Case Study: How Vassar Used Crowdfunding to Invigorate 65+ Years of Alumni

It costs a lot to run a school, and as with other top colleges and universities, Vassar College in upstate New York derives a good portion of its operating budget from alumni donations. Each academic year, this fundraising is handled under the umbrella of Vassar’s Annual Fund, which is run by the school’s Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development– the dual Latin suffix of which honors Vassar’s pre-1969 status as a “Seven Sisters” women’s college with alumnae, not alumni.
Vassar’s Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development (OAAD) solicits donations to the Annual Fund via postal mail, telephone, and email, as is done at other schools. But Senior Director Willa McCarthy and others at the office had been watching crowdfunding emerge over the past few years, and thinking, “Hmm– how does this apply to what we do?”
Their initial instinct was that it couldn’t collect all of the data that they had traditionally needed to properly process and acknowledge the gifts and donors. But meanwhile, various donors were telling them that they didn’t like Vassar’s online giving form, which was focused on capturing this data. The abandonment rate of that form was too high, and alumni were telling them, “We just want to give.”
Early last year, Westoboro Baptist Church decided to picket at Vassar, as part of its ongoing “God Hates Fags” campaign. In response, Vassar alumnus Josh de Leeuw set up a crowdfunding campaign on Crowdrise to organize a counter protest while raising funds for The Trevor Project , which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBT youth. Josh’s campaign targeted $4,500– he said, “we are going to protest for 45 minutes, let’s see if can we get $100 per minute.” But the campaign went viral , brought everyone together, and totally blew through that goal, raising over $100K from thousands of donors, not just within the Vassar family. (Meanwhile, in realspace, Westboro’s four picketers were met with over 2,000 counter-protesters.)
Vassar’s professional fundraisers were fascinated to see this, to see crowdfunding associated with Vassar for the first time, and how it tapped into the Vassar community. Alumni told them, this is great, you need to enable us to do something like this– not just donate, but participate in a shared experience.
In addition to the big Annual fund, OAAD also helps with other fundraisers. They run the student gift campaign for each class, where current students pool money together and distribute it towards something that their class as a whole votes for. This year, all four classes voted to put theirs into the Internship Grant Fund, which subsidizes students’ living expenses while they do unpaid or low-paying summer internships. The office also raises money for class reunions, and the Class of 1989 had recently told them that they wanted crowdfunding for their upcoming 25th reunion.
So the office knew that they needed a Vassar-branded crowdfunding portal that would enable them to run multiple campaigns, and own the back end and all the user relationships. They looked at various platforms and decided on Launcht, a Pennsylvania-based crowdfunding tech company that has deployed customized versions of their white-label platform for other schools.
Rediscovering the Pledge Drive
Willa and her Annual Fund team also learned that other schools’ development offices were having success with 24-hour fundraising participation challenges. Some of these were pegged to Giving Tuesday, the day of online giving that follows Thanksgiving, while others were scheduled on days that had special significance for the particular school. Helpfully, Illinois Wesleyan University ran a webinar on how to conduct these pledge drives, based on the experiences they gleaned from their successful “All In For Wesleyan” campaign last July. Willa and her team learned a lot from it.
Vassar’s Annual Fund traditionally does four email fundraising appeals to Vassar alumni throughout the academic year, starting in the fall. The biggest is the second one, in December, which coincides with people’s year-end giving, which is sometimes done for tax purposes. The third appeal, in February, was always their lowest-yielding one, probably because it follows December.  Willa wanted to experiment with something more interactive and donor-centric, like a pledge drive– an experience rather than a routine solicitation. So she thought, why don’t we try one of these 24-hour campaigns for our February appeal? We really have nothing to lose.
The Vassar 500 Campaign
The Annual Fund team wanted their crowdfunding appeal to emphasize participation rather than gift amount, to appeal to younger alumni and plant seeds for the future.  Some younger donors had told them that they didn’t think donations really mattered below a certain amount, and the Annual Fund team wanted to convey that the relationship isn’t just about how much you give. They wanted to tell everyone, particularly younger alumni, that any gift was fine.
The team didn’t know what number of participants to shoot for, so they looked at how many donors their previous February email campaigns yielded. The best one had gotten 508 donors over the course of the week, from a series of 3 emails.  So for this 24-hour campaign, they set their goal at 500 participants. But that was a blind guess; they didn’t know if it was realistic.
Meanwhile, the team approached a three-generation Vassar alumnae family, grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter, and asked them if they would be willing to help the challenge by offering a large contribution as a bonus gift, predicated on whether the campaign met its 500-donor goal. They generously agreed, and this upped the ante, making the goal more meaningful.
The team scheduled the event for Thursday, February 20th. Inspired by Illinois Wesleyan, they originally thought of calling it “All In For Vassar.” They asked the current president of the Vassar Student Association, Deb Steinberg, to write the appeal letter. She agreed, and also recommended changing the event name to “Vassar 500.” So they did.
The Annual Fund team went wide in promoting Vassar 500. With previous email campaigns, they don’t include alumni who have already contributed during the current academic year. But with Vassar 500, they didn’t want to leave anyone out, so they prepared slightly different letters for each group, to send out to everyone. The letter to the donor group included an extra sentence acknowledging and thanking them for their recent donation.
Two weeks before the campaign, they emailed a heads-up to all of their volunteers, which includes the correspondents and fund chairs for each alumni class year, class presidents, reunion planners, regional Vassar clubs, and Vassar affiliate groups. They all received a volunteer checklist that asked them to participate in the Vassar 500 campaign and to spend 20 minutes that day putting the campaign out on social media. The Launcht platform facilitates this, with share buttons for all major social media on the campaign page.
OAAD only has postal addresses for many alumni, not email. So for them, they also sent out a paper mailing telling them about Vassar 500, and saying that any mail donation postmarked by Friday Feb 21st would count in the tally for the $175k bonus. Just as that mailing was about to go out, the Northeast got hit by an epic snowstorm that shut down mail delivery, so they slipped in an extra insert saying that the mail-in deadline was extended to the 28th.
On February 19th, the day before the campaign, the Annual Fund sent out a first email, telling people that tomorrow is an important day for Vassar College, so be sure to check your email tomorrow. Then, the morning of the campaign, we sent out the appeal letter from the student association president.
The Big Day
On February 20th, within four hours of when the Send button was hit on the appeal letter, the Vassar 500 campaign hit its 500-donor goal. So they quickly changed its name (and goal) to Vassar 1000. As Willa McCarthy recalls, “It was a blast– everyone in our office was glued to the screen, answering emails, watching the numbers go up. One woman from a 1940’s class called us and said, ‘This is so much fun– I’ve had the page open on my desktop all day. It’s so fun to watch that I almost forgot to donate myself– can I donate now?'”
A few things happened that the Affairs team wasn’t anticipating, but nothing bad. A credit card data breach through Target stores had recently made headlines and the office received phone calls from people who liked to avoid entering their credit card numbers into websites, but wanted to donate by reading the number over the phone.
After a few of these calls, they added some wording on the campaign page telling people that that calling in their credit card numbers was an option, and giving the phone number.
Another surprise was that about half of the gifts came from alums who had already contributed in the current year. The Annual  Fund team didn’t expect that, but it validated their decision to appeal to current donors. They were also surprised and pleased to see how different alumni classes got competitive with each other. Alumni asked how their class was doing compared with other classes. At the end of the campaign, they posted as a campaign update the leading classes for each decade, e.g. the top-donating class from the 1970s, from the 1980s, etc.
The team also didn’t expect any large donations to come through the crowdfunding campaign, but they received several that day, including $3k, $5k, and even a couple of $10k donations.  They received donations from every Vassar class going back to 1945, and double-digit participation numbers from every class since 2000– but that wasn’t surprising; they expected the younger classes to participate the most.
Through the weekend, after the online campaign had officially closed, Willa continued to receive emails, “Oh no, I wasn’t on email– can I still make donation under this challenge?” She told them yes, so long as they went through by Monday.
By end of day Friday, February 21st, The Vassar 500 campaign had raised almost $150,000 from 1,230 online donations, and the team is still tallying the donations from the paper mailing. As Willa notes, the campaign wasn’t just energizing for the donors, it was also great for her staff. All of Vassar OAAD, not just the Annual Fund team, watched the campaign closely and was thrilled at how it went. On Friday, Willa brought cupcakes around to whole team.
By all accounts, the Vassar 500 campaign was a great success, although Willa says that they still need to dive into all the data and think through what happened and what it all means. She anticipates that they will probably do campaigns like Vassar 500 again, once annually– but that more often than that would probably wear out its welcome. The main “lessons learned” for her are how to support such campaigns internally. Next time, they need to have clear processes in place beforehand for the gift recorders; they need to dedicate one or two staff to answering the phone, and make it clear from the beginning that people can call in their donations; and they need to set their participation goal higher.

Case Study Review: The Vassar 500

Vassar College launched its 24-hour campaign, The Vasaar 500, on February 20, 2014.
Its goal was to engage 500 alumni donors; engagement, not dollars, was priority so it intentionally emphasized the number of participants.
On Feb 20th, the first day of the campaign, the 500-donor goal was hit.
So they changed the name to The Vassar 1000!
By end of day February 21st, the campaign had raised nearly $150,000 from 1,230 online donations. (The team is still tallying donations from paper mailing.)
Donations were both large and small; the largest was $10,000.
Donations came from every Vassar class going back to 1945. (And double digit participation from every class since 2000.)

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