Where their story begins
When the University of Essex decided to use crowdfunding as a way of rejuvenating their donor participation numbers, they were keen to reach out to the University’s wider alumni community. They knew that there were more potential donors out there, however, they were frustrated with the limited way in which they were able to encourage support from their alumni.
The more traditional giving methods were a challenge for the team at Essex. They experienced limited success from direct mail and telephone campaigns, which had given them a stable donor base, however, they felt they could do more to increase donor numbers by tapping into a more digital-first approach.
James Martin, Senior Philanthropy Officer at the University of Essex, talks to us about how their crowdfunding journey started and how crowdfunding helped them to quadruple donor numbers in their very first year.
Starting on the right foot
Hubbub: 38 projects in the first year is pretty impressive. How did you encourage so many projects to take up the offer?
James Martin: We really wanted crowdfunding to work for us. We knew, however, that the only way to guarantee its success was to make sure that everyone, especially students, knew about the opportunity. So we set out on a brand awareness mission.
We put a lot of thought and effort into the brand of our programme, coming up with the name ‘Click’ and the tag line ‘Help is only a ‘Click’ away’. We felt it would grab the attention of our primary audience (students) and that it would help the idea stick. Luckily, it worked! Between having a great brand and focusing heavily on project recruitment, we were able to launch with nine excellent projects.
Making project success a priority
H: Project success can be a hurdle for students. How did you help projects to be successful once they launched?
JM: Just as other crowdfunding programmes had done, we made it a priority to support student-led projects with all the advice and guidance we possibly could. Supporting our project creators requires quite a bit of someone’s time and we didn’t want this to be a barrier to project success. To help with this we created a new role within our team whose responsibility it was to recruit and support successful projects. Without this additional resource to the programme, our success would have definitely been hindered.
Engagement beyond donations
H: Did you see a difference in the engagement of your alumni once they had decided to support a crowdfunding project?
JM: We did. Not only was the programme an excellent way of increasing overall donor numbers, but it was also a great way to learn more about our alumni and other donors. Once a donor made their gift to a project, they were also asked about the other ways in which they might like to engage with the University, as well as providing more up-to-date contact details.
Previously to encouraging alumni support through crowdfunding, we had lots of lost alumni who we weren’t able to connect with. However, once they became engaged with a project as a donor we were able to develop a better, more mutually beneficial, relationship with those alumni.
If you are thinking about adding crowdfunding, or any other digital methods for that matter, into your supporter engagement strategy it’s worthwhile to think about how the collection of quality data can improve the relationship that you have with your donors.
A winning retention strategy
H: You’ve got quite a robust strategy when it comes to retaining crowdfunding donors, which sometimes can be a worry for others considering crowdfunding. Can you tell us more about how you retain so many of your donors who support Essex projects?
JM: We wanted to make sure that when donors gave, especially those who were alumni, that we had a way of keeping them engaged beyond their first gift. To do this, we created a variety of avenues that would keep donors involved with not only the project they supported, but also with similar projects that they might also like to support.
We created a dedicated Twitter channel that donors and other project creators could follow to stay updated, as well as a newsletter and blog. We also use the categories in the platforms ‘Explore’ section to sigh-post previous donors to other projects they might be interested in.
A culture of giving
H: Lastly, how has establishing your crowdfunding programme helped to create a stronger culture of giving on campus?
JM: Every year the University hosts a summer social for staff, as well as our donors. The entire event is a cause for celebration, highlighting the achievements of the previous year and recognising the success of our amazing community. During the event, our team is invited to speak about projects supported by the generous contributions of our donors, including those supported through crowdfunding.
Not only is this a great way of reporting back to our donors, but it also highlights to staff and students that philanthropy is happening all around them. Once the formalities of the event have finished, we always have a few of our current crowdfunding project creators standing by to demonstrate that support for these kinds of projects is an ongoing activity.
Where are they now?
Since their launch in 2015, Essex has supported more than 320 projects to raise over £256,000 from 4,590 donors. In 2017, James and his team won a Heist award for the Best Alumni, Development or Fundraising Initiative. Today, the team continues to see crowdfunding as an integral part of their fundraising and engagement strategy.