Fundraising and marketing are intrinsically tied together. See how Kenyon College’s marketing and advancement departments worked together to tell donor stories to pull in new students and transformational gifts.

On January 26, 2021, Kenyon College President Sean Decatur announced a $100 million pledge from an anonymous donor for their upcoming student housing improvement project.

It’s an historic gift, making Kenyon one of only 10 liberal arts colleges to ever have received a six-figure single gift.

Besides getting their place in history, this gift is going to shape the school’s future dramatically.

“To receive this record-breaking gift during a pandemic that is still gripping our country and disrupting our academic year speaks volumes about the strength of Kenyon’s future.”

-President Sean Decatur

Of course, receiving a gift of this size is a daydream for many of us working in higher education.

But it might surprise you to know just how much of a challenge it is to receive such a gift.

But telling donor stories can get you in trouble if the donor is sensitive to having their name splashed across your headlines.

I’ve had the privilege of working on many capital campaigns with my clients, and I’ve also served on the national campaign cabinet for my alma mater. 

And I can tell you this is a challenge for any school that wants to bring in new gifts and steward the current leadership gifts coming in!

That’s why I know you’ll enjoy the conversation Troy Singer and I had on The Higher Ed Marketer podcast with Janet Marsden and Colleen Garland.

In this post, I share some of the big insights we gleaned from this incredible advancement/marketing team.

But there is so much more in the podcast itself, so I encourage you to go take a listen.

Tell the Story of Donor Partnership

One thing Colleen Garland said right out of the gate was how the six-figure gift Kenyon received is the result of a partnership between Kenyon and the donor. 

It’s important to realize that these kinds of gifts don’t come in the door because of some spectacular gift solicitation or project presentation (although those are important).

The gift became a reality because the vision the donor has lined up with the strategic vision of Kenyon College.

Colleen Garlan of Kenyon College shares how they tell donor stories to steward gifts and cultivate new donor relationships.

via twitter.com/KenyonCollege

When a gift of this magnitude comes about, it’s never about the solicitor or the ask, it’s about a partnership. That was definitely true in this case. This is a donor who has cared about Kenyon for a very long time, and they really helped craft and understand our strategic priorities.

 

So while this gift ultimately funds new student housing, it really is funding a key strategic priority by helping us enhance our student housing experience. [This experience] is central to who Kenyon is.

-Colleen Garland

I like how the donor was involved in crafting the strategic priorities. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean the donor created or dictated the priorities to the school, but they were a part of the team who thought through these difficult problems. 

And that led to the donor being a part of the funding of the strategy because…

People are more likely to commit to the plans they themselves helped create.

This really comes into play when you begin marketing the gift and the capital campaign. 

As you tell the story of the gift, it should be a story of a partnership with the donor.

By doing so, you can avoid the pitfalls that come with making the gift all about the donor. 

The communication of the gift was a little bit tricky. It gave us an opportunity not only to tell the story of this amazing gift, but also to help our other donors see that their gifts still mattered!

 

While $100 million is a phenomenal gift, it doesn’t solve every single problem that any college or university has. We still rely on other donors to help us support our students through student scholarships. So it was a win-win for us to both tell the story of the donor, but then also to make the case why gifts at every level are important.

When you frame the story around a shared vision, the focus is on the vision and how other donors can still come in to help make the vision a reality.

via kenyon.edu

Keep the Vision the Center of the Donor Stories

Most donors don’t want you to put them on a pedestal, like some kind of living saint.

Sometimes that’s not true, but it has proven to be the norm in my experience. 

Lots of people simply don’t want the nuisance of all the attention, or they have deeply held beliefs about the virtue of anonymity in charity.

Either way, you don’t want to cross this line and lose a major donor!

Janet Marsden showed us a great strategy to avoiding this pitfall: 

Focus on the worthiness of the vision, not the saintliness of the donor.

We always try to convince donors to share their story, but we respect their wishes. In this case, this is a donor who does not want to be known. I really respect that because they’re putting the college first and they’re putting the purpose of the gift first, and they’re not caring so much about attention to them.

This is an incredible strategy to keep up the energy behind the story – this is an exciting opportunity! – while at the same time keeping within the limits of propriety.

Invite Other Donors into the Story

As you keep the focus on the vision, you can then invite others to join the donor stories.

If the donor story you’re telling is all about how amazing your one major donor or their gift is, then you run the risk of alienating prospective major donors.

How did Kenyon handle this delicate maneuver?

They featured other donors in the donor stories they featured in their messaging. 

via kenyon.edu

You want to be able to acknowledge the role other donors play in this. So in our communications, we had the opportunity to bring in other voices.

 

[We had] alumni reflect on their own experience on campus and how this gift was going towards something that every alum could speak to [concerning] their experience on Kenyon’s campus. We were able to bring in student voices as well. I think that this made it easier to show how expansive [the need is for] Kenyon’s future.
-Janet Marsden

Capital campaigns like this one take years of preparation and untold hours of work from various departments. 

Telling the donor stories that surround the campaign in the right way is critical for ongoing marketing success and future gifts.

Discover more when you listen to the podcast!

Like all of our blog post reviews of The Higher Ed Marketer podcasts, there’s so much more to learn in the podcasts themselves.

Listen to our interview with Janet Marsden and Colleen Garland to get even more insights into how to:

  • Manage donor relationships
  • Adapt your campaign to the COVID crisis
  • Produce videos without an internal team
  • Cultivate teamwork between marketing and fundraising


Don’t want to miss a future episode?

Subscribe to The Higher Ed Marketer podcast today!


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Featured image via kenyon.edu

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