There are many things that are better in theory than reality, like adding an extra shot of espresso to your coffee before your last meeting of the day. Or staying up late preparing for an important speech to stakeholders scheduled for early the next morning.
Add to the list: Leaning on your students to make the ask in your fundraising ads.
It’s a tried and true way to raise money: put the “person in need” in the position of soliciting donations. After all, it makes sense that you would have the articulate and extremely accessible (and probably fairly grateful) beneficiaries make the ask.
But in reality, thrusting that responsibility on your students is passing the buck. Plus, everyone does it. And these days, you need to do everything you can to stand out.
Because your students-asking-for-money trope isn’t doing anyone any favours (least of all your fundraising goals), it’s time for a change of scene.
Higher ed. students are students, not fundraisers (or actors).
White canvas background. Bright lights. Meticulously worded (read: dry) script. Gawky sophomore geology student.
Sound familiar? What ingredient of this run-of-the-mill fundraising method actually feels authentic enough to increase donations?
Yes, scripts are boring. (We’ll get to that later.) But more so, this overused formula needs to be retired because of one big thing: Your students aren’t actors. Nor are they fundraisers. They’re students. Full stop.
Delivering a script convincingly is not in your average student’s wheelhouse (unless they’re specifically studying theatre, in which case our opinion still stands). And eager as they may be to reach out to donors, students have trouble really nailing the ask in a way that doesn’t ultimately come off as cringeworthy — or even crass.
You must admit that the student’s standard “Your donation can help other students like me” plea has a strong awkward aftertaste. That’s because the common script students read is stripped of anything organic. As a result, it fails to resonate — and even worse — produce a positive outcome.
There has to be a better way to evoke hope or pride that spurs sufficient donations.
In fact, we know there is.
Smash your higher ed. institution’s fundraising goals: Let students speak for themselves.
What do you do when you’re up against the biggest philanthropic initiative of your higher ed. institution’s history?
You panic — a little. But then you dig in, abandoning the notion that your ad campaign has to follow any sort of template. This circumstance calls for a fresh strategy.
That’s just what the University of Manitoba did when they were up against a $500 million fundraising goal. At ED, we worked with U of M graduate students (who would be focused beneficiaries) to do something different.
Instead of setting up their graduate students to read stale scripts, we asked them to talk about what they knew. The passion and authenticity that came through was gold.
Several graduate students shared compelling stories about their work: a doctoral candidate of geography researching the effects of climate change on polar bears; another doctoral candidate studying civil engineering in order to build earthquake-resistant infrastructure; a master’s candidate studying psychology whose research focuses on the role artificial intelligence plays in diagnosing mental illness.
These students leave the viewer (ideally a donor) with an undeniable emotional pull to take action.
It almost seemed too easy: Students talking candidly about their fascinating research in an effort to gain financial support without ever asking for a dime.
But it worked to help bolster their overall fundraising campaign. To the tune of $626 million.
Put students’ stories at the centre of your next fundraising campaign.
Like we said before, scripts are boring. And students aren’t fundraisers (or actors).
And while we’re clearly on Team No Student Asking for Money, we’re not saying you can’t use students in your fundraising. On the contrary. Students should be at the very heart of your fundraising story.
After all, they have the best material.
Your students’ inspirational, eye-opening stories are ones they can share authentically. And they can be emotional to boot. In fact, the emotion is what you’re really after.
Take, for example, a 2014 UCLA fundraising campaign in which several students and faculty share their stories in a video.
Your heartstrings are pulled from the get-go. And when it comes to the mother talking about kissing her daughter for the first time in two years thanks to UCLA’s research? Game over.
What UCLA nails in this video is letting their subjects do the asking through their emotional stories — without ever making a plea.
While not every higher ed. institution has the obviously massive L.A. production budget or a famous voiceover (hi John Lithgow!), accomplishing the same powerful feeling is still achievable. In fact, this is something every higher ed. institution can (and should) do. All you need is a great story from compelling students. And guess what — every school has those.
When you let the camera roll on a student telling their story about what your higher ed. institution is enabling them to do or how it changed their life, you’re setting them up for success. Because they’re more comfortable talking about their experience, their testimonials will brim with resonance.
You’re simply not positioning anyone for success when you tell them, “Say these words. Now say it with more commitment.”
Why emotion works every time for higher ed. fundraising campaigns.
The bad news is: You will never not have to worry about fundraising. There will always be new initiatives to fund, buildings to be repaired, and research to support.
But the good news? If you pivot your go-to fundraising method from students asking for donations to students simply sharing their experiences, you’ll never run out of good content.
You see, there will always be a goldmine of material outside your office door. Your job is to stand back and let their emotional, hopeful stories shine.
It’s like this: If you remember a great anecdote from a party or a great moment at a concert, your memory lasts longer than the moment, right? You remember how the story made you laugh, how the live music made you joyful. You remember the feeling those human experiences gave you.
That’s what allowing your students to share their uninhibited stories in your fundraising campaigns will do. When done right, your campaign will leave potential donors with feelings of hope, inspiration, and awe.
Donors will remember the story of the graduate student working to reverse climate change and save the polar bears in her state or province. They’ll remember the earthquake survivor-turned doctoral student researching how to prevent future catastrophes through civil engineering.
They will remember. And they will be more compelled to give.
You’ll do anything in your institution’s quest to secure proper funding. Why not do what’s best in theory and in reality? Use your students in your campaigns as students — not fundraisers or actors.