Reigniting Donor Confidence: Does Higher Ed Need a PR Boost?

Stelter Client Strategist Jana Cobb returns to the blog with ideas on how fundraisers can address their donors’ confidence in the value of Higher Ed.

If you’re spending time in the higher education sector, you’re acutely aware of a pressing challenge: the decline in the American public’s perception of the value of higher education. There have been a number of recent articles and reports on this topic shared by Gallup, Forbes, The New York Times Magazine, US News and Inside Higher Ed, to name a few.

The sector has been under scrutiny in recent years, with questions surrounding rising tuition costs, student debt and perceived return on investment. For fundraisers and stewards of philanthropic efforts in colleges and universities, it’s crucial for you to address these issues head-on and, more importantly, to reignite confidence in your institutions.

The Power of Perception

A recent Gallup poll found that only 36% of Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education. That’s down from 48% in 2018 and 57% in 2015.The largest decline in confidence was among adults aged 55 and older where there was a 24-percentage point drop since 2015.

Digging a little deeper, there is a bright spot. When it comes to individuals with either a college or postgraduate degree, the survey did reflect that this group was most likely to express confidence in higher education.

Regardless of whether your fundraising audience consists of alumni, faculty or friends, the decline in public perception is a challenge that can’t be underestimated. The implications for fundraising could be significant, making it harder to secure support from donors who may be questioning the wisdom of investing in higher education.

Accentuate the Positive

As you think about asking your donors and prospects to consider major and planned gifts, emphasizing the positive outcomes and impact that your college/university is achieving is vital. Reinforce the transformative power of education and its role in shaping the lives of students, and the impact you have in your broader community and the world at large.

Student Success Stories

Tell the story of a student who, through the support of generous donors, has successfully completed their degree and is now embarking on a bright, promising future. Showcase alumni who are excelling in their careers, thanks in part to the education they received at your institution. Use direct quotes to highlight the role your college/university played in their journey.

Community Engagement

Showcase the ways your institution is actively engaging in the local community. Highlight initiatives, partnerships and outreach programs that demonstrate your institution’s commitment to improving the lives of those living within the area. Whether related to community development, healthcare, social services, etc., photos and quotes from community members can boost donor confidence by showing the positive impact school-sponsored programs are having on residents. This can help inspire donor involvement in supporting these beneficial programs.

Global Impact

Donors want to know that their investments have far-reaching effects and potential to help solve challenges facing our society today and into the future. Detail original research, discoveries and innovations from your institution that have had a positive impact on national and global issues.

Building Donor Trust

As you know, building and maintaining trust is paramount in fundraising. Donors need to feel confident that their contributions will be put to good use and make a meaningful difference.

  1. Transparency. Be open and transparent about how funds are used. Share success stories and concrete examples of how donations have contributed to achieving your institution’s goals.
  2. Accountability. Demonstrate accountability by regularly reporting on the progress and results of your fundraising initiatives. Donors want to see that their investments are making a tangible difference.
  3. Social Proof. Sometimes we look to others to tell us how to behave. By spotlighting supporters who are choosing to invest in the future of your institution, you are helping build donor confidence. Creating the feeling that “people like me are doing things like this” can be very powerful.    
  4. Stewardship. Cultivate a culture of stewardship within your institution. Show donors that their support is not a one-time transaction, but the beginning of a long-term partnership focused on positive change.

As professionals in the fundraising space, we should always keep focus on reigniting the passion and strengthening the trust in our colleges and universities. By highlighting the positive outcomes and impact on students, local communities, and the broader world through research and discoveries, we can show donors that supporting higher education is not just a wise investment, but an imperative for a better future.

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