At a time when presidential candidates intentionally shun big donors and crowdfunding has become a popular way to raise money quickly, colleges are following suit by soliciting smaller donations.
But their message and methods must be customized to higher education's unique mission.
While there is "something transactional" about giving to a candidate or for a cause, "college giving is very different — it needs to connect more deeply," said Mike O'Neill, senior vice president for university advancement at Villanova University.
Last spring, Villanova wrapped up a nearly five-year-long comprehensive capital campaign that came in about $160 million over its $600 million goal.
To hit that mark, Villanova used social media more and targeted small donors, particularly young alumni and graduating seniors. That boosted the amount raised and the number of contributions well beyond previous levels and built relationships the university hopes to retain and grow.
"[W]e had 78,000 donors, half of whom gave for the first time," O'Neill said. "That bodes well for the future."
Nationwide, small gifts to colleges increased by about 7% during the 2018 fiscal year to account for 6% of all gifts to higher ed, said Linda Durant, vice president of development at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). CASE uses each institution's definition of small gifts, which Durant said could range from less than $500 to more than $2,500.
"These smaller amounts can add up, and suddenly it's real money," she said. "Plus, colleges now recognize that often, small donors will grow to make significant contributions."
Still, Durant and O'Neill admit large donors remain the top priority. "At the end of the day, major gifts drive campaigns," O'Neill said. "There's an 80-20 rule in development. You spend 80% of your time on 20% of your donors."
Creating a giving culture
Colleges are nonetheless keeping an eye on that other 80%. That has become easier with technology to pump up fundraising through one-time and specialized campaigns.
But small donors' value is their future contributions, said Kestrel Linder, co-founder and CEO of GiveCampus, a digital fundraising platform for schools and colleges.
"Giving is a skill that has to be taught," he said. "Michael Bloomberg's first donation to [his alma mater] Johns Hopkins was $5." The billionaire and former New York City mayor gave that university a record $1.8 billion gift last year.
Dominican University of California's development office encourages small donors through "consecutive giving" and "loyalty societies," said Jessica Jordan, the university's assistant vice president for alumni engagement, annual fund and advancement services.
"Messaging is all about gifts of any size making a difference and the cumulative effect of many small gifts," Jordan told Education Dive in an email. "Internally, the goals are to create a habit of giving because we know that major and planned gifts often come from those who start off making small gifts."
Prospective donors may view small donations as a drop in the bucket, however.
Four in 10 college graduates (44%) surveyed by GiveCampus said a gift to their alma matter must be at least $1,000 for it to make an impact. Meanwhile, just 26% believe a donation under $100 is valuable.
"The first step is colleges have to make certain everyone knows that a gift of any size counts and explain how even one of $100 has an impact," Linder said.
Small donations have historically been unrestricted, but allowing them to be directed to a specific use — as is done for large donations — could encourage donors to give, O'Neill said.
Another survey by GiveCampus showed that donors who gave online in consecutive years increased the value of their gifts by 10% on average the second year and that recurring gifts were more than twice as valuable as those given once.
A sophisticated message is also important for attracting donors, Villanova's O'Neill said. "We have to remind them about the mission of the university or tell them about something that will be created thanks to their giving," he said. "It can't be just, 'Text your donation now.'"
Increasing small donations
Hiram College, a small private liberal arts school in Ohio, has seen a "continued increase in small donors" by tying giving to its mission and awareness of the headwinds affecting higher education. It has also relied more on online outreach, said Jennifer Schuller, Hiram's vice president for development and alumni relations. In the 2018 fiscal year, Hiram had 1,121 donors contributing less than $1,000 each. A year later, 1,596 donors fell into that range.
Alumni are increasingly pooling their resources to tackle campus issues, she said. One class, for example, combined their funds for a $100,000 project to fix a historic fountain on campus, with 76 donors giving as little as $30 and 53 donating under $1,000.
The university is embracing that approach. "This wouldn't have been the case years ago. We would have been concerned about the impact on unrestricted dollars," she said. "But we have found that we have been able to do both: raise the necessary $1.3 million unrestricted and work with donors to complete a number of other things."
Villanova doubled down on its efforts to attract young alumni, specifically. To do so, private donors offered to match up to $100 for each renewal gift and provided $250,000 if one-fourth of young alumni participated. The university also provided alumni who graduated in the last decade an option to incrementally increase their gifts each year.
To reach students, staff drove around the campus in golf carts Cash Cab-style, picking up students and asking them Villanova-related trivia questions. Correct answers meant $100 went to the campus organization of the student's choice.
Such strategies proved fruitful for Villanova. By trying to raise the typically lower levels of giving from current students and young alumni, the university increased alumni participation over a decade from 15% to 30% during the 2018 fiscal year, O'Neill said. More than half (56%) of all alumni gave during the capital campaign ending last year and a record of nearly 70% of seniors in 2018 donated toward their class gift.
Make a day of it
This past spring, Ohio's Kenyon College drew attention to its fundraising needs through a day-long Bell-A-Thon that played on one of its key campus features. It marked the fourth year the university held such an event.
The fundraiser involved a 12-hour live-stream of presentations by a cross section of the campus community, from choral groups to professors describing their latest research. Most of it was filmed in the college's iconic church tower, from which its bells — which notably ring each Friday at the close of classes — chimed throughout the day to remind students of the event.
All told, Kenyon raised around $700,000. Funds came from 1,300 donors, all but 50 of whom gave less than $1,000, said Molly Gutridge, Kenyon's director of annual giving. Gifts were matched dollar-for-dollar by funds from trustees. Kenyon also received about "10 five-figure gifts," she added.
The average gift was $265, and the median gift was $15; among young alumni, gifts averaged $22. Those giving $100 or less contributed about $39,000, Gutridge said.
"We really wanted to involve young alumni and members of our senior (class)," she said, noting that the event was shifted to the spring to make it part of year-end activities. "We wanted their contribution, but even more than that we wanted to instill a culture of giving."