Hat in Hand on Facebook

To reach their youngest alums, colleges turn to social media blitzes. 

August 22, 2014

Colleges are increasingly turning to one-day social media blitzes to raise money, especially from their youngest alumni.

The latest will take place today at the University of Vermont, the state’s flagship in Burlington. Officials there have organized a daylong social media “extravaganza” to connect with what it calls its elusive young alums.

During the Move In Day Challenge, pegged to the university’s move-in day, officials will post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all day, including videos of students moving in and talking about the university. They will also set up a special site for would-be donors.

Richard Green, a spokesman for the university’s foundation who helped plan the event, said the online blitz is meant to help welcome new students, reach out to alumni – particularly recent graduates – and raise a little bit of money.

“Yes, we would like to raise some money, but we’re really trying to walk that line of this being not too aggressive an ask, because we want this to be a real welcome,” Green said. “We want to tell a story during the day, so we don’t want to be like, ‘Give more money,’ ‘Give more money.’ ”

Green said the university is not looking to tap any of its 2,300 incoming first-year students or their parents for money on move-in day because that would “be tacky.” 

Colleges are, however, trying to pick up donations from recent graduates. That comes amid a decline in the rate of alumni participation -- which is the number of alumni donors divided by the number of alumni an institution has a means of contacting. Some experts have attributed that decline to the increased ease of tracking down graduates, while others have suggested longer life spans are also contributing. In any event, colleges are turning to social media to drum up donations from their youngest alums in the hopes that one donation will turn into a lifetime of giving.

“We want to make sure there are people out there who will jump on board early and start participating,” Green said.

Vermont has the modest public goal of getting 250 donations of any size. If it meets the goal, a trustee has promised to donate an additional $25,000.

Other colleges, even small ones, have raised far more than that during their days of social media giving. Wabash College, an all-male private college in Indiana with fewer than 1,000 students, raised about $470,000 from donors this spring during a one-day social-media-based fund-raising campaign.

On April 30, Wabash held an all-day fund-raiser online and also organized some events on campus that got even current students to donate. In all, it received 2,275 donations, said Joseph Klen, the college’s associate dean for advancement.

The events have become so popular that Wabash was not even the sole Indiana institution doing a day of giving on the last day of April: Purdue University also had an online fund-raising blitz that day, and raised $7.4 million. Other universities, including two others in Indiana – University of Notre Dame and Valparaiso University – have had similar events.

Colgate University in New York hosts among the most looked-to days of giving, which last year relied on radio, email, phone, social media, and personal visits. Colgate received more than $5.1 million in donations on Dec. 13, which its vice president of institutional advancement said was the largest dollar amount and number of gifts collected in a single day by a liberal arts college.

At Wabash, Klen said he contacted 175 heavy users of social media ahead of the day, but otherwise kept the wraps on it so it felt like a grassroots effort.

Vermont, too, has contacted influential alums on social media to see if they would tweet or post on other social media sites about the fund-raising effort.

“You have to kind of fertilize the field a little bit,” Vermont’s Green said.

For Wabash, the challenge now is to replicate when Klen called the day’s spontaneity.

“We kept ours quiet – there was almost a sort of surprise, people didn’t know it was coming,” he said.

By 10 a.m., Wabash was able to meet its initial goal of 430 donations. By mid-afternoon, it received its next 430. By the end of the daylong campaign, it had nearly 2,300.

The next time around, Klen said the university would have to start with a higher public goal.

“It would be hard for us just to start with a low number again because people would say, ‘Hey, you know you’re going to get that,’ ” he said.

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