Three core challenges facing higher education fundraising

This is part one of a two-part series on reinventing higher education fundraising. Read part 2 here.

Increased pressures across a more complex and challenging landscape demand a new approach to higher education fundraising. As overall enrollment numbers decline, student retention is stagnant, and traditional revenue sources are no longer predictable, individual philanthropic support for higher education is more important than ever to ensure financial stability and long-term growth.

But just as higher education leaders are looking to advancement to close the funding gap, those on the fundraising front line are facing their own set of serious challenges. Alumni participation and individual giving to institutions are declining, and the public has raised questions about the value of higher education. Simultaneously, foundations and gift officers are being asked to raise much more—with either flat or only minimally increased budgets.

Fundraisers need to do much more with the limited resources they have. In this setting, perhaps the harshest reality of all is this: traditional, “tried-and-true” fundraising methods won’t be enough to address new challenges in higher education or the increased demands on advancement professionals.

Higher education fundraising is facing three core challenges—and isn’t adapting quickly enough to overcome them

As pressure mounts to bring in more fundraising dollars more quickly, donors are becoming more difficult to acquire and retain due to 1) increasing competition, 2) a changing communication landscape, and 3) the population’s shifting behaviors and preferences when it comes to giving.

1. Competition for donors and dollars is only growing more fierce

Contrary to popular belief, an institution’s biggest competitor for donors and dollars is not other colleges and universities, nor is it the 1.5 million charities now active in the U.S.  If it were only that simple! The true source of competitive pressure in today’s world are the consumer marketing giants like Amazon who continue to lead the charge in more sophisticated, data-driven, channel-optimized, and highly tuned communication to the same population that colleges and universities are trying to reach. These retailers have set the bar very high and continue to push it skyward with advanced targeting, big data, and continuously tested user experiences.

The true source of competitive pressure in today’s world are the consumer marketing giants like Amazon who continue to lead the charge in more sophisticated, data-driven, channel-optimized, and highly tuned communication to the same population that colleges and universities are trying to reach.

Donors, like the rest of us, now expect this same type of interaction with any type of brand they encounter—even their alma mater. When institutions fall short, their message falls flat, and their attention falls away, taking their discretionary dollars with it. Gone are the days of alumni feeling duty-bound to give back to their institution.

Of course, the competition not only comes in the form of highly-optimized and personalized experiences, but also in the sheer volume of messages and offers.

Some organizations are already catching on to individualized marketing, the attention economy, and high-quality storytelling. We are now at the tip of the iceberg as we see major nonprofits and foundations start to modernize their approach to targeting, engaging, and soliciting for philanthropic support. The reality is that the only way to beat them is to join them. It’s time for higher education fundraising to move more quickly to adopt these modern marketing tactics to remain relevant and produce results—or be left in the dust.

2. The communication landscape is exploding

Compared to just one year ago, Americans are now spending 60 percent more time on smartphones creating and consuming information on websites, email, social media, streaming video, and more. By 2019, 246 billion emails will be sent per day. It’s no surprise that the number of channels and the volume of information being sent has exponentially grown in the last decade. This represents a challenge in a more crowded arena with more fragmentation of ways to connect with donors.

Successful fundraisers will need to meet donors where they are—and on their terms—to make the connection that will lead to engagement and, ultimately, a gift.

Compounding this is the incredible power of choice. Donors now drive their own communication by selecting the modes and filters that suit them.  It’s important to remember your audience is now in control of the message and how you reach them. They decide when they want to be contacted, by whom, through which channels, and on what topics.

With this in mind, successful fundraisers will need to meet donors where they are—and on their terms—to make the connection that will lead to engagement and, ultimately, a gift.

3. The time to meet shifting donor expectations is now

While core motivations for giving have not changed dramatically—donors still give for primarily social, emotional, and personal reasons—donor expectations and giving preferences have evolved. We live in an age of unprecedented personal expression and transparency, and this has transformed higher education fundraising strategies.

To truly connect with donors and inspire them to support the programs that are most meaningful to them, you need to speak directly to them—and then let them talk back. This means getting extremely clear on the message you’re trying to send and personalizing the experience to make it incredibly compelling and relevant to that individual. Now more than ever, the key to more effective communication is relevancy.

To truly connect with donors and inspire them to support the programs that are most meaningful to them, you need to speak directly to them—and then let them talk back.

When your emails and other communications are more personalized and specific, they tap into the identity of the donor and are instantly more relevant, interesting, and authentic.

A fundraiser’s job relies heavily on the ability to definitively answer the question, “Why me?” You can’t do that with blast messaging and generic segmentation. For today’s donors, only a highly personalized, relevant, and interactive experience will break through the competitive noise and hold their attention.

Read part 2 of this blog on the three concepts fundraisers must embrace.

What are the best higher education fundraising strategies? Ask our experts.

Free consultation on higher education fundraising strategiesOur fundraising strategists can help you address your challenges and meet your goals for any areas of higher education, including:

  • Annual giving
  • Major and planned giving
  • Digital fundraising, including crowdfunding and giving days
  • Donor engagement and retention

Ask us for a free consultation.

Caryn Stein

Caryn Stein

Vice President at Ruffalo Noel Levtiz
Caryn Stein is the Vice President of Marketing and is dedicated to helping organizations combine data and technology with compelling fundraising experiences to create more effective marketing for their missions. She is a nationally recognized speaker, having helped hundreds of organizations improve their fundraising campaigns and write more effective donor communications.
Caryn Stein
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