Talking Shop: Turning Affinity into Philanthropy
During Villanova University’s recent campaign, For the Greater Great: The Villanova Campaign to Ignite Change, the university set its most ambitious fund-raising goal yet: $600 million. Not only did the university—the oldest Catholic institution in Pennsylvania—fly past that goal (raising $759 million), but it also boosted its alumni participation and doubled the number of students who contributed to the senior class gift.
Villanova did all of this by planning wisely and working to foster a culture of philanthropy with young alumni and students, says Mike O’Neill. Here’s how.
CASE: What made your Greater Great campaign in 2018 so successful?
Mike O'Neill: From the get-go, we described this as a campaign for everyone. This clarion call indicated that whether somebody was giving $1 or $50 million—our largest single gift—there was a heroic role for everyone to play.
What are the challenges of boosting student philanthropy?
It involves education and managing expectations. We underscore that one doesn’t have a four-year relationship with Villanova; it’s a lifelong, symbiotic relationship. We wanted to give students opportunities to interact in a more organized way with our alumni and parents—whether through reunion or high-end donor recognition events. This lets them see how alumni engage in the life of the university.
Villanova more than doubled participation in its senior class gift. How?
Last year, 68% of our seniors gave to our senior class gift—a record for us. Prior to this campaign, the ask was more transactional. But no matter what level they’re giving at, people like to designate their gifts. We worked with our senior class committee to identify a variety of critical needs and when seniors gave, they could see the impact of their own giving.
How did you build a culture of philanthropy with students and young alumni?
The affinity our students and our alumni feel for Villanova is palpable. But unless you have best practices in place, it’s hard to harness and convert that affinity into philanthropy.
[To do that] we focus on end-of-fiscal-year giving—it’s more segmented and targeted. Crowdfunding for our young alumni is key, as is reacting to how our different constituencies think. For students, getting them involved in our 1842 Day [of giving], asking for their assistance in acknowledging and stewarding our donors, involving them in various programming on campus has been crucial. They can see how giving isn’t about writing a check—it’s making an investment in the enterprise of Villanova.
What are your tips for making giving days effective?
Don’t underestimate the amount of planning that’s required. Our first giving day was 18 months in the preparation stage before we launched it. We benchmarked against our peer and aspirant schools that had done exemplary days of giving. That helped us tailor a program that we felt was going to work for Villanova.
Engage your alumni volunteers and your campus partners from every area. Have your students help drive that. We did a “Cash Cab” activity, where we drove around in golf carts and picked up students on their way to a class and asked them Villanova trivia questions. For every right answer, they received a hundred dollars to give to the campus organization of their choice.
What was so invigorating to me was the [number] of students who knew it was 1842 Day and were excited about it. There was this holiday-like feeling. You get campus buy-in and then you amplify it with social media. Now there’s not just enthusiasm but also an expectation. People ask, “When’s the next 1842 Day?”
Award-Winning Fundraising Best Practices
About the author(s)
Meredith Barnett is the manager, digital communications at CASE.
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