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People don’t give to universities. They give to people.

January 24, 2020

college students graduating from university

Giving is changing.

In a time when everything is changing, that might not be a surprising statement. But it is more than people giving with a smartphone rather than by dropping a check into a reply envelope. A fundamental change is taking place in philanthropy—and it impacts colleges and universities and the way they go about their fundraising campaigns.

Let’s blame the millennials. That seems to be the thing to do whenever there is a shift in the way we have always done things. Of course, they aren’t solely responsible, but they epitomize the transformation that has been going on for a while. There was a time when people were content to give to the “community chest” and trust that an organization would make sure their money went to a good and worthy place. No longer. Younger donors prefer to give to an individual or group than to trust an organization to channel funds to those in need. Trends also show that millennials are not driven by an attachment to organizations or institutions. Rather, they are passionate about specific causes and helping people. These factors are evidence of the millennial desire for involvement, which also sees their support taking the form of volunteerism more than any previous generation.

So what does this mean for higher ed institutions and their efforts to solicit financial support?

More and more, even with the deeply held attachments many people have for their alma mater, supporters want to channel their dollars to areas where they feel an emotional connection. And that is difficult to feel for a new building or an endowment fund. This is why scholarship support is often met with the most enthusiasm, because the result of their giving is tangible, emotional…and human.   

But what does that mean to the marketing campaign that supports the comprehensive or capital campaign? It illustrates the wisdom of choosing and highlighting people to represent the pillars and priorities of any fundraising efforts. Suddenly a campus expansion becomes a young woman from Brooklyn who is the first in her family to go to college. A scholarship becomes a young man from Kenya who used to gaze at a map of the U.S. in his childhood bedroom. An endowment becomes a beloved professor who has taught three generations of students that the best way to learn to write is to sit down with a good book. 

It isn’t always easy. Identifying the right representative requires a great degree of care to ensure inclusivity in many senses. If you choose a young Latina woman from the School of Nursing, perhaps you should also choose an African American graduate student from the School of Management. The instinct is to attribute this to diversity, which is of course, quite valid. But it also allows a school and their marketing partner to tell the full breadth of their story and to connect with the widest range of people looking to make a difference—because if there is a truth in philanthropy, it’s that donors tend to direct their support to causes and people close to their heart. Those affected by diabetes give to the diabetes society. Those who suffered a loss to cancer support cancer research. By putting a human face on institutional initiatives, a donor can see their own story in the plucky student or remember the love and dedication of a parent in the tireless teacher.

The impact is dramatic. It enables emotional storytelling in video, print, social media, and beyond that hits the right buttons with not only millennials, but anyone with a wallet, a heart, and a desire to use them in concert.

That’s where giving is headed. And while it is far too simplistic and presumptive to do it…let’s thank the millennials for a change.

Curious to learn more? Reach out and we'll talk about it.

Curious to learn more? Reach out and we'll talk about it.

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