Top 9 University Fundraising Best Practices

Top 9 University Fundraising Best Practices

University fundraising best practices

With reduced levels of public funding and increased competition, universities around the world must work harder than ever to come up with the resources to support research and teaching.

In addition to that, university fundraising can be very challenging. Not everyone perceives universities as ‘causes’ – the way they do other nonprofit organizations. This is especially the case in countries where universities are traditionally funded by the government.

This makes it very difficult for fundraisers to communicate to the public the importance and purpose of universities, as well as the wider positive impact they have on the society.

Universities, instead of relying on their core funding, greatly benefit from diversifying their income sources. These additional funds help finance projects and activities that the core funding can’t. They can help extend and strengthen the university’s research programs or better the learning environment so that all students can prosper.

University Fundraising Best Practices – Donorbox Curation:

1. Mind Your Communication

Communication seems to be the key to everything, and university fundraising is no exception.

Your communication should be down to earth and focused on the donor, not your university. Here’s how King’s College London phrased it:

Your gifts help King’s to support the brightest and best students in fulfilling their potential, whatever their circumstances and regardless of their background or financial need. In addition, your immense generosity is enabling us to offer scholarships and bursaries to more students than ever before.”

In addition to that, make a convincing case for your university. Your communication should be clear and compelling, articulating clearly why someone should donate to your university.

It could be helpful, for example, to explain how education can help transform communities and even the world, and how its impact extends beyond individual students or even universities.

2. Focus on Community Building

Universities that have been the most successful in fundraising are those that have been able to build and sustain thriving communities. Many universities start trying to create a community amongst their alumni, but community building can and should start with your students.

Foster a collaborative culture by making sure students, staff, and alumni have plenty of opportunities to work together on projects and initiatives. Take some time to come up with unique traditions that students will remember for years (e.g. songs or dances).

Creating a sense of community also relies on creating a sense of common purpose. Encourage students to get involved in volunteer groups and clubs.

Don’t stop at building a community of students and alumni, but also reach out to and involve the wider community.

Putting on a range of events is a great way to get students to begin to create a sense of community. Make sure your events are varied and well promoted.

When reaching out to alumni, take the time to understand their needs and wants, and think about how you can help each other.

Finally, one of the most effective, albeit arguably the most obscure and difficult, ways to build a community is to create a ‘brand’ – a strong and unique identity for the university that people buy into and will pay premium prices to be a part of.

3. Offer Specific Projects or Campaigns

Instead of simply soliciting donations for your university’s advancement and growth, present your potential donors with a couple of specific projects or campaigns to choose from.

For example, Indiana University allows its donors to give to a variety of causes – from a scholarship endowment for the IU School of Medicine to the school’s Improv Program.

UCLA’s site hits a lot of the right notes for a university comprehensive campaign site. Their menu of “Causes” allows donors to choose a cause they care about and choose a project within each Cause that they wish to donate to. They even have “Find a Fund” page with progress bars for each fund.

The benefit of allowing donors to see and donate to specific initiatives lies in their relatability. Some projects and programs will be easier for donors to relate to and will be closer to their hearts than others. Understand the donors’ passions and interests, and use that to drive offers that the donors will want to fund. This is a much more effective approach than pushing university “priorities” on the donors.

You could ask your donors to support a particular strategic initiative that your university needs help with, whether that’s building a new lab, replenishing the school library, or supporting promising students with their research.

Naturally, there are also benefits to unrestricted giving. Unrestricted giving enables your university to address its most pressing needs, whenever and wherever they arise. It’s likely that offering both options to donors is the most effective approach, but only you will know what works well for your university’s unique circumstances.

4. Offer Multiple Ways to Give

Offering multiple ways to give increases your chances of receiving a higher number of donations. By doing this, you ‘cover your grounds’ – making it simpler for more people to give.

For example, MIT has prominently displayed their ‘Ways to Give’ on their Giving website. They offer the opportunity to ‘Give Now’ (Credit Card, Check, Wire Transfer, Stock, Mutual Fund Transfers and Donor-Advised Funds), to ‘Give Over Time’ (Recurring Gifts, Multi-Year Pledges, Electronic Funds Transfers, Payroll Deductions), and ‘Learn More’(Planned Giving, IRA Charitable Rollover, Matching Gifts, Memorial & Honorary Gifts, International Gifts, FAQ).

By offering many different ways in which their community can give to them, MIT ensures that everyone finds something that works for them – whether it’s a one-time donation or a salary deduction. Such an approach promotes inclusion.

In addition to that, offering multiple ways to give creates multiple revenue streams – which always contributes to the financial health of an organization.

5. Pay Attention to Donor Stewardship

The term stewardship covers the administration of gifts and the overseeing, protection and care of your relationship with a donor to strengthen and preserve that relationship over time. (

Every donor, regardless of the size of their gift, should be well-stewarded. Good stewardship creates a positive experience for the donor, who is then likely to stay on, give again, and give more.

Naturally, how the donor is stewarded will depend very much on the capacity of your university. If your university has thousands (or even tens of thousands of donors) – you’re doing a great job – but it’s also close to impossible for one or few people to personally steward all of them.

Although every donor should be stewarded, the stewardship should be proportionate to the size of the gift and the donor’s expectations. Major donors usually expect a personal relationship, invitations to events or maybe even a mention in your annual report. It’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the expectations of your major donors during the solicitation phase.

There are many things you can do to effectively steward your donors: efficiently process their donations, thank them in a timely manner, publicly recognize them, invite them to events, send them progress updates, send them photos and videos, share stories of impact, and more.

6. Integrate a Donation Form on Each Page

By integrating a donation form on each one of the pages on your giving website (or if you have a single giving page), you make it easier for your website visitors to give to your university.

Here is an example of The American University of Rome that used an integrated donation form on their giving page.

They suggested several different donation amounts and ask their donors what their donation should be used for (a creative approach to the Best Practice #3).  They also ask their donors if their donations can be made public, which is also a good case practice.

To integrate donation form on your web pages, use Donorbox – used by The American University of Rome. Donorbox is a powerful and effective, yet affordable, donation system which helps you easily accept both one-time and recurring donations.

Donorbox is:

  • Super-quick – It only takes about 2 minutes to make a donation.
  • Versatile – Embed your donation form into any website and email.
  • Customizable – Make the donation forms your own.
  • GDPR-friendly – Be compliant with GDPR regulations.
  • Secure – All transactions are protected by SSL/TLS technology.

7. Showcase Impact

“University of Michigan defined social impact as “a significant, positive change that addresses a pressing social challenge. Having a social impact is the result of a deliberate set of activities.” 

A minimum consensus exists on the fact that social impact should be more than a marginally positive change, and one that impacts a broader social issue.

To raise funds, universities need to clearly demonstrate the impact of their programs and initiatives. Today’s donors are increasingly interested in knowing where exactly their money goes. They want to see the positive impact of their donations and are curious about the effectiveness an organization’s programs against its stated objectives.

To respond to this need, make sure your giving page(s) showcase multiple stories of impact – for example, in the form of videos or blog posts. Share infographics to present data in an interesting way.

Naturally, to be able to do this, you need to be evaluating your programs and measuring your impact. Here’s a blog post where we talk about measuring impact.

The University of Texas giving page does just that. Their website is a good example of how to organize a lot of content into a single page format. Their visuals (the opening image and message) are compelling and inviting.

They show exactly how much money was raised and what it was used for. They share stories of students and faculty and the impact the donations had on them. The site also features the President’s letter, which is inviting and convincing.

8. Philanthropy is Alive and Well

Philanthropy is nothing new, but that doesn’t mean it should be taken for granted or not paid attention to. There is a long history of universities receiving donations from wealthy individuals. Medieval European universities, such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Bologna, relied on powerful patrons. Philanthropic donations are usually donations that come from foundations, corporations or wealthy individuals.

A study in 2012 for the National Bureau of Economic Research shows philanthropy in the USA contributed more than $4 billion annually to operations, endowment and buildings devoted to scientific, engineering and medical research. When combined with endowment income, university research funding from science philanthropy was $7 billion a year. This provided almost 30% of the annual research funds of those in leading universities. (

When developing your fundraising strategy, have philanthropic giving in mind.

Philanthropy can have a significant impact on your university. Large gifts, especially if they’re with ‘no strings attached’, can fund majorly transformative programs. They are more likely to enable more risky, innovative, and entrepreneurial initiatives at your university. This is especially true when compared to usually conservative government funding.

It is very important, however, to not get carried away by the size of the gift if that gift will significantly jeopardize the freedom of your university.

9. Get on Board With the Digital and the New

While philanthropy is an invaluable source of income for universities around the world, you should strive to achieve a balance. It’s not financially healthy to depend on one sole finding source (e.g. philanthropy).

For example, peer-to-peer fundraising can be a great option for recently graduated alumni. Many of them are likely to still be paying off their student debt and might not be able to donate. Allow millennials to use social media, something they’re experts in, to give back in a way that’s achievable to them.

Offer first-time donors a comfortable entry level for giving, to ensure as many as possible take up the opportunity.

Use Facebook’s Donate Now button. The Donate Now button is a quick way for alumni to donate to the institution without having to leave Facebook. Enable a text-to-give option.

Recruit social media ambassadors amongst students and alumni and make your giving page online top-notch. Visuals and messaging are also incredibly important.


University fundraising has always been ‘big’ in the United States where contributions to the nation’s colleges and universities reached a record $43.60 billion in 2017. UK universities follow suit. By some estimates, Harvard receives an average of $3 million a day. Oxford and Cambridge have conducted successful £1 billion campaigns. Stanford has an endowment of more than $20 billion and received four gifts of at least $100 million in 2015 alone.

However, university fundraising is growing in other countries too. Sorbonne University’s Foundation has launched its first fundraising campaign “Welcome to the Future”. Its goal is to reach 100 million euros by 2022. This is the largest university fundraising campaign ever conducted in continental Europe.

This reflects the new challenging reality for universities. Governments in many parts of the world are cutting their funding, so universities are forced to adapt fast.

To survive and thrive, in today’s environment, universities need to significantly invest in their fundraising capabilities. They need to become professional and successful in attracting donors, stewarding them, running campaigns, and managing large gifts.

We hope these insights and best practices will help your university meet its fundraising goals.

Ilma Ibrisevic is a content creator and nonprofit writer. She’s passionate about meaningful work, sustainability, and social movements. If she’s not working, she’s obsessing over coffee or cooking. You can connect with her on Linkedin.

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