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Fundraising ideas: Donor relations in the digital age

Most people use social media these days, so fundraisers should, too
University Business, August 2017
Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky Office of Philanthropy. He may be followed on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt).
Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky Office of Philanthropy. He may be followed on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt).

Few of us would be surprised to learn that young adults have been the earliest adopters of social media. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that older adults, particularly baby boomers, are not active users.

In a 2017 study conducted by the Pew Research Center, nearly 7 in 10 Americans reported using social media “to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves.” And use by older adults has increased in recent years—catapulting from only 3 percent in 2006 to nearly 70 percent in 2016.

What does this data tell those of us in the higher education philanthropy profession? Our supporters are communicating with one another and their friends through social media. It is therefore incumbent on us to become active in the digital conversation.  

Reaching your most valued audience

Don’t think that social media is not important—even if you don’t personally use it. Social media is a vital, measurable aspect of donor cultivation, donor relations, stewardship and philanthropy communications.

Data supports that our key audiences are actively engaged—especially with Facebook. The platform’s largest user group is the 35 to 54 age range, with the 55-plus market growing at lightning speed. In fact, some surveys find that more than 80 percent of baby boomers are now using social media. Consider how your marketing strategies might reach this demographic via Facebook.

As for millennials (ages 18 to 29), more than 90 percent are using social media and mobile apps. Consider how your annual giving and crowdfunding marketing strategies can engage this group of users.  

Beyond Facebook

Social media is also a critical communications tool for expanding a capital campaign’s branding awareness, audience reach, messaging and donor engagement. In addition, colleges and universities should include social networking strategies in major gift programs.

For example, LinkedIn provides a wealth of opportunities and data mining for alumni engagement, donor research, relationship building, networking and donor cultivation. Donors and prospects want to know if your organization is trustworthy, how it’s impacting the world, and how they can become involved financially and as volunteers.

Social media provides ease of access to your institution and the communication tools they must have to become even more effective advocates for your cause.

As you prepare your social media strategies, consider the following tips:

  • Be authentic in your social media messaging. After all, your institution is competing virtually with other colleges, universities and nonprofits worldwide. Social media messaging should be focused on what your donors want—not necessarily what you believe is most important.
  • Know that social media generates word-of-mouth support for your cause and can strengthen donor loyalty.
  • Be strategic in your institution’s posts. Messaging should inform, inspire and engage.
  • Realize social media’s “live” features will expand. Be smart, strategic and professional in their use. Think like a journalist as you implement in-the-moment features.
  • Continually update content with fresh, relevant and engaging information. Even a wonderful loaf of freshly baked bread will grow stale if kept on the shelf too long.
  • Repurpose your best content—including outstanding story profiles, thought leadership quotes, video clips and photos.
  • In social media efforts, point followers back to the institution or philanthropy office’s website and vice versa.
  • Use no more than one to three social media platforms and do them well.

Face-to-face interaction will always be the most important and preferred approach to major and principal gift solicitation. Social media, however, can help open the door. 


Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky Office of Philanthropy. He may be followed on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt).

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