How to Engage Your Alumni in a Capital Campaign: 4 Key Tips
Let’s say your higher ed institution is conducting or planning a capital campaign. This exciting project will transform your institution’s ability to grow, serve students, and pursue its mission. For many schools, a campaign will be designed to accomplish a mix of different objectives, like new building projects, equipment investments, or growing endowment and scholarship funds.
Whatever the purpose of your campaign, you’ll rely on contributions from many people to get you there.
One key group that you must connect with during your campaign is your alumni. After all, your relationships with alumni are inherently special. They’ve seen and benefited from your institution’s work firsthand. They’ve had personal experiences worth sharing with future generations of students and researchers. Many are likely in positions to contribute meaningfully to your campaign and help your institution grow to the next level.
Let’s walk through four tips for engaging alumni and motivating them to give during a capital campaign.
1. Create a compelling case for support.
Your case for support is one of the most important tools for your entire capital campaign. It explains the campaign’s purpose, the positive impact it will have, and the amount of money that you’re seeking to raise. Your case tells the story and lays out the argument for why your campaign is important and worth supporting.
The most effective cases for support answer these key questions:
- What’s the theme, concept, and tone of the campaign?
- What’s the challenge that the campaign is designed to solve?
- What’s the solution you’re proposing?
- Why is your organization the one to drive this solution?
- Why is it important to take action now?
- What will it cost to get there?
- Why does it matter, and what will the impact be?
- How can donors help?
Answering these questions will help you articulate your vision in a clear, compelling way that resonates with alumni. This shared vision is essential for engaging them in the campaign, and drafting the case for support will get you started.
From there, you can compile a more complete communication plan and distill your message into the various documents that you’ll need during the campaign. These include campaign brochures, pledge forms, letterheads, various graphic assets, web page wireframes, slide decks, emails, and much more.
You’ll also need materials for one-on-one discussions with potential alumni donors during the earlier phases of the campaign. Donor discussion guides should be fully rooted in your case for support but simplified and customized to reinforce your unique relationships with each prospect—another best practice to keep in mind during your campaign.
2. Use messaging to reinforce your relationships with alumni.
All of your communications with alumni during the campaign will need to be anchored in their unique relationship with your institution.
As part of your communication plan, create messaging guidelines to use when talking with alumni. This guide should describe the emotional connections you’re seeking to tap into and outline the specific language that will help you do it. Brainstorm a list of unique traditions, landmarks, and other things that set your school apart so that you can feature them in your messages.
Heading into the campaign’s quiet phase, you’ll develop a list of lead prospects by examining their giving capacity, affinity, and connections to your school. But go further than traditional prospecting markers to pull information like:
- The years that a prospect attended
- Their academic major
- Extracurricular activities
- Career highlights since graduating
- Their donation history with your school
- Their alumni event attendance history
Use this information to shape your outreach to these prospects—the added customization will help reinforce the relationship and remind them of the role your institution has played in their lives. This is most immediately helpful in your conversations with prospects, but get creative to find ways to further customize the printed/digital materials you create for them, too. For example, pull photos of campus from their time in school and position them alongside renderings of your proposed project.
3. Encourage peer-to-peer engagement.
Your school has fostered a community of alumni over the years—infuse your campaign with that sense of community by encouraging alumni to interact with each other.
Organizations of all sizes rely on peer-to-peer engagement techniques for two key reasons: they can lessen your team’s workload, and they provide powerful social proof. When we see loved ones and respected colleagues publicly supporting a cause or project, we’re naturally inclined to give it our attention. For your campaign, this added visibility can help you drive more engagement and reach new donors.
The exact tactics you might use will take different forms at different stages of the campaign. For example, you may ask alumni to:
- Personally introduce your team to other alumni or potential donors
- Host or co-host events to engage other top prospects and explain the campaign
- Serve as campaign “ambassadors” to help spread the word, host events, and more as part of a more formal volunteer role
- Participate in online peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns during the public phase
- Share your social media posts and contribute to “share your memories” content campaigns during the public phase
Get creative to identify ways your alumni can help put you in touch with new prospects throughout the duration of the campaign. The nature of this peer-to-peer engagement will shift as your audience broadens out toward the end of the campaign, but the underlying concept is simply to tap into the connections that are already there.
4. Offer recognition opportunities.
Capital campaigns open up plenty of opportunities for recognizing donors. And for many donors, leaving a lasting legacy at your institution could be an important motivator to engage with and contribute to the campaign.
Having a recognition strategy in place allows you to discuss it ahead of time rather than scrambling to come up with one after the fact. A clear, approved recognition plan will give you a helpful roadmap to engage legacy-minded donors. Recognition tactics can take many forms, including:
- Prominent naming opportunities
- Donor recognition walls
- Plaques on benches, sculptures, or other installations
- Exclusive donor events
- Shoutouts in institution publications and newsletters
The exact options you offer a donor should align with the scale of their gift. Creating a tiered system of standardized recognition opportunities like public shoutouts, followed by engraved bricks, then increasingly prominent positions on a recognition wall, and so on is a tried-and-true strategy for many institutions. If this approach to recognition works for your campaign, sketch out its details in advance so that you can use it to engage prospects.
Working with your lead donors on a recognition plan tailored to their interests and desires can show them your school cares about their experience and further deepen the relationship.
Attitudes toward naming opportunities are shifting as institutions are more aware of the need to be equitable and inclusive. So rather than just doing what your organization has done before, take some time to discuss the plan for donor recognition internally to make sure it is in keeping with your organization's values.
We recommend first determining what your institution wants to do or is comfortable doing to recognize lead donors. Develop a plan that is approved by your campaign committee or even your organization’s board. Then use that plan when talking with your donor during fundraising conversations. While you will want to develop a somewhat flexible recognition approach for each lead donor, the plan must stay within the parameters of the approved recognition plan.
From developing your case to support in the planning stage, to discussing donor recognition opportunities in the quiet phase, to encouraging peer-to-peer interactions in the public phase, there are all kinds of ways to use your school’s capital campaign to engage alumni. Adapt these tips to your unique needs, study up on best practices for planning a capital campaign, and you’ll be off to a strong start.
About the Author
Andrea Kihlstedt | Campaign Expert & Co-Founder
Andrea Kihlstedt is a Co-Founder of the Capital Campaign Pro. She is the author of Capital Campaigns: Strategies that Work, now in its 4th edition, as well as How to Raise $1 Million (or More) in 10 Bite Sized Steps, in addition to other books. Andrea has been leading successful capital campaigns for more than 30 years. To learn how Capital Campaign Pro can support you through a capital campaign, visit capitalcampaignpro.com.