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There are many reasons to give to a college or university. It could be a personal connection, such as fond memories of an alma mater or pride in the school of a child or grandchild. It could be because the gift helps fund the journey of the next student. Or an alum may think, “This school helped get me to where I am; now I want to give back.” These reasons could generate $20 yearly pledges or perhaps even a $20 million special gift because they are based on emotion. To alumni and parents, a school is like personal premium brand—in marketing, this means a brand that doesn’t compete on price but rather appeals to emotion instead. Donors are willing to give their money because they’re emotionally invested in the school. The more personal the gift, the more likely it will be an annual event.

So, can we talk about #givingdays?

#GivingTuesday, or a specific challenge on a special date might result in gifts to the school, but it could be a gift for the wrong reasons. Those gifts are likely to be based on a hashtag or a gimmicky match challenge. Like a coupon, they train donors to give for reasons other than emotion. They train donors to give during gimmicks that are designed to increase immediate demand and action instead of encouraging donors to give as a behavior.  

While a giving day might get the numbers this year, it is less likely to get them next year without the same gimmick. So, each year, marketing effort needs to be spent on the people who gave via a gimmick. For people who run an annual fund, that is hard. If the marketing is done right in the first place, then stewardship can get the gift the next year.

Instead, schools have to remarket to people with a vague, “You gave last year on #givingtuesday, can you give again?” That is even assuming the gimmick givers were placed in a different cohort for solicitation. It is probably true that the donor gave because of the power of the #givingtuesday brand, not because of the emotional power of the school. While that donor may continue to give money somewhere on a random Tuesday for social clout, it is not a given that they will donate to their school on an annual basis. 

Instead, consider giving at your school in the same way premium brands think about marketing. They promote the emotional elements of the brand, and they don’t have one-day sales, coupons or other gimmicks. For a school, a special campaign for a sports team to raise money for a trip can generate nostalgia and emotion. A campaign for the choir to travel to Europe. A challenge to alumni interested in the outdoors to the school’s outdoor education efforts.

Using organic Facebook posts, a school could post about these things, not as a solicitation, but as news. The choir plans to travel to Europe in the fall; here are photos from the last trip. Then, take the data and build Facebook ad sets of people who engaged with those organic posts and challenge them to fund the next journey. It is important to tie these kinds of campaigns into the overall strategic priorities of the school in the thank you letter. Send pictures to this cohort after the trip and get one of the members of the choir to sign the email that says thank you. This is cultivating a life-long giver, not cultivating someone who gives via a gimmick.

Those one-off strategic challenges, or annual fund emotional appeals, offer a donor a reason to give. Specific emotional campaigns to a former athlete or choir member give them the feeling that they are helping. These kinds of challenges are best for LYBUNTS and SYBUNTS.

If the call to action is a marketing gimmick, it is something that is easy in the short term but problematic in the long term. Instead of using a hashtag, use data to make a more targeted emotional giving reason.

Matt Hames is a communications strategist who strives to use data to generate applications and love for higher education institutions. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.

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