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Harvard’s Huge Gift Made Your Job Harder

Very few major gift stories appeal to journalists quite like Harvard’s recent $400 million donation, but you can make a media splash with gift news -- even when the sums are smaller.

June 30, 2015
 

It was impossible to miss the news of Harvard’s $400 million gift earlier this month. The historic announcement received media attention around the world, spanned several news cycles, and initiated a rash of op-eds and blog pieces that ran for weeks following the initial news. (This one included!)

While the general public was busy debating how the money could have been better used by other or less wealthy institutions, campus media relations professionals were managing the expectations of their major gift officers, campus leaders and donors themselves, some of whom saw coverage of the Harvard gift as proof that the media is hungry for philanthropic stories.

Here’s the thing donors and fundraisers—we all want media coverage of gifts to our institution. We really do. Some of my favorite media projects have been gift-related, but there are others I count among my most frustrating and disappointing projects precisely because of unrealistic expectations of significant, national coverage. We, as communicators, hold responsibility for managing those expectations, but we ask for receptivity to the realities of our industry.

In actuality, very few gifts make for appealing national news, regardless of how momentous or transformational the gift is to the institution. The Harvard story was different in three very important ways.

First, it was about Harvard. Whether we like it or not, Harvard makes headlines because they are Harvard. Yes, your gift officers will tell you that it’s not fair and it shouldn’t matter, but it does. And, believe it or not, having the media spotlight on you constantly just because of the name on the gate to your campus isn’t always a good thing. When you have the media’s constant attention like Harvard does, you’re vulnerable to have your positive and negative stories told

Second, it’s a whole lot of money, especially when compared to other institutions’ endowments and the size of their average major gifts. And, let’s be honest, $400 million is a staggering amount of money for any institution. Landing a historic gift for your university is a local story unless you’re looking at sums of this magnitude, the donor is a celebrity or well-known figure, or you can make the story of the gift relevant to others in meaningful ways.

Third, the story sparked controversy. Everyone loves an underdog and, conversely in this case, Harvard was the Goliath everyone loved to hate. Regardless of whether or not you think Harvard was deserving of the money, the fact remains that a lot of people have very strong opinions about the institution and the gift. And don’t forget that a portion of the media coverage of this gift was negative and critical of Harvard’s place in a higher education landscape in which many institutions and individuals are struggling.

So, if you’re not working for an institution with a gift that fits these categories, how can you make a media splash with a gift announcement?

Humanize the story. Many donors have compelling personal stories, but we rarely get to hear them because we’re too polite to ask. It’s in your best interest to pry a little. Go beyond the donor’s bio by encouraging them to talk about their past, their family and, most importantly, their passions. Find something relatable in the donor’s personal life that others (of all income levels) can connect with and use that as your news hook. Love stories sell particularly well. Consider this gift story from the College of the Holy Cross in the Wall Street Journal, or this one from the University of Redlands in the Orange County Register.

Think beyond the higher ed beat. Higher ed reporters get pitched with gift stories all of the time and can’t possibly cover them all. You are likely to uncover angles that will interest a wider range of news beats by getting to know the donors, digging deeper into the reasons for the gift and imagining its impact.

Consider local coverage a win and explain why local coverage matters to your gift officers and donors. A really strong local story can be circulated to your constituencies and pushed via social media to draw a variety of audiences into the celebration. This type of repurposing will have greater short- and long-term impact for your institution than a sentence or two in a national publication. Define what you hope the coverage will accomplish-- and you may be surprised to find that in-depth, local coverage can help you achieve that goal faster and in a more meaningful way. And, there are always instances in which truly great stories are initially told locally and are then shared with national audiences. For example, the University of Redlands story referenced above found its way into an ESPN column because of how well the original story was written. That’s pretty impressive for a gift that wasn’t linked to athletics and was a digit short of Harvard’s gift.

So, as this fiscal year winds to a close, my hope is that you receive a truly historic gift that makes headlines all on its own. But if that doesn’t happen, my wish is that a slightly different strategy earns your philanthropic gifts the recognition they deserve and the coverage you earn makes a lasting impact on your colleagues and community. 

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