How to approach donors if you fundraise for your university

Student protests don’t put donors off, unless students burn down a building the donor has funded. They won’t invest unless they feel the new building will hold.

This is according to Shelagh Gastrow, a guest speaker at the 2023 Marketing, Advancement and Communication in Education (MACE) Directors’ Symposium held recently at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, in Cape Town, South Africa.

For Gastrow, the #FeesMustFall protests and unrest in 2015 and 2016 in South Africa saw a massive in-pouring of funding from donors.

“Student unrest could put some donors off, while others respond counter-intuitively,” she said.

She pointed out that “donors acknowledge the value of universities”, recognising that universities are the engine room for thinking and producing the next generation of leadership. She stressed the importance of marketing and communication staff working closely to communicate with donors about fundraising. They need to work together on strategy and plans.

If there is a crisis and a university holds a forum for donors, and if its communication is good, “they [donors] will stick with you”. If a university has no relationships and is not out there speaking to people about how things are going to be fixed, “donors could drift away”.

It is best for the university to inform donors of problems and how it is fixing them instead of the donors hearing about it from the news media. “Keep your donors close to you,” said Gastrow.

Tips for fundraising

She provides the following tips for fundraising:

• While the vice-chancellor leads fundraising, the structure of the advancement portfolio at institutions should be headed by a senior director, while marketing and communications, the development office and alumni office, should work closely together and not in silos.

• Start with a case for support. This could be an internal document on why donors should support your institution. This could be used in all kinds of ways in terms of coherent messaging, purpose, strategy and planning, and could include achievements. It could be dissected into different proposals and messages or used as an introductory e-mail. “You need a team to pull it together,” but it does not need to be a big document unless it is for a large campaign, explained Gastrow.

• The development team needs to research donors who align with the university’s different projects and institutional priorities. Choose which donor goes where. This is a massive task and one person cannot do it all. Help with research should be sought from the department that requires the funding.

• Bring donors in and share what you are doing. Introduce them to the dean or head of department. Make them feel comfortable. They could offer you funding and, if they don’t, you could ask if they are willing to support a project.

• Don’t write the proposal first and “never go to the first meeting with a proposal”, cautions Gastrow. At the meeting, listen to the donor’s representatives as they will have their own strategic priorities.

• Every proposal is donor-specific. If you send the same proposal out to different donors, “You are very busy doing the wrong thing,” she asserts.

• The proposal comes after an agreement has been reached. It reflects the relationship between a department and the donor. Every proposal is the basis of a contract and should be written as agreed.

• In terms of donor care and renewal, there needs to be a strong link between communication, marketing and the development office. “Make the experience as pleasant as possible for the donor and ensure that reports go off on time” and be available to answer questions. Gastrow stresses that communication with a donor is very important “as it is more cost-effective to keep a donor than to find a new one”.

• Communications and marketing provide support by designing presentations and materials for meetings with donors. They should produce, for example, Frequently Asked Questions on standards and transformation.

• Some vice-chancellors don’t like fundraising and shouldn’t be in the job, in which case a deputy vice-chancellor or executive director with gravitas and seniority should be appointed to build relationships of trust with donors, advises Gastrow.