Red River College

How a fundraising concept changed an institutional strategy.

When Red River College issued an RFP for its upcoming capital campaign, we were eager to find out more. This was an institution that had used a consistent reputation marketing platform for more than a decade, so a new story in the market would be noticed. With a new, multi-million dollar challenge looming, would the college be looking to launch the campaign under their existing platform, or a new one? And if they were going to tell a new story for their fundraising efforts, what would the impact be on their reputation campaigns? 

…and never the two shall meet.

It’s somewhat expected that a college or university would conceive fundraising and reputation management separately: they often live in administrative silos within a school. Even under advancement models that put them in the same portfolio, getting teams to work cross-functionally requires significant cultural change management. So, like church and state, Red River College’s intention was to develop a dedicated campaign concept for fundraising: one that would live alongside, but work independent of, the reputation campaign they’d had in market for years. 

This existing reputation campaign was rooted in managing misperceptions. Its central theme was that Red River College graduates weren’t just entry-level workers, they were CEOs, directors and industry leaders.

But that was no longer the college’s reputation in the market, so its reputation campaign was designed to solve a problem they no longer had. And aligning a fundraising campaign concept to this story made little sense.

When we were awarded the work, this was the first challenge within the challenge: how to develop an independent fundraising campaign concept that would live alongside a reputation campaign that seemed outdated. 

The second was that Red River College wanted a marketing agency to develop the creative platform, and its internal marketing team would manage execution. With more and more institutions hiring in-house marketing teams, this was a familiar scenario, but one that we needed to consider when crafting a creative solution: to be successful, it needed to be turn-key. 

What they told us: We’re innovative with a capital “I”.

Prior to our hire, Red River College had already engaged in a number of internal consultation exercises for various other recent projects. ED’s consultation included a review of the data from those previous sessions, and direct consultation with an internal capital campaign committee (comprised of members of the college’s leadership, and marketing and development staff).

When developing our discussion guide, we made sure to touch on the expected subjects: what capital projects were we raising money for, how new infrastructure would enhance what Red River College could deliver for students and the community at large, et cetera. Needless to say, the word innovation came up early and often. (Incidentally, if ‘innovation’ is your school’s central claim, we should talk).

What we saw: We built this city.

Our consultation also revealed that RRC is perceived as a barometer for economic prosperity in the region. Thanks to an expanding student body, an astounding 94% of graduates find work after graduation, with the majority working in the region. And, with a student body comprised of 24% international students, the school is a key player in attracting global talent to the area.

We also learned that the college’s reputation had evolved from its roots. More than a decade ago, it was seen mostly as a trade school. Today, it’s the leading choice in the region for technology, creative and professional training in a variety of industries, and it enjoys partnerships with the region’s two largest universities, as well as international institutions.

Insight: Donors want to back a winner.

This was an insight to capitalize on for fundraising: donors want to back a winner. In any good case for support, an organization’s track record features prominently. It’s proof that your institution has the ability to use the funds raised to deliver successful outcomes, because you’ve done it in the past.

Red River College’s proof was that its shift – from community college/trade school to a training hub for in-demand industries – was successful. And that many of the people powering the economic development in the region (from trade workers to startup owners) as graduates of the college.

What we’re doing is working.

The resulting fundraising campaign theme, What We’re Doing is Working, ‘worked’ on every level. Foremost, it provided the college with a case for a support thesis statement in its campaign theme. Why should you donate? Why lend your support? Because our efforts are paying off.

The new campaign also tapped into the institution’s current reputation. Years removed from the stigma of being ‘just’ a trade school, and with a renewed emphasis on employment outcomes for college and university graduates, the time was right to lead with a reputation message on job readiness. And, like never before, Red River College could show those employment outcomes in a wide and varied range of sectors.

ED’s creative platform for the campaign demonstrated this range, proving to donors, government and alumni that across all industries, Red River College’s strategy was effective in preparing students to find meaningful jobs, and employers to find qualified talent. Each creative execution – in videos, online advertising and outdoor billboards – showed a specific program area, and linked to the campaign line with a qualifying line about that area of focus. With a strong buy in market, the collective impact of this multi-message platform reinforced Red River College’s influence in, and impact on, the region.

The success of our development of a turn-key solution for Red River College’s internal marketing team can be seen by comparing concept creative to the final executions. Guided by ED’s exploration, the college was able to maintain the integrity and impact of the campaign across a variety of messages and media.

A seismic shift in marketing approach

Red River College is an exceptional example of how creative can impact – even lead – institutional strategy. When the campaign was unveiled to the college’s leadership, it was unanimously embraced. This resulted in the immediate replacement of the college’s reputation marketing with the What We’re Doing is Working campaign. The plan: use the reputation marketing as a runway to the silent phase of fundraising, ensuring that a seamless and consistent message exists in the market, and in donor engagement. 

The campaign developed by ED. Marketing resonated with our college’s staff, student and alumni – and with various college stakeholders and the general public. I was struck by how many people wanted to tell me, unprompted, how much they liked it.
Paul Vogt, Fmr. President & CEO, Red River College

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