The University of Virginia recently announced a $5 billion fund-raising campaign with an interesting twist: instead of lying low until the public phase begins, UVA is building excitement for a public campaign start date that is still over a year away.
UVA's campaign is part of a trend of college mega-campaigns that span years and aim to raise billions. The typical fund-raising formula begins with a silent phase, during which fund-raisers court promising donors. But as campaigns get longer and more ambitious, the silent phase is increasingly less silent.
“The average silent phase of a mega-campaign is approaching four years. Given that length, they are only sort of silent,” said Brian Gawor, vice president for fund-raising research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a consulting firm. “We’re going to see numerous updates from the institutions during both the silent and public phases as they work to keep attention and excitement up.”
Jeff Martin, practice manager at EAB Strategic Research, said that such long silent phases can sometimes take the wind out of public campaigns. Issuing public announcements earlier can help maintain the power of the brand for longer.
"If you wait four, five years to go public, then you lose out on a lot of the power of everything you put together when you do, so the brand you built, the marketing campaign you put in motion, that all starts with the public launch," Martin said. "The longer you delay that, the higher the opportunity cost."
In addition, early announcements like UVA's can help colleges reach more donors faster than they traditionally would with one-on-one gift officer visits, which are increasingly necessary. According to an analysis by EAB, at the median institution, 36 gifts each year make up 63 percent of total gift revenue.
'“I do know that institutions of higher ed are increasingly worried about a needle-thin gift pyramid at the top. They rely on fewer donors for more revenue every year," Martin said.
In the era of the mega-campaign, Martin also thinks there could be pressure on colleges to be constantly campaigning, leading to earlier public announcements.
"It seems odd when the institution isn’t in campaign, and that expectation may be accelerating things," he said.
According to a survey by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, 81 percent of fund-raisers said they are either in the middle of a campaign or about to enter one. UVA's campaign has been in its silent phase since July 2017 and will not officially become public until the fall of 2019. No one at UVA was available to comment on the campaign, but the campaign announcement noted that the university has raised $1.7 billion since its last major campaign ended in June 2013, all of which will count toward the new $5 billion goal.
Though proving beneficial, early public announcements carry a few risks. Once institutions go public with a concrete number, they lose the flexibility to quietly adjust it. Another issue is donor fatigue; announcing a campaign years in advance of its start date could make it more difficult to keep donors interested.
“I’ve heard of institutions worried about that,” Gawor said. “I think it’s impossible to predict what will excite people in a world where our attention has so many demands. So I tell institutions to communicate more than they have in the past. A steady, consistent message of opportunity and transformation is very important.”
In general, Martin doesn't think colleges are worried about such risks right now.
“At this current time I think there’s a lot of excitement and optimism. Fund-raising returns are at the highest they’ve ever been," Martin said. "We have seen growth for years and the outlook for the future at present looks promising, so I think it’s understandable that the risk of a campaign goal becoming unrealistic is less of a factor in institutional decision making at present.”