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8 innovative university fundraising ideas from California

Giving Days



I recently visited California to research the annual giving practices of its great universities. Here I’ll present some of the innovative ideas they’re putting into action – perhaps they can inspire your next groundbreaking campaign!

#1 Ask for more than money

When we think about philanthropy within our communities, we usually focus first and foremost on monetary donations. But is that all we mean by giving?

Each year UC Riverside holds a Day of Service to encourage its students and alumni to form groups in support of their local communities – wherever they live in the world. This year, activities include cleaning Santa Monica Beach and working in a food bank.

This can be a great way to help instil an ethos of philanthropy in communities and potential donors. This type of giving is more personal, lasts longer than a phone call, and feels great!


#2 Make it a competition

What do student dorms rate above all else on campus? Bragging rights! So why not take advantage of that by making giving into a competition?

Every year at Harvey Mudd College, students take part in a two week student philanthropy campaign to see which dorm can achieve the greatest participation. A student philanthropy committee polls students to find out where the money will go (this year they created a fund to subsidize student mental health services) and appoints ambassadors to lead their dorms. Now in its 4th year, Harvey Mudd students can boast 43% participation across all classes!


#3 Create touch points

CSU Northridge has a unique way to make senior class gifts personal and meaningful, while also raising some money as part of their annual ‘Grad Fest’.

When graduating classmates go to rent their cap and gown, they are also asked for a $5 gift to the university in exchange for a “spin on the wheel”! At graduation, donors are invited to do exactly that, winning prizes such as “Class of 2016” sunglasses, bottle cap openers and t-shirts.

Winning these branded gifts serves to increase their affiliation just as they leave the college. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the impact of their gifts with the graduating class. 50-60% of graduates give each year, and many more give again after spinning the wheel!

Students celebrating at graduation

#4 Provide the white glove treatment

Want to know how UCLA raised over $500k through crowdfunding? They dedicated two full time staff to their program, who were able to give a “white glove consultancy service” to project creators.

Naturally, the more prepared and supported students and student groups are, the more funds they are likely to raise. That said, don’t be afraid to give project creators some “tough talk” about what needs to be done to raise funds – sometimes the gloves need to come off!


#5 Choose your cause

Does your institution have a particular cause? Most would struggle to give an affirmative answer. Not so at the University of La Verne: ‘access to education’ is their overwhelming focus, with 64% of their students the first from their family to go to university.

This cause is central to their campaigns and events – none bigger than the Annual Scholarship Gala. And who would you expect to speak at the Gala? Students, of course – those who have benefited personally from scholarships, and have “appealing and meaningful” stories. This year the Gala raised $500k – now that’s a day of giving!


#6 Go beyond the database

Once your institution has a cause to focus on, you can start to think about how it will appeal to networks beyond your own alumni base.

That’s what California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) did for their previous campaigns – they reached out to philanthropists with an interest in art. The result was that a large number of their donors now have no pre-existing affiliation to the institution!

It’s also worth mentioning that donors are invited to the campus before they are asked for donations – thereby showing the result of previous gifts to the institution.

CalArts Donor Honor Roll

#7 Remove all restrictions

Is it best to place restrictions on gift destinations? This is a tricky question, and one worth considering, and if necessary, reconsidering.

To show how lucrative a shift in policy can be, consider Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, which recently changed to allow all donors the opportunity to give to any area of the university they want to. This saw the annual fund jump from $1m to $2m in the first year it was implemented, with it now sitting at an impressive $3.3m.

San Luis Obispo is probably the most beautiful town I’ve been to, so I thought it deserved its own place in this post…

The beautiful landscape

#8 Keep asking

In its first year, UC Berkeley’s program has funded 28 projects, for a total of $242k. I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Ryan Lawrence, Crowdfunding Manager at Berkeley – one of the handful of universities to appoint a dedicated crowdfunding expert.

Similar to UCLA, above, Ryan delivers a “consultancy service” to project creators. His one key tip for crowdfunding success was this: keep asking! Most potential donors don’t respond to the first request, so make sure that your project creators keep pushing (politely). Many people want to give, and they just need to be asked at a time that’s convenient for them.

Another great method they use to boost projects is to send regular email newsletters to all contactable alumni, promoting projects that are close to ending – 20% of donations have come about as a result of these emails.

Drawings and post-it notes

Hopefully these ideas have helped to stimulate the creative juices, and will assist our readers in coming up with new and innovative ways to raise funds! The lessons I learned in California go far beyond what I have been able to include in this post, and I plan to share them with the sector as best I can over the coming year.

I want to say a huge thank you to all those who shared their time and expertise with me. Many thanks to: Kirsten Jasna and Lily Barger (UC Riverside), Jessica Berger (Harvey Mudd College), Santiago Almaguer-Delgado (University of La Verne), Jeff Klein (CSU Northridge), Jarrett Oakley (UCLA), Aiza Keesey (CalArts), Chris McBride and Melody Klemin (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), and Ryan Lawrence (UC Berkeley).

Duncan Knox

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