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What’s next for higher ed fundraising?

Recently, I’ve seen a number of articles warning of the bleak future ahead for higher education fundraising. Certainly, the sector is navigating challenging waters. The national spotlight continues to shine on student loan debt. Conversations continue about the value of a four-year degree. Universities are facing new questions—demand for online 24/7 degrees, regional population shifts, and concerns related to the growing use of AI. And the impending intergenerational wealth transfer raises challenges (e.g., research suggests Generations X, Y, and Z may not prioritize giving to their alma mater in the same ways as Baby Boomers) and urges changes (e.g., adjusting how we engage younger generations as philanthropists).

I recognize these challenges and shifts. I also see great hope ahead. Why?

Universities are studying and responding to changing generational communication preferences.

They’re adapting their strategies and platforms to create engaging content that builds community across younger audiences: students, young alumni, and even prospective students. Consider, for example, the growing popularity of text-to-give and mobile giving campaigns, or the use of social media video to deliver welcome messages and updates.

Institutions, too, are building volunteer networks of student and alumni influencers—such as student philanthropy groups or alumni social media ambassadors—to engage key individuals and creatively reach their larger audience.

Adaptations like these are important. When woven into annual giving strategies, they will make an important difference in whether institutions can attract and retain younger generations of donors.

Universities are evolving and expanding the type and reach of services/programs they provide.

Traditionally, university services have been student-focused resources such as academic advising, tutoring, or writing resource centers. Now, universities are reaching beyond the boundaries of campus to provide programs that address broader needs in their surrounding communities: food, housing, mental health services, urgent (and basic) health care, diagnostic and treatment support for children on the autism spectrum, small business incubation, and so on. This expanded reach has the potential to create meaningful philanthropic opportunities to engage Millennial and Gen Z giving.

Universities are breaking down the historic silos between alumni relations and development.

By joining the offices and staff, institutions create a more comprehensive approach to donor engagement and building a culture of philanthropy. Some schools, for example, are creating more general “engagement officer” positions that include alumni engagement and fundraising goals. Additionally, advancement offices are developing and implementing alumni engagement and alumni affinity scoring to help drive engagement strategy and measure success. Although this is somewhat new ground, we are already seeing increases in alumni giving.

Higher education is one of the primary drivers of social mobility in our country. While program delivery, tuition rates, and other facets of higher ed may change over time, there is enduring value in a degree (especially a professional degree).

Fundraisers will need to regularly assess and evolve how they talk about impact with future generations of donors, but I believe there continues to be an authentic and compelling case for giving to higher education.

Kelly brings a passion for campaign planning and strategy to her work with clients—backed up by deep experience with campaigns as both a leader and a consultant. Heading Benefactor Group’s campaign service line, Kelly advises clients on campaign and donor strategy. She drives innovation and problem solving and fosters collaborative, productive relationships within and between teams.

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