I want your social network

IColumbia University… a prestigious Ivy League institution. They’ve produced plenty of notable alumni like the founding fathers of the United States, some of my personal favorite entertainment stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jenny Slate, and even a few Nobel Peace prize recipients. Needless to say they’re a pretty big deal. (I promise I do not moonlight as an admissions officer for Columbia.)

But then Columbia did something pretty spectacular in the fall of 2012—well, spectacular for people like me who work in higher-ed fundraising. Columbia launched their first Giving Day, a 24 hour digital fundraising campaign capitalizing on an urgent call to action, community-wide competition, and mobilization from volunteers on social media. When Columbia launched its first campaign, they brought in over 5,000 donors, a major accomplishment. Seven years later and they’ve since multiplied the size of the campaign—this past October, Columbia’s latest giving day campaign brought in over 17,000 gifts. Within those seven years, institutional days of giving have exploded and have become the latest digital trend for non-profits big and small. But why exactly is this type of campaign so successful? Well a lot of its success really, comes from tapping into your social network.

Yes, we’ve discovered puppies are the key to successful fundraising.

Make your gift now – no really! (Driving Urgency)

The internet is notorious for how fervently and quickly it digests a topic. This type of fundraising campaign structure not only heavily relies on this phenomenon, it helps foster this quick consumption timeline. Most of these campaigns follow the same general structure with a tight timeframe usually 24-36 hours providing constant updates on progress of fundraising totals while pushing this short term deadline. Here are three tactics that are used to amplify this urgency in waves:

  1. Build hype through a predetermined event date
  2. Gamify the campaign
  3. Empower users with content to share

Ok now sure, some of this is requires pretty traditional marketing. Excitement is built towards a specific giving day “event” date with cryptic announcements and teaser content across web, social, and print channels. I mean, look at this snazzy video from Purdue:

But the second and third points have been significantly facilitated by the momentum of social media and the ability to immediately and consistently report out on results. An element that is critical in giving day campaigns are the “challenges” or goals that incentivize giving across many departments often targeting various audience segments. When met, these challenges will typically either unlock funding for specific programs on campus or comprise of a direct dollar for dollar match of gifts made to a specific area. This allows for a campaign to highlight contributing to a variety of places on campus, leveraging trends of Millennials and Gen Xers giving to crowdfunding campaigns (by featuring distinct areas of campus to appeal to cause based donors) and amplifying the impact of their gift since it will only have the chance to be matched during this very specific time-frame. It is very much playing on your FOMO, and it works.

The third point is where the magic happens. Marketers, myself included, spend a lot of time thinking about our social strategy. How can we produce content that is engaging and sharable? The reality is, your content can be top-notch but if no one is sharing or interacting then your campaign becomes the equivalent of this:

This is why empowering community members with content to share on your behalf is the the single most important strategy for a day like this. Institutions can only reach so many people within their community. With most people receiving 90 emails daily on average and a fraction of alumni following their alma mater on social (for example, BC’s alumni Facebook page has 15,856 followers but roughly 180,000 alumni) it’s hard to get anyone’s attention on a given day. By providing content to a dedicated and supportive cohort of volunteers (or short term social influencers if you will) that share on behalf of the institution, they can reach a pool of users that was largely untapped. Santa Clara University’s recent giving day finished with over 5,700 gifts for the campaign and reported that social ambassadors were responsible for nearly 20% of all gifts that came in through the campaign. Emory’s campaign in February reported that 47% of gifts where tracked to an ambassador referral link.

Powering Up Giving Days (Platforms—not just for Uber)

Online giving continues to see significant growth year after year, allowing this type of digital-only campaign to see growth as well. This adoption of online giving, which once upon a time would overload servers (in fact this did happen in 2016 when fundraising platform Kimbia suffered an outage during a giving day campaign), now makes it easy and seamless for non-profits to manage the resources required to accept hundreds of transactions an hour.

The spike in giving day campaigns has also led to increased competition in the “giving day platform” space. Yes, you heard that right. A whole industry of tech companies specifically focused on providing a one stop shop for non-profits to host their giving day events. This has allowed non-profits of all sizes to run this type of campaign without draining IT resources. These platforms, offered by software companies like Kimbia, Scalefunder, and Snap!Advance are specifically built to provide features that drive the activity these campaigns rely on. These platforms provide live trackers and counters, immediately showing the impact of your gift, progress on challenge goals for up to the minute status updates, and allow volunteers to access your content to share with their network. Social sharing functionality is also everywhere, on the landing page, on your confirmation email, on your post-thank you screen. If you haven’t noticed, social media is a pretty important part of this whole thing.

Scalefunder for example, the platform I landed on for BC’s first Giving Day this past March 12 (you might have seen me tweet about it), encourages you to sign up as a social ambassador with your own account and upon sign up you can begin to track your impact as a volunteer. All gifts made via your referral links are credited to you as a volunteer, allowing for friendly competition among as well as a way to recognize and identify influential advocates for the university. Signing up as an ambassador gives you “exclusive” access to campaign information and ambassador-only updates. It builds exclusivity for this group of volunteers, even through this access is free and open to all. Truly a lot of this is basic social media strategy–I do work in higher education after all when we joke daily about how behind the times we can be. When you get your most powerful community members to share your message with their networks to reach an audience you didn’t have access to, it elevates the impact of your campaign. This has changed how we all approach philanthropy. It’s taking the idea of crowdfunding to a whole new level.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Of course, the major risk of running a campaign that relies heavily on social media, is the potential for messaging to go haywire. Hashtags of seemingly harmless campaigns have been used against orgs:

Oh that’s pretty cute.
Oh yikes.

Which is why my heart sank a little for Northeastern University when this parody poster was shared with me last weekend:

Northeastern is having their third iteration of this annual event on April 11 and along with their pre-marketing content launching, a student mocked these posters up and placed them around campus. This image saw some traction on twitter and reddit over the weekend and although I think ultimately it won’t negatively impact NU’s campaign (last year this campaign had over 12,000 gifts) it is an important reminder of how even the best marketing campaigns are susceptible to fervent public backlash on social media.

Ultimately, these campaigns are pretty successful for non-profits. They make participants feel a part of something significant, they immediately quantify the impact of community support, and facilitate sharing this impact near and far. And although many trends on social tend to die out in a quick cycle, this type of campaign’s potential for staying power looks very positive considering we continue to look to our social networks to make financial decisions.


  1. Great post. I do think “giving day” is a hard pitch to current students (since they are paying so much to go to any college), but it’s great to galvanize the alumni. The problem with social is that the messages necessarily bleed over to the other groups.

  2. Interesting read for sure. I see all types of marketing campaigns form high school, college and soon to be graduate school. Online via social media, direct mail pieces, and text/phone campaigns have noticeably increased in recent years, this is the most concerning thing to me. I give often to the institutions that I believe in, however, these highly targeted marketing campaigns suggest that institutions are struggling financially. Gone are the days of turning a profit based solely on tuition and endowment, my hope is that institutions that are meant to survive the next decade will with the help of their alumni base. Boston College is one institution that is doing very well, as a recent Forbes article suggested BC is one of the top schools likely to be around for another decade. Keep up the great fundraising work!

  3. mckeanlindsay · ·

    I also think it’s interesting how so many people are motivated to get behind a social media campaign focused on charity and fundraising. It’s a great way for people to get their “dose” of giving without being a part of a designated charity, which is something young people are increasingly unwilling to do.

  4. taylorfq6 · ·

    Very interesting to hear about some of the techniques higher education and non-profits are using to hype up their giving-days. There is a lot to be learned here, and some aspects I will take forward as we begin to plan a fundraising campaign for the ski team here on campus. I will say that last poster did crack me up a little bit (but I do understand how your heart could sink being on the other side of it) – I agree with Prof Kane that it is difficult to get current students to support campaigns such as this. One of my, and my family’s, biggest pet peeves is receiving emails and notifications pushing us to donate to BC when tuition is already so expensive (and BC dining runs a monopoly which keeps prices and profits high, etc.). We will see if these sentiments change years down the road when I can fondly reminisce about my times at BC.

    1. cynmzfigueroa · ·

      So interesting you say that about dining because I think this is where my perspective is completely different since I went to GW for undergrad. It’s weird to say but I’ve been so impressed with BC dining since I started working here. It’s fully managed in house, has great options and variety. Our dining services in college were outsourced to sodexo (we always joked it was the lower tier food because they actually did a nice job at catered events), not really anything impressive options wise and was comparable in cost.

  5. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    This is really interesting! I think the idea of giving day is great! It is well intentioned, for a good cause, and incentivizes. People when donating their time or money like things that are concrete. We are human and we can’t help it. However, if there is some goal in mind, or if people can track the givings, they can understand the change. They can visualize how their donation fits into the bigger picture! However, as said previously in other comments, I think it is challenging to do in the context of broke college students. I don’t think it is that students don’t want to, but rather that they don’t have the funds.

  6. licarima · ·

    This is a great post! Giving Day is a huge deal for schools and since my undergrad years I have only seen my university’s social media presence get better and better which is amazing. I think this has a direct effect on donations. There is a line though and I am not a big fan of Northeastern’s tactic, but that is just me. I did my work study in Advancement and Gift Processing so I learned a lot about the way non-profits organize these giving teams, let’s just say there is a full marketing and social media team at the table.

    1. cynmzfigueroa · ·

      Re: your note on the northeastern tactic, wanted to point out that the image here wasn’t NU’s doing! It was a parody poster created by a student on campus mocking the campaign. I would certainly not condone this is a general campaign!

  7. Interesting post! I remember BC’s huge push on Giving Day earlier this month. How could I forget, especially after receiving about six separate emails about it in a 16-hour period? My roommate informed me that she gave $5 and they stopped sending emails. Worth it for me, so I caved.

    Definitely got the gears turning for me a bit. I’m wondering if there’s any precedent to two separate universities (potentially rivals) competing to see who can raise more funds on Giving Day. That would gamify it even more than it already has been, and I would be much more compelled to give money to BC if we were up against BU. College rivalries run deep, and a little friendly competition in fundraising would both schools. Do you know of a campaign like this?

  8. MiriamPBourke · ·

    Giving Days are an entirely new concept to me so I really enjoyed reading about it in your post. I have to admit I was thinking the whole way through that ‘giving day’ was the same day for all schools – similar to what Annie just suggested – I think that would really spark the gamify aspect and I think it totally could bring in some extra donations, ones that were fuelled by rivalry – that being said a united ‘Giving Day’ would likely draw a lot more attention, and with attention comes the risk of unwanted attention which can seriously damage a campaign as you mentioned.

  9. I love the modern take on the phonathon. Giving Day is a great idea that can ride on the coattails of social media trends. The quick click, short attention-span, and often impulse decisions would be applied to these events in an incredibly positive way. After reading your post, I googled giving day and Columbia’s event was the first search result followed by UCSC, Giving Tuesday a global movement, and Cornell Giving Day. The event is also unique in that there is no competition amongst these events, despite the name you are only affiliated with your select alma maters.

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