Why profitable fundraising communications are the work of specialists, not generalists … and why a standard-issue, untrained university marcomms department will almost certainly fail to deliver strong results when given a fundraising assignment which depends on an effective call to action

Tom Ahern

This just in: A fundraising copywriter at a prestigious university now faces a change in her chain of command. The university’s new brooms don’t see why fundraising should have its own dedicated writer. In an org. chart maneuver that absolutely makes sense on paper, they want her to go back into the pool, to work inside the marketing communications group (a.k.a., marcomms). She asked what I thought. This is what I wrote back:

Princeton University makes this promise on its website:

We are committed to making a Princeton education affordable to all. Our financial aid program for undergraduates is recognized as one of the most generous in the country. We provide financial aid in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid. This means undergraduates can graduate from Princeton debt free.

There’s a reason Princeton can make that stunning promise … and other universities [like hers] cannot.

That reason is philanthropy.

Princeton takes fundraising very seriously. It has since the 1930s, when Princeton, I’m told, introduced a notion called “the Given University.”

As I understand it: each Princeton president addresses every freshman class upon entry, making one unforgettable point:

  • those extraordinary laboratories and performing arts spaces you’re about to encounter;
  • those Nobel Laureates and celebrated artists on faculty you will learn from;
  • and the fact that our students graduate debt-free, yet the majority of you are here on scholarship

… all of that is thanks to philanthropy.

The president’s talk concludes: “And someday it will be your turn.”

That’s how it was described to me anyway.

Assuming what I’ve heard is more or less correct, it certainly explains why Princeton now enjoys the world’s top annual alumni giving rate: 63% of Princeton graduates make a gift every year. The US national average is a humdrum 13%; Harvard’s percentage drones along in the mid-40s.

Thanks to this consistent, persistent, evolving and intelligent approach to the messaging necessary to spur future acts of giving, Princeton can today offer qualified undergraduate applicants an average of $47,290 per year in aid … while [the university she works for] can only afford $24,951 per student per year (sourced from the Common Data Sets for 2017/18).

Enviable levels of university fundraising don’t just happen.

Princeton’s success is not a fluke.

Success in fundraising — and its message-bearers: appeals, reports, invitations and thanks — requires a solid understanding of applied psychology, among other things.

To a world-class “persuasion” researcher like Dr. Robert Cialdini, Princeton and its “Given University” approach is an obvious example of what he terms “social proof.”

But if you don’t know your Cialdini; or the anchoring theories of Dr.s Kahneman and Tversky; or why the use of statistical information suppresses giving (Dr. Dan Ariely, Duke; Dr. Paul Slovic, University of Oregon) … then you’re guessing.

And you’re almost certainly guessing wrong.

Ignorance and success are not handmaidens in fundraising.

Donor communications are different. They are about generating serious money for the university’s mission, growth and adaptation.

Donor communications ARE different

Donor communications (which range from capital campaign cases to appeals to stewardship) are not about brand. They’re not about raising awareness. They’re not about a school’s self-promotion. They’re not PR. They’re not admissions. They’re not garden-variety corporate communications.

Donor communications are a specialty requiring many things:

  • expertise;
  • continuous expert education;
  • a daily immersion in ever-emerging research;
  • a grasp of “donor-centricity” and its complexities;
  • a willingness to take calculated risks (hoping for beyond-expectation rewards);
  • respect for the goal at hand: advancing the university’s mission by harvesting ever-increasing amounts of philanthropy.

Check out www.aherncomm.com

  • Tom Ahern