The question of whether annual giving days have exhausted their utility is one I’m hearing more often from university partners and other nonprofit organizations. Despite the well-documented financial benefits these funding tools provide, there is no denying there are challenges to carrying out a successful day of giving.
To start, there is the fatigue of investing valuable resources and effort into executing a 24-hour marathon fundraiser. Another pain point is the feeling of having to “keep up with the Joneses,” where fundraisers look over their shoulder in envy wondering how a prestigious university raised $20 million on their annual day of giving. At the same time, there is a sense that each year’s giving day must outperform the last. This creates an enormous amount of pressure for advancement professionals and may result in unrealistic expectations.
Yet, none of these are reason enough to abandon giving days. The benefits of exposure and the opportunity to grow your donor base—by uncovering new donors, reactivating lapsed donors, and leveraging major principal gift donors—more than outweigh the challenges.
Giving days offer the most value to institutions by rallying the entire community together around a common goal and creating a sense of urgency for both existing and new donors to take action. Even for the skeptic who says they would never give to their alma mater, it is difficult to avoid the magnetic pull of a well-executed day of giving.
My advice to advancement professionals is that giving days are not over, but they need to constantly evolve in order to maintain their value and relevance. You also must utilize the right technologies and tools and create a long-term action plan, all of which will lessen the burden on advancement professionals and existing fundraising systems.
Start Planning Early
You will need at least six months, but preferably 12, to effectively prepare for hosting a giving day. This may seem like a substantial time investment for a single day of philanthropy, but the payoff will be worth it if your plan is executed properly.
A good starting place is to gather the relevant department heads and think through what story your institution wants to tell and how you’ll engage and excite your on-campus population—including students, faculty, and staff—as well as alumni and the broader community. This is when you need to begin working on an innovative messaging strategy, crafting a compelling narrative that plays on school spirit and fosters a sense of connection to the university. Engage coaches, mascots, and well-known alumni to feature in these communications.
Once the broader vision has been outlined, you will want to start planning for staff responsibility. Early in the planning process, teams should establish working groups that highlight how members of the entire advancement team can participate in the success of the giving day. It is important to remember that thousands of donations worth millions of dollars will be flowing in within a 24-hour period, so you’ll want to consider what platforms your processing teams will be utilizing.
Implementing the new technology required for a successful giving day also takes time. Make sure your timeline accounts for any system integrations that might be necessary, as well as the time it will take to get the necessary platforms approved through the purchasing department. You must also train staff on these new tools prior to their launch.
Build Out a Virtual Hub
Giving days are inherently social in nature and require robust digital operations to execute. They rely heavily on the idea of “much from many”—meaning that if you are raising $50 million from a single donor, you are not hosting a successful giving day. To reach critical mass within your community, you will need to invest in new technology.
Digital tools such as social fundraising platforms, mobile payment services, and AI-powered CRM systems allow for a vibrant user experience that provide institutions with enhanced storytelling capabilities and potential donors with easy-to-use giving options.
Consider how you are using email, web, social, and mobile to deliver your message and connect with your audience. Social media campaigns that utilize visual storytelling techniques are key to creating an interactive experience that encourages participation and drives results.
The growth potential for online giving in higher education is substantial. While nonprofits overall received 12 percent of their total fundraising from online sources in 2021, institutions of higher education received only 2.7 percent—the lowest out of all 11 sectors.
These digital platforms serve as a home base for online fundraising and provide real-time performance reports and social media aggregators, helping illustrate the story of giving and community engagement occurring that day. This alleviates the tremendous strain placed on the processing team, who do not regularly handle this kind of volume or the need to publish results instantly.
Integrate Giving Days into Your Broader Fundraising Strategy
Giving days can help address lagging alumni participation by offering a visible community impact day that reminds them of the significance of their gifts. They are also great for expanding an institution’s community of donors, especially among non-alumni friends of the organization, and re-engaging lapsed donors.
Identify the gaps in your ongoing fundraising program and it is likely that an annual day of giving can help solve a separate challenge. Furthermore, major gift officers can use a giving day to inspire major gift donors to make additional gifts or make pledge payments early to count in the giving day total.
Host More Than One Giving Day
Who said there can only be one day of giving per year? If you are not using Giving Tuesday as an opportunity to fortify your brand and build momentum toward your Spring giving day, then you are not properly leveraging the complementary aspects of these funding tools.
Giving Tuesday—generally the Tuesday after Thanksgiving—is an internationally recognized day of grassroots philanthropy that is not confined to the realm of higher education. It is an enormous opportunity for those institutions that have not yet participated. In 2021, giving in the U.S. alone rose 9 percent over the previous year to $2.7 billion.
I recommend using Giving Tuesday as a testing ground for new strategies and tactics because the pressure is not as high as it is during your Spring giving day. Use this as an opportunity to test messaging, measure engagement, and employ new technologies.
Giving days continue to serve as an important fundraising tool for institutions of higher education and nonprofit organizations more broadly. The task of executing a successful 24-hour fundraising drive may appear daunting, but with proper planning, staff buy-in, and the right technology platforms, the benefits of increased community engagement are worth the effort.
Authored by Colin Hennessy
If you are interested in learning more and applying these strategies at your institution, please contact us.