Ask anyone working within earshot of a university campus, and chances are good that they’ve recently been a part of a comprehensive fundraising campaign. More than ever before, universities – public and private, large and small – are leveraging intense, coordinated efforts to raise transformational resources and rally their various constituencies around inspiring future visions.  And it’s easy to see why. There is arguably no more powerful tool than a campaign to foster donor enthusiasm, create a sense of urgency and focus, and raise the overall baseline for fundraising. According to a recent CASE campaign report, nearly one-fifth of surveyed institutions reported that they raised between 176%-200% more during a campaign than during a non-campaign cycle. That same study indicated a dramatic increase in mean campaign fundraising goals within the sector, driven in part by more frequent mega-campaigns launched by large, complex universities.

The transition of comprehensive fundraising campaigns from infrequent appeals to ubiquitous, ambitious ventures yields a new paradigm for higher education institutions: whereas it was once reasonable for universities to plan for five or more years between major fundraising efforts, in response to growing fiscal pressures and shrinking public funding, many institutions now experience truncated “down-time” between virtually overlapping campaigns.  In extreme cases, organizations embrace “continuous campaign mode,” quietly preparing for the next comprehensive appeal before ending the previous one. Needless to say, this rigorous campaign cycle generates novel challenges and opportunities for universities, conjuring a new set of strategic questions and concerns, such as:

  • How can universities sustain momentum and positive energy during the ever shorter timeline between campaigns?
  • How can they best build upon past campaign achievements to raise their fundraising baselines and maximize the potential of their fundraising programs?
  • How can they avoid donor and constituency fatigue in the era of “continuous campaigning?”

University of Florida: A Case Study

The University of Florida (UF) is no stranger to such lines of inquiry. Founded in 1853, UF is the state’s flagship public research university, serving a student body of 50,000 and faculty of 4,000 on an expansive campus in Gainesville, FL. Over the years, comprehensive fundraising campaigns have been critical to the institution’s financial strategy, providing essential resources to support its student, faculty, research, academic program and capital needs. UF has completed three campaigns to date, beginning with its first comprehensive undertaking, Embrace Excellence, which ended in 1991 with $392 million raised on a $200 million working goal. Two additional campaigns closely followed: Performance that Counts (1996 -2001, raising $851 million on a $500 million working goal) and Florida Tomorrow (2005-2012, raising $1.72 billion on a $1.5 billion working goal). The University is now in the silent phase of its fourth campaign, Go Greater, scheduled for public launch in October 2017.

Between the successful close of Florida Tomorrow and the start of counting for Go Greater, UF made a concerted effort to sustain fundraising momentum, continue to excite donors (and therefore prevent donor fatigue) and more meaningfully involve academic leaders and volunteers in the institution’s fundraising success. Before cheers from the Florida Tomorrow finale had even subsided, UF rolled into what university advancement leaders dubbed a “bridge initiative,” a three-year, $800 million quest to raise private support for its faculty while it laid the groundwork for the next multibillion dollar effort. 

Building and Sustaining Momentum Between Campaigns

UF’s “between campaigns strategy” comprised three primary elements: Stewardship and Gratitude, Post-campaign Assessment, and Effective Staffing Constructs.

Stewardship & Gratitude

As with any major fundraising initiative, the Florida Tomorrow Campaign served as a powerful platform to rally donors around the University’s long-term vision. With an unprecedented 384,752 individuals contributing to the campaign, UF knew that it had to step up its stewardship game. To demonstrate the university’s appreciation with the pageantry and personal touch its constituents had come to expect, UF structured a number of successful stewardship initiatives, getting even more creative about how it honored and celebrated its many donors. During its “Because of You” gratitude tours, the University President and other academic leaders took to the road, making 11 stops in key university alumni and donor markets including Atlanta, Miami, New York City, Houston and Washington DC. Fundraising staff likewise followed suit, hand-delivering specially commissioned orange and blue candy dishes to anyone who made a gift of $100,000+ to the campaign. The advancement office established a new award, the “Presidential Impact Award” conferred by the University President on those individuals who most deeply impacted the campaign and UF’s future trajectory. A coordinated stewardship calendar culminated with a two-day end-of-campaign celebration, during which the campaign’s many stakeholders – donors, students, faculty and university leaders – were invited to join together in festivities.  Returns on these stewardship efforts were unmistakable and nearly immediate: donors committed more than $800M in the campaign’s final push, establishing 54 endowed chairs and professorships and 121 endowed scholarships amidst the excitement and revelry of the campaign’s close. 

Post-Campaign Assessment

UF’s advancement leaders had experienced first-hand a campaign’s dual capacity to energize and exhaust constituents. In the final months of a multi-year, intense fundraising effort, when staff vigor tends to flag, UF Development sought to foster a greater sense of ownership, accountability, and focus among its fundraisers to sustain fundraising pace and momentum through the campaign’s approaching finish line. Via a weekly dashboard report, UF Development summarized and communicated visit, proposal and commitment activity from the previous week, celebrating “small victories” and fostering laser-like focus on Florida Tomorrow’s ultimate goals and each staff member’s respective role in realizing those objectives. Shortly thereafter, the data-driven insights continued with a formal post-campaign audit completed by CCS following the end of campaign celebration. Through strategic interviews, data analysis and benchmarking, CCS evaluated campaign successes and fundraising program strengths, revealing twelve areas for future investment to ready the University for subsequent fundraising campaigns.

Effective Staffing Constructs

The period of self-reflection and visioning that immediately followed Florida Tomorrow likewise served as prime opportunity to further mobilize academic leaders, advancement staff and volunteers around UF’s fundraising future. At this time, University Advancement established several new internal fundraising committees – including the Dean Directors Development Council (populated by select deans and academic leaders who serve as strategic partners and liaisons between development and the academy) and the Leadership Council (a committee of senior advancement leaders tasked with developing and implementing strategic, campaign-related initiatives). Complementing these internal bodies was a major overhaul to UF’s external volunteer structure. The University launched its National Leadership Board, which served as a platform to formally engage alumni across the world in an advisory capacity, deliberately downsized its fiduciary board, and clarified best practices for volunteer leaders.

CCS Takeaways

University of Florida’s strategic approach to its fundraising campaign cycle embodies several powerful lessons for the higher education sector:

  • In today’s competitive fundraising and higher education landscape, there is no “downtime” between campaigns.
  • Never underestimate the power of a genuine, memorable “Thank You.”
  • Campaigns are enormous undertakings that can feel overwhelming and abstract. Take a lesson from the campaign handbook: people respond to specific deadlines and targets. Breaking down the comprehensive effort into manageable “vignette” initiatives with specific goals and deadlines helps keep the team motivated and on task.
  • An effective team approach to a campaign starts with carving out compelling platforms that organize and engage key constituencies like volunteers and deans.

About the Author

For nearly a decade, Kimberly Kicenuik Hubbard has helped develop major gift, volunteer engagment and campaign strategies at more than a dozen premier research universities and academic medical centers (including Brown, University of Florida, University of Missouri, Rutgers and the University of Miami). Serving as campaign counsel, she provided strategic oversight for development initiatives, identifying opportunities to enhance philanthropy (particularly principal and mega giving), productivity and efficiency across her clients' respective advancement divisions.