Where their story begins
As the COVID-19 pandemic developed, Ulster University (UU) identified that it could play a key role in joining the nation-wide effort to increase coronavirus testing capacities. The unique location of its world-class research facility (NI Centre for Stratified Medicine) at Altnagelvin Hospital in Derry meant it could work directly with the local health trust to increase capacity for testing.
The University’s researchers were acutely aware that swift and accurate testing would not only help to curb the spread of the virus but that it would also help to protect thousands of NHS staff members and other care staff serving on the front lines.
The UU Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO) worked with a Professor of Biomedical Sciences, who had identified and secured an essential piece of equipment, as well as accompanying supplies, that would increase coronavirus testing abilities tenfold. To cover the costs of the equipment and supplies the team quickly launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise £100,000.
Feeling that their alumni and the local community would be receptive to such an ask, DARO committed to the project but they knew they’d have to move quickly. Just days after learning of their researcher’s needs, DARO launched its fundraising appeal on the university’s crowdfunding platform. 48 hours later, the Ulster University community had contributed well over the amount needed, raising £112,000 from 1125 donors.
Collaborating on the project allowed DARO to publicly demonstrate the key role the University was playing in supporting the NHS and other key care staff. Encouraging support in this way also meant the wider NI community, Ulster University staff and its graduates were able to learn about the ways their generosity could make a difference in a time of much-needed hope.
Here, Kathy Morrow, Development Officer within the Office of Development and Alumni Relations at Ulster University tells us their story.
Deciding to move forward
Hubbub: How did the team acquire the initial funding for the project and why did you decide to raise what remained through crowdfunding?
Kathy Morrow: Prior to the pandemic, a major gift had been secured for a student travel project to Boston. However, with travel being limited and the trip cancelled, we approached the donor who agreed that their gift could be transferred to this project instead. We also secured an additional £25,000 from a local stakeholder once they had become aware of the project.
With £63,000 already raised from our major donors, DARO decided the easiest and most efficient way of raising the rest of the monies would be through our crowdfunding platform.
Choosing the right medium to make the ask
H: Were there particular ways in which the crowdfunding platform enabled you to run a more successful appeal?
KM: The capabilities of our crowdfunding platform lent itself very well to the needs of the project and how we would encourage donors to make their gifts. Because we were already well-versed in running projects on the platform, and could easily set up projects ourselves, we didn’t need to wait for our website team, or other departments, to take action.
As for the features of the platform itself, we were able to provide a more engaging experience for potential donors by including a video from the lead professor. We felt that hearing an authentic and genuine voice that was directly associated with the project would be really important to the success of the project.
Another feature of the platform that was key to our success was the ability to post updates on the status of the project to keep those following the project informed. We posted three updates, one of which was an additional video from the lead professor as to how the campaign was progressing, that it was currently over target and an update as to how additional funds beyond the target would be spent. This was a quick and easy way for us to communicate with those who had already donated, as well as those who had maybe yet to donate but may have had questions about how additional funding would be used.
We also used the updates section to send a ‘thank you’ message from the Director of DARO after the close of the campaign – notifying donors of the total raised and that the equipment was en-route. Because the updates would also trigger an automated email to those who had either pledged or donated, this made communicating with our community a really easy process.
Compared to the experience donors would receive through our standard online donation page, it was obvious that a crowdfunding approach would leverage further donor support - meaning we could more easily reach our target.
Promotion was key
H: What was your strategy in terms of how you would promote the project?
KM: We worked with colleagues in Marketing and Communications to promote the project as well as an external agency to deliver digital assets and a targeted digital marketing campaign.
Working closely with MarComms was critical to the success of the project. We only had two days to launch and had decided to run the project for just five days to stress the urgency to our donors.
In terms of working with the external agency, this primarily focused on using the assets they had created to run targeted advertising campaigns on Facebook and Instagram. To make sure that we could target a wide audience with our advertising we allocated a budget of £3,000.
We also sent an email asking for contributions to the project to alumni world-wide as well as staff at the University. As the project had a tight deadline we also followed up on the Friday before the project completed with a secondary update and ask. While we wanted to act quickly it was important that we retained some kind of personalisation and segmentation with the emails we sent to our alumni. Four alumni emails were produced including regular donors; recent donors; lapsed donors and all others (non-donors). The emails were also short in length, directing alumni to continue their journey by learning more via our crowdfunding platform.
A tremendous response
H: How did the response to the appeal make you feel?
KM: The response we received was amazing. Running a project with such a tight deadline can be nerve wracking, however, we felt really confident that our community would respond - and they did! Not only was it wonderful to see the response from our alumni, so too was the response that we saw from our wider community surrounding the institution. For members of the local community and our staff, this was the first time they had given to the University. We’re looking forward to welcoming them as donors and nurturing those relationships.
The project has also been a huge success story internally for our team, championing DARO’s vital role within the institution. It’s being held up as an example of excellence within the University, which makes me very proud.
Support when we needed it most
H: How did the team at Hubbub help you to prepare?
KM: The Hubbub team were incredibly helpful. We needed their help to make sure that everything was set up correctly in the backend of the platform to ensure that we could effectively run tracking and retargeting campaigns on social media. Tom and Lewis connected directly with our agency to make sure that this could happen quickly - as well as lending their own expertise when collaborating with the agency. This was really helpful to maximise the campaign and ensure we could track the campaign accurately.
What's next and looking forward
H: What's next in terms of this appeal, as well as longer-term?
KM: Once the appeal finished, our community was still very interested in contributing to projects at the University that continued to aid the pandemic. To allow donors to keep giving, and to ensure they had the same experience as the original project, we created a follow-up project on the crowdfunding platform. While this project also focused on further testing needs, it also allowed us to extend into any other potential research needs our colleagues may come across.
Having the ability to run the original time-limited project, as well as the ability to run a long-standing ‘evergreen’ project, really showed the flexibility of the platform and its ability to meet our changing needs. Running the appeal in this way was also a useful demonstration for our team of how to run a fully comprehensive digital campaign. An exercise we now feel more confident in and will certainly be repeating in future.
Longer-term, the University is currently developing plans for a Graduate Entry Medical School (GEMS). Due to the success of this appeal, we have an engaged group of more than 1,000 donors who now share an affinity for supporting medical-related priorities. The appeal has allowed us to make the needs of the university more widely known. We’ve extended beyond our own pool of contacts and have reached out to new communities - developing relationships and engaging everyday people as to the difference they can make.
This is first-time that DARO and the central university have collaborated on an appeal of this kind. Working together in this way has played a major role in championing our expertise and our ability to react quickly to support the vital needs that play to the strengths of the institution. As we continue to collaborate with central university leadership on other funding priorities, we feel this appeal will have a significant impact on what we can achieve in the future.
To learn more about this appeal, as well as others being conducted by the team at Ulster University, visit their crowdfunding platform here.
To see how crowdfunding could benefit your institution, visit our product page here.