's tough to argue with that.

5. Create competitions.

From fraternities to academic departments, rivalries exist at every institution. Take advantage of that: Set aside a major donor match for winners of participation challenges, such as the group with the most gifts during targeted "quiet hours" or to celebrate the 100th tweet or most creative user-generated content. At Purdue, calls for photos of pets in university gear or videos of students singing their alma mater drew hundreds of responses within minutes—which lead to higher engagement and gifts from alumni impressed by the school spirit.

This may feel like a lot to manage, and it should. A successful giving day requires careful planning, clear communication and collaboration between different departments, a diverse and energetic group of student and alumni volunteers, and your creative team. But once everyone is pulling in the same direction, you have an opportunity not only to break your own fundraising records but also to lay a solid foundation for future communication with a newly engaged audience. And that is a benefit that can pay dividends for years to come.

Do Giving Days Hurt Fundraising the Rest of the Year?

Forget your fears about giving days. Done right, they can boost gift levels, donor participation, and alumni engagement.

Consider this mind-boggling stat: Of the gifts that Columbia University received on its first giving day in 2012, 40 percent came from new and lapsed donors. In the years since, 20 percent of donors have been first-timers-proof that giving days are reaching an untapped audience.

Another key stat: 22 percent of Purdue's Day of Giving donors were giving for the second time that calendar year. We've seen this with multiple institutions: Creating a special giving event encourages extra giving because donors (particularly major donors) want to be part of the broad movement.

Giving days can also deepen the alumni-institution relationship as alumni audiences opt in to social channels and engage with content at a higher level than before. That makes it easier to reach them for the next effort, whether it's another giving day, an awareness push, or a capital campaign.

About the Author

Charles Coxe is co-founder and executive creative director of New York-based SAGA Content.