When you’re tasked with writing your higher education institution’s case for support, a blank page is daunting. There are millions of dollars (which really, is just a proxy for scholarships, research chairs, graduate student support and fellowships, new facilities and existing upgrades) riding on finding the right words.
Your case needs to articulate a financial or capital goal, share your plan, and convince others that you’re the right organization for the job. You need to appeal to students, alumni, major donors, members of government, the business sector and your adjacent community – while making those working on campus feel represented.
Your case will endure for years. That means that even in the formative stages of casting a vision you’ve yet to realize, you need to anticipate how it might evolve as momentum gathers.
So, y’know. No pressure.
But fear not, we’re here to help. Following are the guiding principles you need to get things moving in the right direction.
Your case for support isn’t about articulating a need.
As the sponsor, executive lead, or member of the team charged with ushering the capital campaign into existence, you’re likely starting from a mindset of ‘need’. “We need to build this building, to finance these bursaries, to attract these research chairs.”
A need mindset is entirely appropriate when you’re doing the foundational work of identifying the initiatives and projects – and associated budgets – that will be covered under your campaign. But it’s the wrong mindset to embrace to start writing your case for support.
That’s because your case for support isn’t a to-do list. It’s intended to connect what you offer with what’s important to the audiences you serve.
Focus on your audience, not yourself.
In other words, it’s a marketing document. And as a marketing document, the focus of your case for support needs to be on your audience – not yourself. That’s why a ‘need’ mindset doesn’t work: because the need is all about you.
Three characteristics of higher education donors.
Before you put a single word on that blank page in front of you, it’s important to remember a few things about your donor audience.
- They have causes that they’re passionate about. Whether they or a loved one are directly affected by a chronic disease, or they champion the access of education to financially disadvantaged communities, or they want to put an end to hunger or poverty or climate change: there are issues that matter to them.
- They have choices of what to support. As a multi-disciplinary institution of higher learning, chances are, you do work that impacts one or more of the issues that matter to your audiences. But that doesn’t mean you’re the only place they can support to make a difference. That’s the privilege your case needs to earn.
- You may not be on their choice set. Ironically, a donor might choose to philanthropically support another institution or cause that you are directly involved with. For example, a university researcher and grad student might be working on the front lines of diabetes research, but a donor will choose to donate directly to the diabetes-related charity.
All of these factors should inform the way you approach your case for support. You should be clearly articulating how and why you’re making a difference with respect to specific issues and causes. You should be positioning yourself as an institution of choice to affect change and progress in these areas. And you should be taking the opportunity to better inform donors of the scope and reach of the impact you’re making, and that you’re poised to make through philanthropic support.
Remember to adopt the right mindset for writing a case for support.
In most campaigns, your donor audience starts with transformational donors – those capable of making the huge investments that spearhead your campaign effort. Later, your audience broadens to a much wider audience, who have more modest individual gifts but represent a groundswell of support.
Neither of these audiences wants or needs to hear a story about your need. They want to hear a story of success. That’s why whenever we’re writing or consulting on a case for support, we start with one guiding principle: donors want to back a winner.
Donors want to back a winner.
The role of your case for support isn’t to ask for money: it’s to paint a vision of what your college or university can make possible, and to rally your community behind that vision. And to do that, they have to believe that you – and perhaps you alone – are capable of delivering on the vision.
Most of you already know and believe in that capability. It might be what drew you to the college or university you work with, now. But it might give you pause to position your institution as a ‘winner’. After all, who wants to give money to a place that’s already successful?
The answer: smart and informed donors do. If they’re privileged enough to have the option to donate some of their disposable income, then they want their donation to make a difference, no matter how much or how little they give.
Donors aren’t motivated to give based on the saddest sob story. One study suggests that among the primary reasons people donate are they believe in the mission of the organization, and they believe their gift can make a difference. This suggests they’re looking to support the organizations who can prove they’ve made an impact before, and can make an impact again.
When you’re ready to write your case for support, remember you’re not a proverbial charity case. Your college or university is an agent of change for your students, for communities, and for society. You’re a winner. With the plan and the appropriate resources, just imagine what you can do next.
Once you’ve imagined it, you’re ready to start writing on that blank page.