Image source: University of New Hampshire
What are the chances of you donating money to a stranger from an NGO when they approach you on the street during your downtime?
Pretty slim, right?
I mean, sure, it’s for a good cause and everything but not many of us would take the leap and donate money right away, would we?
For starters, you don’t know who that person is, nor do you trust them enough to feel good about offering money even if you support the cause. The missing ingredient here is trust and the lack of relationship with that person.
This is pretty much the case when organizations or universities want to raise funds on social media.
This article was updated in May 2020. The learnings presented here are applicable not just for universities, but for any brand that wants to use social media as a fundraising tool.
“No one goes to a university Facebook page looking for a place to donate.”
These wise words came from Jason Boucher, Social Media Manager at the University of New Hampshire. Speaking at the 2017 Social Media Strategies Summit for Higher Education, he detailed how to use social media as an alumni engagement and fundraising tool, and my mind was blown several times over.
For most brands, building an engaged social media community is enough of a challenge. Now imagine having to ask your audience for money as well. While Jason’s presentation centered on universities, any brand could take a lesson from it.
Here we take a deep dive into the many ways you can foster a social media community while crushing your annual fundraising goals.
Content is key
Strong, varied content should be the backbone of your social media strategy.
Before you can build a community atmosphere or raise money for your school, you first have to get your audience to look at your social pages. The method for drawing in friends and alumni can be described in borderline-obvious terms: post content that your audience actually wants to see.
For an alumni page, this content should be centered around your school and your alumni themselves in equal measure. Instagram posts featuring your gorgeous campus can rarely go wrong, and nothing evokes college nostalgia like a picture of your favorite quad in autumn.
You can also use alumni pages to promote your school’s history. Use the popular #TBT hashtag (for Throwback Thursday) on Thursdays for a reminder of what was happening fifty, one hundred (or for younger schools, ten) years ago.
— UNH Alumni 🐾 (@UNHAlumni) November 5, 2017
Not only does this practice provide fun facts about your school, but it can also actually increase alumni engagement as well. By posting a throwback photo from, say, 1970, you can encourage alums who were there at the time to join in on the conversation and reminisce in the comments section about their time at your school.
Once you’ve got the basics down, don’t be afraid to get creative with the content you promote. These pages don’t have to keep a professorial atmosphere, and a little variation can go a long way.
For instance, the University of New Hampshire pages regularly feature light-hearted quizzes, polls, and even music playlists. These practices will keep followers engaged on your pages, and promoting fun content with no direct ask for donations attached underlines the idea that these pages are for the alum’s benefit more than for the college’s.
— UNH Alumni 🐾 (@UNHAlumni) October 7, 2015
These pages can foster a sense of school spirit and identity which might otherwise have been lost. A student might love their experience in college, but with no ongoing contact, they might then graduate, move far away and lose their sense of connection with their alma mater. In the right hands, social media alumni pages can be an invaluable tool for reminding your school’s community of why they loved their time there and why they should want to help younger students have the same great experience they had.
You want your audience to relate to your school in the present tense: they should think of themselves as a “University of X Alum,” not just a person who used to attend a certain college.
Maintaining a present-tense community
Your alumni social media pages should function as the center of your online community.
If pushing out strong content to draw in an alumnus is step one in the process of building your social media presence, promoting engagement is step two. In other words, you’ve figured out how to talk to your audience. How do you make them talk to each other?
Sometimes the answer presents itself naturally, such as when alumni strike up conversations in the comments sections of your stellar content. In this case, always remember to like and respond to comments wherever possible; your direct engagement with alumni can go a long way toward reinforcing your school’s brand on a personal level. Use paid social media to promote alumni events, boosting engagement online, and in real life.
To nurture these connections on a personal level, focus on promoting the alumni themselves. The University of New Hampshire features their alumni’s lives on Instagram stories, giving short explanations of what each person has been able to accomplish since they earned their degrees.
This accomplishes several goals at once: it promotes the alum themselves, it encourages other alumni to reconnect and chat with classmates they may not have spoken to in years, and it shows prospective students what they might accomplish with a degree from UNH. Showing off who your alums are and where they are now is a great way to promote your community and your school by association.
Crunch time: The Direct Ask
These online communities of alumni, friends, and family are highly valuable in their own right – they are the best way of maintaining school spirit and history in the digital age. As we all know, though, a major goal in all University promotion is development. As someone who worked in her University’s Phonathon program for three years (Brandeis Class of 2016, holla!) I know how important university fundraisers are; a few donations can make it possible for a young person to afford a college education.
However, the practice of shooting in the dark is a major roadblock to fundraising efforts. Without a well-maintained alumni community, people simply don’t care enough about their alma maters to give donations that benefit future students. By executing a social media strategy that involves former students in your university, you can lay the necessary groundwork well before you ever hold an actual fundraiser.
Every time you publish content on your alumni pages, you foster goodwill among your school’s alumni, family, and friends. When the time finally comes to ask for donations, the question does not come out of anywhere or sound like a demand. Instead, it reads as a worthwhile favor for a friend.
Your social media pages should work constantly to remind your alums of how they benefited from their degrees, and how important it is to make sure younger students have access to the same opportunities. For annual fundraisers, be sure to remind your network ahead of time. To avoid cluttering your pages, set up dark posts counting down to the fundraiser start date.
Give your audience updates on how close you are to making your goals, and most importantly, be sure to celebrate with your whole online network when you hit your targets. Development is a team effort, and looping your donors in on the rewarding feeling of hitting your goal will make them more likely to give again next time.
For fundraising efforts that happen year-round, like Phonathon, don’t hesitate to use the public information on your social media pages to help foster donations. If an alum makes a comment praising your school’s English department, send that alum’s name, class year, and comment over to your Phonathon team. That kind of background information is invaluable to your fundraising team, as it can help foster goodwill on a direct scale.
Just make sure not to sound too creepy when using this information: “I saw your comment on the University Alumni page” is not an overly weird thing to say to someone. “I combed through your personal Facebook page until I found out that on July 12, 2007, you mentioned that you were interested in architecture so please make a donation to our architecture department…” might be borderline.
- Your alumni network is your most valuable resource. Encourage them to relate to their alma mater in the present tense, not the past.
- Don’t be afraid to think outside the box when creating content. Remember, your audience is your alumni; they’re all smart people who want to engage with creative content on social media.
- The direct ask for money doesn’t have to be painful. If you spend every day reminding your alumni network of why you all love your alma mater, the occasional request for a donation sounds reasonable. Just have fun and remember that you and your donors are all on the same team.