Crowdfunding is sweeping the fundraising world and coming to a higher education institution near you. It’s no surprise as alumni become increasingly empowered and demand more choice in how they interact with brands (including your institution), they crave a more self-directed way to engage with their causes and raise money for them. Crowdfunding also speaks to the nature of the digital demographic providing the tools, networks and outreach to which social digital citizens have grown accustomed.
As with any new shiny object, the term begins to be thrown around to apply to many things. So for the purposes of this article, let’s agree on a common definition: crowdfunding in a fundraising context (also sometimes referred to as peer-to-peer or P2P) is facilitating supporter-driven fundraising, where one or more supporters are the main fundraisers and reach out to their networks on your behalf.
The main differentiator between crowdfunding and other activities where your supporters have tools like a fundraising center, personal page, etc., is who is in control of the event.
For organization-driven events, the beneficiaries for the funds raised (macro level initiatives such as scholarships or a new college) are usually designated and supported by the university’s advancement team and the event is time limited, e.g., a gala, a walk, an annual fund or membership campaign.
On the other hand, with a crowd fundraiser, the initiatives are at a more micro level, e.g., art supplies for the fine arts college, and the supporters, in most cases, decide the “theme” and the initiative. You, the organization, may give some guidance. For example, each school may provide its own “crowdfunding” area and platform to ensure funds go to the school, or you may make suggestions like having a crowdfunding event instead of a registry for a wedding. You provide the tools, but the rest is up to your supporter.
So how can higher education institutions begin to think of ways to own and benefit from a piece of the crowdfunding pie? (It’s better to have some influence over a crowdfunder you guide, than leave your supporters to use third party platforms you have no control over). Below are some ideas for engaging crowdfunders targeted specifically for higher education.
Class Agents: In a traditional class agent model, agents reach out to an established/assigned group of alumnae to cultivate. Imagine the increased reach and impact if each class agent had an individual crowdfunder page with his or her story, goal for the year (whether monetary or alumnae engaged), progress toward that goal and key contributors and milestones. This would provide both a permanent home for the lifetime of the campaign where results could be monitored and promoted as well as a different way to engage alumni.
Personal Milestones: We all understand the concept of honor/memorial campaigns, but what about empowering your supporters, especially spirited alumni who may be nonresponsive to the one-off ask, to raise funds for you around key milestones in their lives? For example: there is a growing trend in charitable wedding registries and many nonprofits are already taking advantage of this. Higher education institutions are sitting on a huge opportunity to empower their alumni to give back, show pride and capitalize on those key life milestones. And it’s not just weddings; key birthdays, anniversaries, and other anniversaries are all possible crowdfunding opportunities.
Key class or school milestones: We’ve all seen them: the emails reminding us it’s our 10, 15, even 30 year class anniversary and asking us for a gift or to attend homecoming. For many, those calls for donations go ignored (how will my $25 make a difference?) or we can’t attend the physical event. Crowdfunders around key milestones allow alumni the opportunity to engage in their own unique way and from any physical location. Perhaps I’d like to show my 15th reunion pride by committing to run 15 miles and having all my friends match $X for every mile I run. Or perhaps on homecoming weekend, I am going to host a viewing party at my house and instead of bringing food I’d like my friends and family to contribute money to my alma mater.
For higher education institutions, crowdfunding is becoming a viable option to reach out to the ranks of younger and/or digitally engaged alumni, donors and supporters, providing an innovative way to support the institution in an individualized way that does not rely on proximity to the school and/or directed outreach by an alumnae or fundraising office.
There are some challenges still to be worked out. Crowdfunding’s donor-driven, self-determined approach can collide with the siloed, fund-driven, CRM-dependent ways of many institutions. But it can also serve as a good proving ground to work through some of these institutional roadblocks and practice approaching supporter engagement from the supporters’, not the processes’, point of view.
Crowdfunding makes all this possible by providing the tools (both platform and training) for your supporters to find creative, personalized ways to raise money, engage audiences on your behalf and significantly expand the reach of your institution.