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Higher Education Fundraising in 2023

Higher Education Fundraising in 2023

The “new normal” is officially here. Waves big and small continue to ripple through every aspect of society in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizations left standing in every market vertical are likely circling back once again to assess exactly what has changed, and must still change, to achieve success in the future. Higher education institutions are absolutely included in this. 

Now that more and more numbers from fiscal 2022 are rolling in, there’s a lot to look at. As you might know firsthand, higher ed institutions rely heavily on the funding that comes in through donations. The role that advancement teams are playing now is essential for keeping their schools afloat. 

It only makes sense that there was a decline in donations at the beginning of the pandemic. Some of this was due to the financial hardships of the time. However, other donors simply shifted their funds to causes where the need seemed immediate and necessary. Well, in the past three years, this has certainly changed.

The Current State of Higher Education Fundraising

According to the latest Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, philanthropic giving to higher ed increased by 12.5 percent last fiscal year to a total of $59.5 billion, the highest year-over-year increase since 2000. Many institutions of varying sizes have reported that 2022 was a record-breaking fundraising year for them. The VSE survey also states that 61 percent of those donations came from organizations, 22 percent came from alumni, and 16 percent came from individuals who were not alumni. In fact, last year was the second in a row in which alumni giving increased by double digits.

The Importance of Alumni – Young and Old 

These alumni trends are worth paying particularly close attention to because they can give you some insight into your current audience of donors. Millennials now range from their late twenties to their early forties. This generation is finally aging into more disposable income, which makes them more likely to donate to causes they care about. Also, one positive perspective shift that has become widespread since the pandemic is the desire to focus on what is most important to you considering your individual circumstances. This is reflected by the increase in activism, especially amongst the younger generations.  

Now, this is all great news for higher ed. Since the pandemic, and maybe even a little before, society has developed a newfound skepticism towards the true value of attending learning institutions past high school. This was reflected in enrollment rates, especially when college became completely remote for a lot of new students in 2020 and 2021. But as Millennials and others are reflecting more on the meaningful experiences they’ve had so far in life, attending a college or university is popping up on the list for many people. The money these impassioned individuals are donating certainly helps higher ed institutions, but the stories they are sharing also do the important work of combating those negative stigmas. 

Therefore, it’s more important than ever for advancement teams to focus on alumni donors, consider who has joined this group in recent years, and assess the demographics and psychographics of these audiences so continued outreach can be as successful as possible. The key to this is to meet your donors where they’re at. Considering the growing pool of younger donors, it might be time to update the technologies you utilize in your efforts. Direct mail, email, phone calls, texts, social media, and events all still have their places in the fundraising sphere, but you must know when to use each channel and how to use it well. You should also adapt your strategies based on your unique audience of donors and their channel preferences. This may require you to learn more about them.

Analytics Remain Integral 

Bearing all of this in mind, data collection is necessary for the higher ed sector. No institution should be setting fundraising strategies based on assumptions alone. To make informed and effective decisions, be sure to track the metrics of every campaign. Good key performance indicators to measure include join rates, retention rates, average gifts, and upgrades. Now, it’s not enough just to have these numbers – the magic comes from analyzing them to discover what has been successful and what has not. Try looking specifically at donation amounts and frequency. This can help you segment your audience, as well as inform how and when you want to address these various segments. Pay particular attention to how trends changed during the pandemic. This can give you a lot of valuable information about how donor preferences have shifted over time. 

Integrate Your Efforts

Once you know more about the channels your audience segments prefer, it’s time to make sure you’re using them all appropriately. Integrating your online and offline fundraising efforts so that they work in unison is your best bet. Of course, the modern, digital tactics are important – especially when targeting those younger alumni. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to get your organization noticed online because competition in that space is at an all-time high. That’s one great reason to simultaneously maintain your direct mail campaigns. 

When it comes to print, one strategy option is to stick with content that’s evergreen. It can be faster, easier, and less expensive to update your website and social media. So, consider saving timely messages, especially any that reference specific dates, for those channels. Change happens so quickly in the post-pandemic world that you’d be doing yourself a big favor by creating systems that further your ability to be agile. By integrating your fundraising campaigns, you reach people across all channels and stand out by communicating in less crowded spaces, all while maintaining your ability to adapt with ease.

Consider a Light Touch Approach

Finally, in today’s climate, you must understand and be empathetic toward the social and economic conditions of the time. Many people may still not be in the financial position or the best mindset for donating. Global politics are turbulent, and the United States economy seems rocky. Inflation is claiming money that may have once been set aside for charitable donations. People fear a possible upcoming recession and might have reprioritized saving over giving. 

You’ve probably felt how some of these world events have impacted you and your institution directly. The fact that donors may still be suffering from their own hardships must remain top of mind when developing future fundraising strategies. A light touch may be the best overall approach. Give people options not only for where they can donate, but how much they can donate. Even small amounts can add up over time, especially when you take repeat donors into account. Make it obvious what their money will be used for so they can make an informed decision about where they want to allocate their hard-earned funds.

It’s been a bumpy ride, but it’s time to patch up those potholes and get back on the road. Stay informed and collect hard and fast data. This will equip you with everything necessary to find the right alumni and other donors who are more than happy to give back.

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