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38 University and College Fundraising Ideas and Tips for Your Next Campaign

college fundraising ideas

Coming up with fresh campaign ideas can be a challenge. And if your university or college likes to change up their fundraising campaigns each year, it might feel like you’re running out of great ideas. Not to worry! We’ve come up with 38 university and college fundraising ideas and some additional fundraising campaign tips to help you raise money for your institute of higher learning.

We have learned a lot through our work with several colleges and universities over various campaigns. We’ve previously written up our conversion rate optimization (CRO) and content strategy successes for alumni fundraising campaigns for the University of New Hampshire in their #UNH50k Challenge and we were excited to be involved again this year with the #UNH603 Challenge. These large-scale fundraising campaigns involve strategy, creativity and lots of hard work to hit their goals, but it all starts with the fundraising idea. So — what is YOUR school going to do for your next fundraiser?

Come up with a Fundraising Campaign Idea That Fits Your School

Before you come up with a strategy for executing a successful fundraising campaign for your college or university, you’ll need an idea for what that campaign will be. There are tons of great college fundraising ideas out there — and lots of ways that you can alter them to make your campaign unique to your school.

Here are a bunch of fundraising ideas to get your students, alums and other university supporters motivated to give:

Enter to Win Large Giveaway

This is a fairly popular fundraising option — find a big ticket item, preferably donated, that many potential donors would be excited to win, and have a contest where donations equal an entry to win the giveaway prize.

Potential spins on the giveaway campaign fundraising idea:

1.  The most funds raised by each registered fundraiser participant wins a new car
2.  Every donation of any amount gets one entry to win a new car
3.  For every $100 you donate or raise, you are entered to win an exotic all-expenses-paid trip

Fundraising Milestone(s) to Result in Exciting Event

This type of challenge was part of a campaign we recently helped UNH with, the 603 Challenge, where they decided to base a number of incremental donor milestones (1st donor, 603rd donor, 862nd donor and 1234th donor) based on their alumni office’s phone number, 1(603) 862-1234.

college fundraising ideas

As each milestone was hit, they celebrated and picked a random donor to win various prizes. As the campaign drew to a close, a new goal was announced: an additional 603 donors for the final day of the challenge, which was June 3rd (6/03). This helped to give the campaign an extra surge that was ultimately successful in reaching well above the overall campaign goal of 1,234 donors, with a total of 2,624 donors at the time of this post.

Some fun milestone campaign ideas:

4.  If we hit X dollar amount, president of university will film and release a cover of Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off
5.  If we hit our number of donors goal, the whole campus will turn pink for the day
6.  If we hit a funding goal, additional funds will be donated by a challenger/matcher of funds
7.  If we hit a determined fundraising goal, we’ll host a large concert or event (perhaps with a university-connected entertainer) with all donors/alumni invited

Inter-Departmental/School Competitions

The University of NH took this competitive approach as part of another campaign we recently worked on: their 2014 UNH 50k campaign. Donors of any amount could vote for the school of their choice, and the top three schools with the most donors in the campaign got $25k, $15k and $10k of the total money raised. This is a great way to engage not only alumni of various schools, but also get the staff and students of each competing school involved in spreading the word to win!

Some fundraising ideas around school competitions:

8.  School that raises the most money wins bragging rights/recognition
9.  College within the university that has the most participating donors gets recognition
10.  Department with the most $ raised gets a percentage of the money raised
11.  School with the most participating donors gets a percentage of the money raised
12.  Each department/school creates a fun video around a theme (musical theater spoof, online trend, mascot-themed) and donors vote to pick the winner

Guessing games

Remember those competitions where you had to guess the amount of jelly beans or M&Ms in a jar? Well, take that germ of an idea and crank the scale up a bit.

13.  Guess how many textbooks your university store sold during the first week of classes
14.  Number of baseballs/tennis balls in the sports building, or filling up a large campus attraction
15.  Guess the weight of all final papers from a certain class/course
16.  Guess the number of students who will get on the honor roll this year (projection for the future)

Naming rights

Normally this is something that is given away as part of a large capital campaign, but it could also be used in a university fundraising campaign. There are various things you can put up for naming, and various ways to determine who wins:

Things to Name:

17.  Name a room in our new facility
18.  Name our newest piece of equipment in various departments
19.  Name a bench, tree or other campus feature
20.  Name our new mascot (of course, this would only apply if your mascot is undergoing a change or facelift)

Types of competitions:

21.  Donate to cast your vote for an option from a pre-approved list
22.  Department that generates the most amount of money donated to get rights to pick the name (department heads pick the name)
23.  Group or school with the most amount of donors wins rights to pick the name

Rule breakers

Another fun thing could be giving donors the chance to win the right to break a certain campus rule. Of course, it wouldn’t be a safety rule or related to academic performance (although skipping a class might apply for certain approved departments — suggest that option at your own risk). But there are plenty of rules or social codes that might be intriguing enough to get a donation from unexpected sources.

24.  Donate a certain amount to skip a class
25.  Donate for a chance to take the field at halftime and say anything
26.  Donate to vote on everyone being able to break a certain rule for the day (from a list of pre-approved broken rules)
27.  Donate to get a chance at having your own personal campus police escort for the day, carrying a boom box with your own personal soundtrack.
28.  Donate to have dinner with the president of the college
29.  Donate to get a parking pass for a VIP spot for one week

Traditional with a twist

There are plenty of traditional fundraising models out there that work just fine. But putting a creative spin on them could reap great rewards for your college fundraising.

30.  Sell candy bars or other catalogue items meant for school fundraising
31.  Have a bake sale: change it up by having competing bake sales by subject/department theme (English dept. makes literary-themed snacks; Math dept. makes quantifiable object snacks; Law school scales their cost based on best arguments, etc.)
32.  Walk-a-thon: make it a cartwheel-a-thon or dance-a-thon
33.  Car wash: Have your law department or forensics team negotiate pricing with each car
34.  Donate for a chance to take over the university Twitter or Instagram account for a day/week
35.  Auction: Hire a legit auctioneer (or have auditions in your college’s theater department), have a call for donated items, or split auction item proceeds with item owners
36.  Party: Throw a theme party (80s, underwater sea life, candy, Game of Thrones) and charge admission —incorporate raffles and/or auctions at the party for extra fundraising power
37.  High-End Dinner: Host a super fancy black-tie dinner for high-cost admission. If your university has a culinary school, have them cater it; music department provide music; readings from English college; invitations by Design school, etc.
38.  Raffle: add online components such as tweeting the donation link to gain entries into the raffle, or creating curated YouTube playlist “mix tapes” as entries

Focus Your Message

Whatever idea you pick to raise your funds, you should boil the campaign down to a very simple message. Can you explain your campaign in a brief sentence? It’s okay to have multiple aspects, but they shouldn’t detract from a simple, focused fundraising goal.

If you already have an existing recurring fundraising initiative with a recognizable campaign name, it can help to build on that existing name recognition. We have seen that using the same hashtag across multiple-year events or campaigns is valuable. Once you have established the hashtag, people will then know which one to use in subsequent events. While we’ve learned this through our work with the New Hampshire Film Festival, it’s also applicable to a multiple-year ongoing campaign, such as Boston College’s annual fund, #ForBC.

People respond to specific deadlines and specific targets…

— Scott Nichols, Boston University

However, launching a large capital campaign effort can go far in reenergizing your fundraising base. At Northeastern, the Empower campaign created a surge of interest and allowed them to surpass their annual goal.

“People respond to specific deadlines and specific targets,” Scott Nichols, senior vice president for development and alumni relations at Boston University told the Boston Globe in a recent article on the effectiveness of capital campaigns. Make sure your university’s fundraising campaign has a specific, time-sensitive, actionable goal.

Are you accepting ANY amount for your fundraising campaign? If so, make that abundantly clear — and use examples like $5 or $8 in your messaging to reinforce that any amount counts, and increase the overall donations by encouraging an odd amount like $8. Obama’s presidential campaign, famously, raised over 48% of its campaign funding from donors who each gave under $200 total in 2012.

Execution Matters

You’ve got your idea, and your focused message — now you need to get the word out in a thoughtful and strategic way.

We recommend recruiting a group of engaged and highly visible alum and/or students (outside of the team running the campaign) to help spread the word about your campaign. This cheerleading team will be at the ready to amplify the message as soon as you launch, giving your initial kick-off announcement more oomph. They can also be alerted at key times throughout the campaign if a mid-campaign challenge or extra push is needed.

Plan the full rollout of your campaign — when you will announce, the length of the campaign, the method through which you’ll announce and who your key stakeholders are that will amplify and help spread the word.

You’ll need some tactics designed, containing all the key info on the campaign and how people can give. Make sure you get input on all the key stakeholders who will want to be involved in this decision — and get their input up front (no thrashing).

Make sure the following vital information is on all campaign promotional materials:

  • URL / Hashtag for more info
  • Date of campaign
  • How to give
  • Goal (monetary or engagement)
  • Focused message (“why should I care?”)

Make it Super Easy to Give

Bottom line: people are busy — and you certainly aren’t the only one asking for money. So once you have your bright idea and a creative execution, you should make it super easy for people give you their money.

Here are some key considerations:

Online

This will be the easiest way for you to get the maximum amount of funds raised for your campaign. Alumni emails and current student emails are just a click away from an online donation — this is a much broader audience than the crowd you will get at the actual event or during your campaign event days. You MUST have an online option for people to give as soon as they hear about your campaign, or you risk missing a majority of people who may want to donate but can’t work their busy schedules around your event.

Text

This is another incredibly easy way for people to give. If you can set up a Text-to-Donate option, your engagement will undoubtedly increase. However, it can be very expensive to set up this type of functionality. Talk to a service provider to see what the cost would be and if this option makes sense for a campaign of your scope and scale.

Credit Card Option

If you’re raising money at an event in person, do not expect everyone to have cash on them. Square card readers are currently free (make sure you order one in advance of the event if you don’t already have one) and PayPal fees are nominal (if your college or university is a registered nonprofit, you can even avoid fees altogether), so there’s no reason to not have a credit-card option at your booth or event headquarters.

We hope these college fundraising ideas have sparked some creative ideas for your college or university’s next campaign. If you have any questions about how to amplify your campaign’s reach, please drop us a line or catch us on Twitter.

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