Higher-Ed Crowdfunding: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

“Crowdfunding” is the buzzword of the day in higher-ed fundraising. Last week, in one of Academic Impressions’ informal 7 Second Surveys, we asked our readers:

"Do you expect to use a crowdfunding tool to raise dollars at your institution in the next year?"

  • 67% said "no."
  • 33% said "yes."

140 higher-ed fundraisers replied to our informal survey.

What quickly becomes apparent in reviewing the comments on the survey, however, is that professionals in higher education are using “crowdfunding” to refer to a variety of new donor acquisition initiatives that are distinct both in approach and in the level of investment required. For some, crowdfunding refers simply to any form of online giving.

Our advancement program directors Erin Swietlik and Gwen Doyle offer this breakdown of three new donor acquisition initiatives some of your peers are trying and how these initiatives differ -- to help you determine what option might be the right fit for your institution.

1. A Day of Giving

A day of giving is a concentrated, 24-hour fundraising campaign targeted at increasing unrestricted gifts over a short, concentrated period to the annual fund. The effort typically uses email solicitation, social media buzz and peer-to-peer solicitation, all driving towards the institution’s online giving site.

For example, Illinois Wesleyan University’s recent “All in for Wesleyan” day of giving saw nearly half a million dollars donated by 2,500 donors in just one day, spurring a 4% increase in overall participation.

A number of institutions have fully developed and implemented a day of giving in less than two months.

2. A Micro-Campaign

While a day of giving can be a useful technique to drive unrestricted giving to the annual fund in a concentrated, short-term burst, a micro-campaign has the potential to raise more funds for a more focused cause. Micro-campaigns usually last between 48 and 72 hours (though in rarer cases, you might see a one-week or even one-month micro-campaign) and are often focused on raising funds for a specific institutional cause. Often, a donor will offer a matching gift.

For example, the University of Southern Mississippi has run an effective micro-campaign to raise funds for repairing tornado damage to the campus.

Similar to a day of giving, a micro-campaign can make use of online giving, social media outreach, and other forms of interactive fundraising--but is distinct from a crowdfunding effort.

3. Crowdfunding

Inspired by tools such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, crowdfunding refers to the use of a unique online giving platform (which may be either a homegrown or third-party tool), distinct from the institution’s giving site, to fund institutionally-approved projects that are proposed by faculty, staff, and students. Typically, project leaders are given significant autonomy to reach out to their own networks to aid in the fundraising effort.

While the day of giving and micro-campaign typically rely on the traditional alumni and parent donor base, crowdfunding initiatives rely on project leaders connecting to their own personal and professional networks. Crowdfunding offers the opportunity to bring in many new donors who may not be alumni--they could be extended families, friends or colleagues, of the project leader, or engaged community members interested in the project.

These initiatives can also be effective in re-engaging lapsed donors.

While institutions often use a homegrown tool for crowdfunding, there are a number of third-party tools available, as well. Andy Shaindlin's blog offers a recent list of 21 crowdsourced fundraising platforms.

At Academic Impressions, we are currently working on additional programming and training resources to help you get started in higher-ed crowdfunding. Watch for these resources to be released later this fall.