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Everything You Need to Know About Campaigns
Everything You Need to Know About Campaigns

Embarking on your first campaign? Whether you’re a newbie or a veteran, these key strategies can help ensure success.

By Nancy Mann Jackson


Chalk artwork by Anton Pulvirenti from Zest Events International

After the Campaign for École Polytechnique launched in 2008, the French public engineering university set a goal to raise €35 million—exclusively from alumni.

As part of its multiyear INSPIRED campaign, the University of Sydney conducted a 24-hour day of giving campaign in September, becoming the first Australian institution to do so.

And enthusiasm for the campaign Boston University launched in 2012 has been so high that the institution held more than 900 alumni meetings and events worldwide last year, drawing more than 52,000 alumni and guests, compared with the 100 events that attracted fewer than 10,000 participants in 2006.

What do these efforts have in common? Each institution is conducting its first campaign, which is surprising given their long histories. In Polytechnique's case, the international fundraising endeavor came more than 200 years after the institution opened its doors. Sydney, which has a target of AU$600 million, and BU, which aims to raise $1 billion (unprecedented for a first campaign), are slightly younger, at 164 and 175 years, respectively.

While fundraising campaigns seem ubiquitous, especially in the United States, growing numbers of universities from Australia to Europe are undertaking inaugural campaigns. Why? The fundraising environment is ideal, and campaigns are a catalyst to grow nascent or underperforming development shops. Some campaign neophytes are trying to mitigate public funding cuts; others to finance campus improvements or new programs.

In Australia, campaigns reflect the maturation of development shops, spurred on by some high-profile principal gifts, says Colin Taylor, director of alumni relations and philanthropy at The Australian National University, which is planning its first campaign.

Gifts such as the AU$50 million to ANU from commodities trader Graham Tuckwell and his wife, Louise, and the AU$65 million to The University of Western Australia from mining magnate Andrew Forrest and his wife, Nicola, are confidence boosters—for both donors and universities, Taylor says.

"It became clear that big philanthropy does happen in the university sector," he says. "Donors saw that the universities were a legitimate place to put a gift and expect performance."

The trend is similar in Europe. Although philanthropy isn't a new concept in the U.K., the biggest gifts typically went to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Those institutions' campaign success as well as smaller universities' attainment of major global gifts—the £20 million King's College London received from Hong Kong executive and philanthropist Dickson Poon, for instance—are inspiring university leaders to pursue campaigns.

"People in Europe are structuring their fundraising into campaigns because they've seen the benefit of that from other European institutions," says Lori Houlihan, executive director of the University College London's development and alumni relations office. "It's becoming the norm."

For institutions undertaking campaigns for the first time—or the first time in many years—here are several strategies for success.

Build Internal Support

The development office can't conduct a successful fundraising campaign by itself. Step one must include getting campus leaders' commitments to make personal gifts to the campaign, raise money from their friends, and be visible, enthusiastic supporters of the cause. "The institution's board and academic leadership need to be 100 percent behind the campaign," says Darrow Zeidenstein, vice president for development and alumni relations at Rice University, who helped the Texas institution close a successful $1 billion campaign last year. "It's this simple: If the leadership doesn't invest, why should alumni and friends?"

That includes an investment of the campus CEO's time. Mid Michigan Community College did not have many campaign volunteers, so having a president who was fully engaged in the process was critical, says Matt Miller, vice president of student and community relations and chief development officer at MMCC, which wrapped up its first campaign in July, surpassing its $5 million goal.

During countless meetings and campus tours with donors, now-retired president Carol Churchill shared her passion for MMCC and how the college improves the community and its students, while Miller discussed the campaign and naming opportunities. "The relationship between the president and CDO is critical because they need to work closely together, and in concert, to accomplish this enormous task," Miller says. "Everything just runs more smoothly when potential donors receive a consistent message." 

Buy-in from top leaders is not enough. Faculty, staff, and students must understand the campaign's significance, and communicate with a unified voice. Getting academic leaders involved from the beginning and regularly communicating with faculty, staff, and students about a campaign's progress are essential. UCL, which closed its first campaign in 2012 and is planning another for 2016, has hired consultants to coach senior academic staff. During the two-hour sessions, academics learn their role, raise concerns, and develop their cultivation skills, even reviewing campaign basics such as what's a feasibility study and why relationship-building takes so long, Houlihan says. The president is talking to deans about their campaign responsibilities.

"Educating both external and internal audiences about what a campaign means and does" is an ongoing effort, says Scott Nichols, BU's senior vice president of development and alumni relations. When BU announced a $10.5 million gift to the medical school—at the time the largest gift in university history—the story received second billing on BU's news site. The top story: the results of a softball game.

"There was a sense that the BU community just wasn't that interested in how philanthropy could transform the university," Nichols says. "We needed to educate all offices on campus about the campaign's importance since the university had never had one. It was a teaching moment and was corrected very quickly."

Make Events Eventful

"Attending a live event is an overt signal that someone is ready to be recognized and engaged," says JoAnn Peroutka, co-founder and managing principal of Educe, a Baltimore, Maryland–based event strategies company serving higher education institutions. "If an alumna attends an event, she is telling the institution that she is open to hearing what it has to say."

From recognition ceremonies to intimate salons with access to rock-star faculty members, events take a variety of forms, Peroutka says, but the most successful are "authentic to an institution and specific to the audience it intends to reach."

The U.K.'s University of Leeds, which is conducting its first campaign since 1925, launched its annual Campaign Weekend during the campaign's quiet phase to not only engage high-level supporters but also to create a community of donors, says Michelle Calvert, director of development. The small, intimate gathering affords each year's 50 targeted donors—those with a capacity to give £10,000 annually—an in-depth look at Leeds through campus tours, presentations by faculty and students, and networking opportunities over good food and wine.

"The weekend is about engaging potential donors and making them feel part of the club, which is why it's important to have seasoned donors alongside potential donors, and to raise money," adds Fridey Cordingley, campaign manager. Weekenders don't pledge immediately, but in the past two years the university has raised more than £10 million from attendees. "Many donors giving even six to eight months later cite Campaign Weekend as one of the biggest motivators. Feedback from donors is positive. … They feel part of the club, and the weekend cements their loyalty and passion for the university."

To create an authentic event, Peroutka says, think about who you want in the room and what will get them there. Once they arrive, focus on capturing their attention, delivering information, and leaving them with something to think about, feel, or do. Plan events with specific audiences in mind: "If you try to create an experience that has something for everyone, it winds up being meaningful to no one."

UCL strives to give donors experiences they can't buy. The university takes select donors to see the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, where the Higgs Boson particle may have been discovered in 2012. UCL scientists are involved in experiments taking place at the large particle physics laboratory.

"We try to make our events richer intellectually. The feedback we hear from donors is that the parties and receptions are nice, but they'd like intellectual content," Houlihan says.

Of course, investment is key. In addition to funding traditional development activities, the BU president increased the size of the alumni relations staff by 50 percent. "Alumni engagement in the life of the institution is critical to campaign success. The president provided resources to dramatically increase such engagement," Nichols says of the ninefold increase in BU event attendance.

Communicate Goals and Successes

Jumping into a campaign relies on many factors, including whether the donor base has enough resources to sustain a campaign.

"The biggest leap is the imaginative leap. A campaign is a beautiful catalyst for that. It helps the institution get to its core mission and who it serves," says Taylor, who marvels at the vision-setting, pre-campaign discussions taking place at ANU.

Topics include the admissions process; right now the only criterion is high placement on the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank. But the Tuckwell Scholarship, for high-scoring students who want to make a difference in the world, inspired a broader discussion about the types of students the university wants to attract, Taylor says. ANU is also talking about improving the student experience—more residence halls; better libraries, classrooms, and other facilities; and reimagined clubs.

Every donor wants to know the university's vision, so craft a story showing the impact the institution will make with donor support. "The story is important," Zeidenstein says. "This seems simple, but it takes many iterations to get this story down. To the extent that big potential donors are involved in ‘writing this story' before the campaign is announced, the better it is.

"Campaigns are about two things at their core: emotion and momentum. Winning the hearts and minds of board members and high net worth individuals creates the palpable sense that things are happening."

Develop a case statement, or campaign story, by talking with faculty and leaders to find ways to integrate various passions, creativity, and frankness, says Pete Mackey, chief communications officer at Massachusetts' Amherst College, which raised more than $502 million during a campaign launched in October 2008.

Not only is this process helpful for designing the campaign but the document can be a touchstone for donor engagement, Mackey says. "It is a platform for the deeper conversations about how donors can be partners in the institution's future."

BU Momentum photo

But the storytelling doesn't stop with the campaign's launch. Although its "Make a World of Difference" campaign went public last fall, Leeds is already sharing text and video stories about professors whose research has been empowered by funds raised during the quiet phase. Such online narratives help capture the imaginations of potential donors and boost campaign success—Leeds has raised £48 million toward its goal of £60 million by the end of 2015.

Social media must be a part of the strategic communications process. "Make it personal," says Charlie Melichar, a senior strategic communications consultant at the fundraising consultancy Marts & Lundy. "Talk about how campaign goals and projects will impact students and strengthen the institution. Put a face on the priorities and let your community connect with the people whose lives will be made better through a successful campaign."

Lean on Alumni Volunteers

École Polytechnique's campaign began with one staff member on its development team. Until then, the École Polytechnique Foundation, created in 1987, received gifts but did not have a strategy for cultivating major donors, says Laurent Mellier, director of development. The five people hired for the campaign since then followed a professionalized development strategy to boost major and annual giving. The changes enabled the institution to raise funds from 200 major donors and other alumni to expand research, create a graduate school, recruit international students, and provide scholarships to low-income students.

But the global campaign—alumni from the U.S. and the U.K. contributed nearly 25 percent of the campaign total—required dedicated alumni volunteers. In the U.S., alumni ambassadors on the East and West coasts helped the university meet with graduates and organized events, such as a June 2013 dinner in Silicon Valley that allowed major donors to chat with France's then-minister of innovation, Fleur Pellerin.

Empowering volunteers to make decisions and lead by example has added significantly to the success of BU's campaign, Nichols says.

Student leaders also stepped up, pledging at the campaign kickoff event that students would perform 1 million hours of community service. To date, more than 620,000 hours have been committed. "That's a wonderful contribution, and I think it inspires our alumni and gets our students excited about the campaign," Nichols says.

Before selecting volunteers, determine what you need from them, says Larissa Holtmyer Jones, vice president for development at the Iowa State University Foundation, which is in the midst of a $1.7 billion campaign. Do you need volunteers in name only, or do you need their substantial time and leadership? When selecting volunteer leaders, "always begin with the ability of the volunteer to make a major or leadership gift," she says. After that, consider the potential volunteer's network and ability to identify other donors, along with his or her level of commitment and passion for the institution.

Volunteers can handle a variety of tasks, Holtmyer Jones says. They can thank donors, motivate staff, coach the president or dean, provide candid feedback, and serve on focus groups for the campaign launch, communication strategies, or celebration ideas.

If key supporters don't have the time or inclination to serve? Ask them to participate in a quick, confidential peer-screening exercise, says Wayne Webster, vice president for advancement at Ripon College in Wisconsin. "Donors often like to tell you about classmates, colleagues, or neighbors who could provide philanthropic support," Webster says. "Preparing a list of peers for volunteers to review based on graduation dates, geography, or another affinity such as Greek life, athletics, or employment sector gives you great intel and makes the screener feel like they are providing a great service to you."

Service to the university is as important as the final campaign total. Alumni campaign engagement helps institutions identify graduates interested in mentoring students, employing graduates, volunteering on boards, and serving as brand ambassadors. Says Houlihan: Institutions need to "think through the nonfinancial benefits of alumni engagement that are important to the general health of the institution."

About the Author Nancy Mann Jackson

Nancy Mann Jackson writes regularly about finance, business, and higher education. Learn more about her at




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