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The Editor’s Dilemma: How Should You Cover Campaigns?
The Editor’s Dilemma: How Should You Cover Campaigns?

The key to success is storytelling

By Suzanne Gray




We're launching a comprehensive campaign.

Those words can make an alumni magazine editor break out in a sweat, imagining donor profiles with headlines like "Jane Smith Gives $100,000 to the University." You know that the hardworking development staff will be pressured to meet ambitious fundraising goals, and you're dreading the calls and emails requesting wall-to-wall campaign coverage. You want to support the fundraisers' efforts, but you also want to maintain your credibility with readers.

What do you do?

Take a deep breath and remember that, believe it or not, you and your development colleagues share the same goal—encouraging people to engage with the institution. You just approach it differently. Your job is to tell great stories, which helps fundraisers do their jobs. Ultimately, a campaign is one big multiyear story about your institution's values and vision and how supporting that vision will transform lives. The magazine can generate enthusiasm and support for that without compromising its relationship with readers.

So where should you start?

Build relationships with the fundraisers

The magazine is generally an institution's most visible and beloved publication, so it can be a major asset for the campaign, says David Gibson, vice president of strategic communications at the fundraising consulting firm Grenzebach Glier and Associates. Acknowledge that and take the initiative: Schedule regular meetings with the development staff to get its perspective on the campaign. What do potential donors need to understand or feel to help them engage and, ultimately, make a gift? What are fundraisers most excited or worried about? By focusing first on the underlying needs of the audience—and the fundraisers—rather than specific story ideas, you will gain a better idea of how the magazine can reinforce the campaign's goals and devise an approach that best suits the situation.

It's also important to discuss any plans for additional kinds of campaign communications. Even the most generous magazine coverage likely will be only part of the mix. How will alumni and other audiences receive campaign messages? Will there be a separate newsletter or website featuring campaign news, updates, and donor stories?

Understanding where fundraisers are coming from and their ideas for spreading campaign news will help you determine the magazine's style of coverage. But don't forget: The magazine is well-read because it tells compelling stories that engage readers' hearts and minds, Gibson says. If the quality of content is diluted by mediocre campaign stories, it could compromise the magazine's relationship with its readers, which would be counterproductive for both the campaign and the magazine.

Focus on storytelling

"Philanthropy is based on relationships, and relationships usually start with a conversation," says Gibson, a consultant who understands both sides of the equation. A veteran editor of award-winning alumni publications such as Cornell University's Cornell Alumni Magazine, Gibson transitioned to development communications at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For fundraisers, he says, an insightful, moving magazine story that covers an area of the institution that already interests a donor can be an important icebreaker.

What kinds of stories can you tell about a campaign? Plenty, says Gibson.

For starters, there's the fundraising effort itself, which is certainly newsworthy. "Campaigns have everything to do with the health and viability of our institutions; therefore, they are news," Gibson says.

"The campaign is news. It's big news," agrees Cynthia Buccini, managing editor of Bostonia, the magazine of Boston University. In fall 2012, the university launched its first comprehensive campaign with a goal of raising $1 billion. To coincide with the campaign's announcement, Bostonia published a special 106-page issue and a corresponding multimedia version on its website to celebrate the launch. The magazine grouped the articles into useful sections—Campaign 101, Investing in a New BU, Changing the World, and Engaging the City—that explained the need for the campaign and complemented its goals. One brief article highlights the university's work to understand a disease that is killing bats. But the story's hook is a girl's love for the winged mammals, not the campaign. In successive issues, Bostonia has dedicated two to four pages of its front news section to campaign updates, such as announcing a scholarship named for a graduate student who died in last year's Boston Marathon bombing.

Campaign news has its place in a magazine, says Dale Keiger, associate editor of Johns Hopkins Magazine, the magazine of Maryland's Johns Hopkins University. Just keep it brief. "Even the most ardent supporters of the university are not going to read 4,000 words on making the campaign goal," says Keiger, who also runs UMagazinology, a blog for alumni magazine professionals.

Portland magazine, the publication of Oregon's University of Portland, includes campaign news items if they're really interesting—like the orchid-growing couple who donated their greenhouse—but orthodox reporting on gifts and the comprehensive fundraising effort is typically reserved for the campaign newsletter, says Editor Brian Doyle. "Who got their hearts opened and their lives changed? That's my responsibility with the magazine," he says.

The trouble with donor profiles

Sorry, fundraisers. Readers don't like donor stories. In alumni magazine surveys, they rank next to last: Just 36 percent of readers were interested in them, according to the latest analysis of benchmarking data from CASE's Member Magazine Readership Survey; only articles about faculty publications ranked lower. Yet stories about graduates are a top attraction: Alumni life is the most popular category. When choosing among favorite types of articles, readers rated alumni in their professions in the top three, with 69 percent saying they're interested or very interested.

Does that free you, without prejudice, from ever printing another donor story? No, it just confirms what you already know: Tell interesting stories. The key to writing about donors? "Think of them not as donors but as human beings"—a great donor profile might not even mention philanthropy, Gibson says.

An example: During Gibson's tenure at Cornell, members of the S.C. Johnson family—one of the New York institution's largest donors—retraced their grandfather's iconic 1930s trip to South America in a replica amphibious plane that they built themselves. The magazine ran a feature article about the journey without a single mention of the family's significance on campus.

"We would have missed the point completely if we had introduced a fundraising angle in a story where it didn't belong," Gibson says. "How powerful it is to recognize donors for who they are and what they've done, not only for what they've given."

Portland's Spring 2006 edition took a similar approach to the story of Donald Shiley, an alumnus who invented a lifesaving artificial heart valve and later donated $20 million with his wife to renovate and expand the engineering building where he spent his college years. The article focused on the details of Shiley's life, such as how he grew up poor, picking produce and fixing machinery on a Washington farm. The Winter 2010 issue, which helped launch the university's $175 million campaign that December, paid silent homage to the Shileys' first multimillion-dollar gift by featuring a six-page photo essay of the late engineer's beloved first tools. The introduction mentions the couple's generosity almost in passing.

So how do you find these great stories? Cultivate your advancement colleagues as sources. They talk with alumni about their lives, so sit down and review a list of the top five or 10 people they'd like to see featured, Gibson says. What do these donors do for fun? What challenges have they faced? How did they make their money? Ask yourself: If these people were not top donors, would we still do stories on them?

What if the fundraisers won't open up? Or claim they don't know any good stories about prospects?

"This is why God invented beer," Doyle says.

Turn campaign priorities into prose

Campaign goals are prime story fodder too. If building a new nanotechnology center is a key initiative, an article explaining what nanotechnology is and why it's important would be a huge asset for fundraisers, even if the story never mentions the campaign.

One of the goals of JHU's $4.5 billion campaign, which publicly launched in May 2013, is funding a Science of Learning Institute to synthesize research in neuroscience and education. For the fall 2013 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, Keiger wrote a 4,000-word feature examining the new institute's role in furthering research on how the brain learns. The story focuses on the scientific questions that inspired the new initiative rather than the institute.

When Portland's current campaign sought funding for a new recreation and wellness center, the magazine staff produced a 28-page booklet filled with photos, drawings, and essays presented as a meditation on "the extraordinary miracle of physicality and the astonishing grace of the body [rather than] here's a new building," Doyle says. (It was stitched into the center of the Spring 2012 issue.) In the Winter 2013 issue, a caption for a rendering of the new recreation center's basketball courts asked readers if they could "name a backboard for a poor-shooting friend?" Funny, yes, but it also makes a point about naming opportunities—and how to think about them differently.

The campaign's financial priorities can benefit from similar treatment in the magazine, Gibson says. What's the endowment? Why is tuition so high? What happens to gifts for financial aid? An institution's funding model functions differently than that of a for-profit company, he says, and donors might need to understand how the numbers work before they will invest. A solid piece of business journalism, taking a page from Bloomberg Businessweek or The Economist, can help readers understand the need for the campaign.

Presentation points

Now that you're bursting with ideas and inspiration, how do you present them? Most editors opt for subtlety, relying on solid storytelling to entertain or inform readers in a way that motivates them to take action on their own.

Johns Hopkins Magazine takes a minimalist approach to the institution's campaign. If the publication is doing its job right, says Keiger, every story embodies the excellent work of the university and its people. The magazine "works best as a development tool when there's nothing overtly development about it," he says. "To whatever extent exemplifying Hopkins also implicitly promotes Hopkins, so much the better for all concerned. We know we exist to promote the place; we just think we do that best when we're subtler about it."

By contrast, Middlebury Magazine has devoted special sections to Middlebury College's $500 million initiative, which began in 2007. The advancement office paid for the four- to eight-page additions, which were labeled "A Special Supplement to Middlebury Magazine." A colored border further distinguished the sections from editorial content.

Matt Jennings, editor of the Vermont college's publication, is enthusiastic about this approach. Much like a special advertising section in a commercial magazine, it showed that Middlebury wasn't trying to disguise a fundraising appeal as editorial content, he says. Staff members wrote and designed the supplements, which ran in each issue from fall 2008 to fall 2010, ensuring that the stories and custom illustrations and infographics were worthy of the rest of the magazine. The sections highlighted progress toward the initiative's financial goals and listed funding opportunities but contained no gift asks.

Portland's Doyle tried something similar in a previous campaign but now thinks the approach was a mistake that marginalized the content. The downside to confining campaign stories to a special section is that it risks becoming a musty basement that readers can easily ignore, he says. Now Doyle weaves campaign priorities throughout the magazine, often including direct yet offbeat fundraising asks. An example: "Could you invent a scholarship for left-handed kids who want to teach red-headed kids how to play the cello with their toes? Sure." A development staffer's phone number follows. This tactic doesn't compromise the magazine's journalistic integrity, according to Doyle. "I'm telling true stories," he says. "Yeah, you're a journalist, but really what you are is a fundraiser—potentially a genius fundraiser. You are the prime story catcher, and stories are what fascinate people and attract investment."

Keiger admires Doyle's approach, but mixing fundraising asks with editorial content can erode a magazine's credibility, he says. There's a danger in becoming "a development vehicle disguised as a magazine." CASE's magazine benchmarking survey analysis confirms that viewpoint. Of respondents who noted that the publication failed to strengthen their bond with the institution, 41 percent said that it was because they consider the magazine primarily a fundraising tool.

Over time, benchmarking survey results show that alumni magazines strengthen institutional engagement and motivate people to take desirable actions, such as attending events and making financial contributions. Editorial content also affects the amount of time that people spend reading the magazine, which influences their engagement with the institution. The message is clear: Good content leads to good giving.

So, editors, take heart. You already understand your readers' interests, the institution's values, your staff's strengths, and your magazine's resources. Now listen to your fundraisers' perspectives; get their ideas; make a plan; and remember this advice from Doyle: "If you can tell commanding, riveting, unforgettable stories, people will throw money at you. Fact."

About the Author Suzanne Gray

Suzanne Gray is the editor of Sarah Lawrence magazine at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

 

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