Use Emotional Communication to Stay Relevant in Higher Education Fundraising

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When Michael Bloomberg gave $1.8 billion to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, in November 2018, it was the largest ever donation to an educational institution in the U.S. 

With this generous gift, the distinguished medical school will start practicing need-blind admissions and practically eliminate the need for student loans. Despite some criticism, such a massive contribution made a big splash in Higher Education fundraising and raised questions about how to motivate donors. 

And being in this industry, you already know that it takes a lot of persistence, data, and research. 

But, many fundraisers seem to neglect an obviously crucial factor for getting their donors to pull out their credit cards/get their checkbook out – emotion. 

As the world’s still reeling from the consequences of the pandemic, emotional communication is the key to staying relevant and connecting with your donors on a more profound level. 

The Impact of COVID 19 on Higher Ed Fundraising 

As the raging pandemic brought the world to a halt, the entire fundraising industry faced a new set of challenges

Asking for contributions and donations and ensuring a steady stream of financial support is something that’s not the easiest thing to do when the next financial crisis could be looming on the horizon. 

So, to say that the future of many privately funded institutions had been uncertain this past year would be an understatement. 

Higher Ed Fundraising

People who would typically give found themselves worrying about their health, family, and jobs. It was painfully obvious that some donors were struggling financially as well in times of such severe disruptions, wondering what the next couple of months could bring.

Being aware of all this,  many universities decided to cancel fundraising campaigns out of fear that such initiatives would come off as insensitive and pushy. However, there were some who decided to move forward with wellness checks and continue their campaigns with changed messaging.

But, what do the stats say about giving to colleges and universities in 2020 and 2021? 

Total giving to higher education institutions in fiscal 2020 reached $49.5 billion, which is just slightly down from $49.6 billion the previous year.

In other words, no dramatic plunge in giving took place, despite the world being in, as academia loves to put it, unprecedented times. 

However, as we’re still not out of the woods, for fundraising campaigns to grow and stay relevant, a new approach has to be implemented, one that’s based on emotional communication. 

It’s obvious that a word that could best describe this entire health crisis is fear, and that’s what fundraisers have to work into their strategy. 

It may sound a bit crazy, but addressing fear is the best way to fight it. 

How? 

Be Authentic 

Being authentic and sincere Is the most important thing to think about when communicating with donors at any time, but especially now. 

You want them to listen to you right? Then give them the space to share their own stories too. 

It allows everyone to relate to each other when we are all allowed to express our fears and worries about something that ties us all together. 

We’re all in the same boat, and none of us has ever experienced anything like this before, so don’t be afraid to share your own fears and worries. 

For example, it’s a good idea to talk about how the pandemic has affected your institution. 

Are there any foreign students who are trapped and can’t fly home? 

Did you have to let some of your staff go because of the shift to online learning and cutting funds? 

Do some of your students struggle with mental health issues due to social distancing and isolation?

Adding these details into your narrative and talking about individual people who have been affected by the crisis makes the institution seem more human. It will be much easier for donors to relate and feel the urge to help. This is so much more effective than asking for a donation for a faceless organization. 

Another thing you might be able to do is to ask yourself how you feel. You, personally, matter. 

The best part is, once you realize the impact that you have felt, you may be able to better understand your donors. Most likely, they have similar feelings, concerns, and worries. Once the communication is started, it helps everyone feel less alone. 

Engagement vs. Fundraising

Sometimes it’s better to reach out with no intention of soliciting a donation.

Wellness check-ins are a great way to establish a deep and meaningful connection with your donors. Give them a call just to ask how they are and how things are going. 

The magical part of this is that sometimes donors want to give money without any ask at all because they appreciate the call so much. 

Is this a more time-consuming strategy? Yes. However, there are ways you can cut time off your process if you’re using the right tool. For example, you can automate the dialing part of the task and use pre-recorded voicemails. Don’t get bogged down with the little things. The right tool can alleviate those administrative tasks so you can focus on your conversations.

Personalize Your Outreach 

Fundraising is and has been a highly competitive arena with countless worthy causes vying for support. 

fundraising

Personalized outreach has always been an important part of a successful campaign, but now it’s an absolute must with the effects of the pandemic on the collective psyche.

Understanding where your donors come from, their background, values, beliefs, and social standing is what will allow you to make a compelling case for your cause. 

With all this information, you can segment your audience, script your narrative properly and pick the right tone that will resonate with your donor, whoever they are and whatever fund they might support.

The most important point here is how to use that information to capitalize on what may resonate with them from your institution. 

What makes you different? That is your strength.

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Your Donors a Little Uncomfortable 

Times are tough and you do have to pull out the big guns. 

While many fundraising officers tend to avoid negative charity appeals, a little discomfort can sometimes be the attention grabber you need to be effective. 

Despite popular belief that you should focus on positive things and talk mainly about how past contributions helped, or how future donations will be used to make things better, a recent research study has found certain ambiguities in this theory.

Namely, while positive appeals lead to much more favorable attitudes, negative appeals elicit more or at least as much in actual donations as positive ones. 

What does this mean? 

Discussing some unpleasant things such as how hard it is for students to cope with financial troubles, psychological effects of social isolation, or for teachers who lost their jobs, will indeed cause some discomfort in your donors. But, that doesn’t mean that their reaction will be unfavorable – quite the opposite. 

Many times they will be more likely to offer their support. 

A word of caution is necessary, though. 

It’s OK to use negative appeals to some extent, but it is imperative that there’s not a slide into manipulation.

When you craft your negative appeal, make sure to document how your institution used some previous donations to make the life of your students better along with the difficulties. It’s best to use the negatives only as triggers, balance of good and bad is key. 

End your conversation on a positive note, to make your donor feel as if their contribution will make a significant change. 

Use Thank You Videos 

In the absence of live events, there’s no better way to convey your message or emotion than video. 

This format captures both the body language, non-verbal cues, and tone of voice, all of which are crucial for authentic communication. 

Now, since your goal shouldn’t be to collect one-time donations but to build a lasting relationship with your donors, using thank you videos is a great method for showing them how they impacted the lives of beneficiaries. 

Student or staff testimonials will put a face to a name, and show the actual impact of the donation. 

In addition to striking an emotional chord, thank you videos will significantly improve alumni engagement, create a positive experience, and encourage them to donate again. 

Do You Have What It Takes to Stay Relevant in Higher Education Fundraising? 

Emotional communication is a game-changer when it comes to building deep and meaningful relationships with your donors. Especially in times of crisis when fears and uncertainties emerge. Don’t be afraid that adding an emotional component to your fundraising appeal will make you sappy. Moreover, it will humanize your outreach efforts and show your donors that you don’t perceive them as ATM machines. 

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