Making Strides

Keeping campaign communications fresh for the long haul   

In the mad dash to complete the plethora of projects that lead up to the public launch of a campaign, it would be easy to start thinking of the kickoff as a goal in itself, but it’s merely a mile marker in the marathon of a fundraising campaign that may last five to 10 years. Given that only a fraction of an institution’s constituents may attend a kickoff event or receive a case statement, development communicators must devise methods for keeping campaign messages interesting and effective well beyond the starting line of the public launch. When preparing for a lengthy campaign, professionals say that having good stories to tell is essential.  

“Building a strong brand for your campaign involves more than just a logo or tag line,” says Jennifer Bowie, executive director of development, advancement communication and marketing at Ohio University, which publicly launched its $450 million “The Promise Lives” campaign in April 2012 following a silent phase that began in July 2007. “It means answering the questions why? and why now? for your campaign. This hard work helps your university develop a unique campaign look and feel that matches the character of the institution and enables you to tell authentic, compelling stories for the life of your campaign.”  

At King’s College London, preparations for its “World questions|King’s answers” campaign, which launched in November 2010, began with gathering data and stories to demonstrate the research university’s track record of world-leading achievements.  

“From the outset, providing evidence that our campaign brand proposition was unique and had competitive value was key to telling our story,” says James Bressor, deputy head of communications at King’s.  

An important outlet for telling the institution’s story is the campaign’s website,, which lays out the themes in an eye-catching and accessible manner that furthers the King’s brand. In addition to providing background and context for the campaign, the frequently asked questions page addresses some of the types  of questions that can accompany large fundraising campaigns with clear, direct, and informative answers.  

The £500 million campaign will fund needs common to many university campaigns—faculty, programs, facilities, student opportunities, and scholarship funds—but King’s has taken a very different approach in framing those needs. The campaign is organized around addressing five pressing global issues: neuroscience and mental health, leadership and society, cancer, global power, and children’s health. These concerns reflect an intersection of the university’s research strengths, vital global challenges, and philanthropic interest. In addition to the objective of reaching its fundraising goal by 2015, King’s aims to make significant impact in the targeted research areas within a decade. 

Bressor and Bowie both say that constituent and leadership engagement, internally and externally, have been critical to developing strong brands for their campaigns.  

“You work with your university leaders, academic deans, and volunteers through a thoughtful discovery process—auditing, asking questions, digging for points of pride and facts to ferret out strong, clear messages that your campaign can own, adapt, and champion over time,” Bowie says. Once it’s time to go public, the campaign should benefit from the early work that produced not only a good story to tell but also a significant group of storytellers who can spread the word—those constituents who have helped uncover the key messages. 

“We now have volunteer ambassadors for individual areas of the campaign who represent us externally to our stakeholders,” Bressor says. “We know nothing works better to endorse our campaign than those who can talk about it with authority, belief, and conviction alongside staff.” 

Spread the wealth 

In September 2011, the University of Southern California announced its unprecedented $6 billion campaign after a one-year silent phase during which more than $1 billion was raised. “We knew we would have to keep our messaging fresh over six or seven years,” says Sam Lopez, assistant vice president for advancement communications and campaign director. To help create momentum, the university is spreading out the announcements of individual school fundraising initiatives over several years. 

“These kickoffs provide each school with the opportunity to highlight its own academic priorities and fundraising goals within the context of the larger campaign,” Lopez says. “Each kickoff will have a variety of events, gift announcements, publications, websites, videos, email, and social media—all of which keep campaign messages flowing to our audiences.” 

As part of its $1.2 billion “The Meliora Challenge” campaign, New York’s University of Rochester is launching regional campaigns, headed by local campaign cabinets, to help raise the university’s profile across the United States and increase engagement with alumni and friends. The San Francisco Bay area effort was the first unveiled, in June 2012, and approximately a dozen more are planned. 

However, multiple kickoff events aren’t the only way to infuse your campaign with excitement, according to Elizabeth Allen, director of online communications and alumni relations at the American School in London. She suggests building momentum into the campaign communications plan in accessible ways. 

“With the fervor of a campaign launch, there can be a big push for campaign materials that have high production value and significant upfront expense,” says Allen, who often recommends forgoing glossy brochures and lengthy videos in favor of producing new materials along the way. “Create content that is more flexible, [such as] a series of short video clips that can be refreshed, integrated, or extracted at different times throughout the campaign,” she says. 

The Texas Tech University System is taking such an approach with its “Vision and Tradition” campaign, which launched in September 2010 with a $1 billion goal and a multicampus focus: Funds raised will support student scholarships, faculty, and facilities at Texas Tech University, Angelo State University, and the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center. 

“We asked ourselves if a multipage case statement was a best practice we could challenge,” says Robert Waller, director of campaign marketing for TTUS. Waller and his staff set about doing so by investing in the campaign’s website and social media efforts. “For us it made more sense to focus on developing a relationship with our alumni and donors through social media so we could earn their permission to share our progress with them along the way,” he says. 

Waller’s team quickly discovered that there are nearly an infinite number of ideas for marketing a campaign. “The challenge is to be incredibly focused on seeking out the ideas that will have the greatest impact while ruthlessly discarding everything else,” he says. 

USC’s Lopez agrees. “Get to know your audiences and really understand what they respond to before creating new materials that will consume staff and budget resources over an extended period of time.” 

For example, the responses to USC’s biennial alumni attitudinal surveys give Lopez and his team a very good picture of what’s working and what’s not. “Don’t feel like you need to produce something just because your peers are doing it,” Lopez adds. 

Raise awareness 

While you and your team may have been in campaign mode for years, for the vast majority of your institution’s alumni, parents, and friends, the public kickoff is the first they will hear of the campaign. 

When Canada’s University of British Columbia launched its “Start an Evolution” campaign with the twin goals of raising $1.5 billion and doubling alumni engagement by 2015, awareness was the No. 1 objective. “Given that a large part of our target audience was lapsed alumni, it was clear that basic public relations and social media alone wouldn’t work,” says Richard Fisher, chief communications officer for the campaign. “We needed broad-based awareness. We needed to drive people to the website with a consistent, repeated message.” 

To have any traction with a wide audience, the message needed to focus on the aspirations of alumni and prospective donors, not just the university. Fisher, who has a background in advertising, followed the UBC campaign launch in September 2011 with a threemonth multimedia blitz, including magazine and newspaper ads and online videos, all of which were underpinned with search engine ads and optimization. 

Like most institutions, UBC didn’t have a budget for such intensive promotion, so Fisher turned to corporate sponsorship. Companies such as Toronto’s The Globe and Mail,  HSBC, and Microsoft supplied funds or in-kind advertising in exchange for having their logos placed on the ads. This partnership approach helped UBC secure a five-year ad plan with a market value of more than $1 million at about a third of the cost. 

“All [the ads are] designed to direct alumni and donors to our campaign website,” says Fisher, describing the online centerpiece, . “We had never done this kind of dual campaign before—engagement and philanthropy—so we didn’t know what to expect, but we blew through our initial web traffic and social media goals by 45 percent and alumni engagement increased by 50 percent.” 

The site is frequently updated with videos and personal stories that provide new ways for the community to engage with the university.  In its first year, the site saw more than 90,000 unique visitors, and UBC’s social media platforms have grown as well. To keep engagement and web traffic high, the UBC team plans to refresh its multimedia campaign annually to remind its target audiences of the campaign’s goals and maintain awareness of ways to get involved. 

Making the most of an institution’s various communication platforms is an essential part of raising awareness about a campaign. “Immediately following the kickoff, our primary goal was simply to take advantage of every opportunity to keep the campaign top of mind,” says Trevor Durham, associate vice president of university development and director of marketing and communication at Washington State University, which began the silent phase of its nine-year, $1 billion campaign in July 2006 before publicly launching it in December 2010. “We worked campaign messages into the alumni magazine, presidential blog, speaking engagements by university leaders, and at various alumni and donor events throughout the year.” 

A combination of email messaging and video proved successful for TTUS. “When media coverage of our campaign announcement had faded, we posted our campaign video to our website and sent out a simple email to our alumni and closest supporters,” Waller says. Within an hour, students, alumni, and  fans had shared the video through Facebook, blogs, and other online avenues. According to Waller, more people watched the entire eight-minute video on that first day than had viewed Texas Tech’s most popular 30-second commercial on YouTube the previous year. 

“Part of the goal for the video is for people to see it, reconnect with memories of their alma mater, and understand that we have undertaken a campaign,” Waller says. “Donors often ask our development staff about the campaign because they have seen the video, and we can begin a conversation at that point.” 

Show impact 

With campaign priorities and goals set early on, keeping those priorities engaging through a public launch and into the general gifts phase requires storytelling. “A campaign without human stories about impacts tells only half the story,” Fisher says. 

OU’s Bowie agrees, noting her department’s work to keep the campaign message vibrant by featuring stories on the campaign microsite and the university news website about the people who give as well as those who benefit from their gifts. Bowie’s team updates campaign profiles, pictures, and stories on the microsite ( ) each quarter, produces four campaign-related videos each year, and pushes out two to four stories a week on the university news page and social media channels. 

While storytelling is an essential component of effective campaign communications, not all stories are created equal. How can you ensure that yours will be compelling? 

“We have been most successful when we’re opportunistic about tailoring the campaign’s message to trending issues of importance for our audiences at a given time,” says WSU’s Durham. “As rising tuition became a concern, we shifted our message strategy to tell more stories about how students are benefiting through scholarship support during the campaign. As biofuel development to support our state’s aerospace industry began to garner attention, we’ve been able to talk about how specific campaign priorities at WSU will support cutting-edge research in that area.” 

To engage donors, the messenger may matter as much as the message. “When we get out of the way and let our students and faculty tell the story, we always win,” says Susan Evans, a senior strategist with the communications consulting firm mStoner Inc. To that end, Evans recommends crowdsourcing campaign messages by giving alumni, parents, students, faculty, and donors opportunities to share their stories. “Not all messages have to be packaged in carefully scripted, professionally written profiles,” she says. 

The University of Rochester used this approach in creating its “Meliora Moments” microsite (meliora. ), a place for students, alumni, parents, faculty, staff, and friends of the university to share their memories of a time that they were “encouraged or inspired to be ‘ever better,’” which is the university’s motto. Online submissions are simple, as evidenced by the hundreds of people who have shared their stories and photos on the site. The collected moments, which are searchable, are featured on the university’s website and campaign site. 

Social fuel 

Social media channels should have a place in campaigns. One option, Evans suggests, is to push interactive mini-campaigns. For example, reunion giving competitions that can be fueled by social media posts and driven by alumni rather than staff. Such minicampaigns can be especially important for invigorating giving during the middle years of a campaign, when it’s likely that resources won’t be as abundant as they are at the start and finish. Twitter, Facebook, search engine marketing and optimization, and earned media also can help bridge the gap and keep your message alive. In addition, Evans advocates for the use of blogs, which she believes are underused in campaigns. 

“We know that parent giving is on the rise and that this helicopter generation of parents often feels more affinity for their children’s schools than their own alma maters,” she says. “Insightful and compelling parent blogs could make a strong case for other parents to give as the campaign moves forward.” 

Durham supports such experimentation. “You can’t be afraid to take a few chances along the way,” he says. “Having the guts to try something new is often the difference between a great program and one that is average.” 

Social media offer an easy way to float or try out new ideas. Allen recommends using social media channels as a listening post to gather information and for informal focus groups to get a sense of your constituencies before launch, during the campaign, and after. “In addition to helping you tell your campaign story, social tools give you an informal way to test the waters,” she says. 

Even the most thoughtfully planned strategy made at the beginning of a campaign must continually evolve with the institution; its supporters; and the social, economic, and technological changes that occur. For example, when WSU’s campaign began its silent phase, social media didn’t have a major role in any institution’s campaign communications plan. After all, Twitter launched the same month and Facebook opened to the public two months later. 

“Clearly, it is a different world today,” Durham says. “Although it is anyone’s guess what we will be adapting to seven years from now, one thing is certain: Good stories well told will always be at the core of our messaging.”