Higher-ed leaders should make college fundraising videos brief, experts say.

Carefully crafted social media strategies and web videos that tug alumni heartstrings could become a foundation of college fundraising as campus officials use dwindling resources to recover from the largest ever one-year decline in contributions.

College operating budgets have stagnated or dropped during the economic downturn, meaning few campuses have funds for pricey mass mailings, open houses, and traveling to meet with wealthy donors across the country.

College fundraising experts instead have turned to less expensive pleas for cash in recent years, hoping well-timed tweets, Facebook campaigns, and high-quality videos will keep alumni attention long enough to secure a donation for a new stadium or academic building in the works.

The results of social media money-raising efforts have been mixed, but at least one school credited online videos spread via eMail for raising $21 million to help pay for two new buildings on campus.

The University of Wisconsin (UW), La Crosse used webcasting to raise $18 million for the Veterans Memorial Field Sports Complex in part by sending specific video messages to groups of former athletes who competed at UW La Crosse during their undergraduate years, said Jim Jorstad, the campus’s director of academic technology services.

The university also raised $3 million in private funds to build the school’s newest academic building, Centennial Hall, which had a price tag of $44 million. Videos laced with comments from faculty members, coaches, and famous alumni proved vital to meeting UW La Crosse’s college fundraising goals, Jorstad said.

“We know that we have 30 seconds to grab their attention,” he said. “And we use a simple formula: I’ll make you laugh and I’ll make you cry. That’s what has to set you apart from the rest.”

Jorstad said interviews with students and faculty members for college fundraising videos are essential, because “it’s hard to create an emotional video of a recorded biology lecture.”

Appealing to the emotions of former students could be a key advantage for colleges as charitable giving has dipped to never-before-seen lows, according to a report from the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), an organization that tracks educational donations nationwide.

Contributions to colleges and universities fell by 11.9 percent in 2009, according to CAE, with alumni giving dropping sharply.

The steep drop came after a decade that saw college fundraising rise by about 4 percent annually. CAE’s report showed that even the largest institutions were not immune to the economic slump that started in fall 2008: The 20 top-fundraising universities in 2009 brought in $7.3 billion, or about $1.1 billion less than in 2008.

Stanford University was the top college fundraiser in 2009, taking in $640 million. Harvard University finished second with $601 million, and Cornell was a distant third with $446 million in contributions.

Contributions from foundations made up 29 percent of higher-education giving last year, according to CAE, with alumni donations making up 25 percent and corporation contributions consisting of about 16 percent.

Ann Kaplan, director of CAE’s voluntary “support for education” survey, said the steep drop in alumni giving could have been caused by “many alumni [giving] through donor-advised funds and foundations,” meaning those contributions aren’t calculated as individual contributions.

Video clips that rely on alumni sentiment aren’t the only ingredients for effective college fundraising, said Sean Brown, vice president for higher education at Sonic Foundry, a company specializing in webcasting for more than 1,500 colleges and schools. Sonic Foundry is the maker of Mediasite, the video program used at UW La Crosse.

eMailing alumni with highlights of presentations from presidents, provosts, and deans, Brown said, can lay out an institution’s plans for a new building in a concise demonstration, using graphs and charts instead of emotional pleas that could be interpreted as vague and uninformative.

This strategy “instantly turns a presentation into something you can put behind a hyperlink and blast out,” Brown said. “People want to know more about where their dollars are going in these times, so there is a lot more pressure on universities to show that in detail. … Video plus presentation material is transcendent in that it brings something that never gets stale, which is human-to-human interaction.”

Marybeth Gasman, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and author of several books on educational philanthropy, said colleges and universities risk “overuse” of college fundraising videos that could lead to spam treatment: See a video eMail in your inbox, and hit delete.

Instead, Gasman said, college fundraising officials should create videos and post them on Facebook, where watching the short clips isn’t as forced as it is when the videos are sent directly to an eMail inbox.

“I don’t think the video necessarily motivates people to give, but it creates awareness,” said Gasman, whose work focuses on philanthropy in historically black colleges. “I think that short, simple messages are best: compelling messages that show success and feature students learning and faculty teaching and doing research.”

College fundraising experts said sending personalized messages to potential donors and alumni is too often seen as hassling among college officials in charge of meeting contribution objectives.

“They see outreach as almost dirty,” said Jay Frost, an international philanthropy consultant who hosted a Pace University workshop, “Fundraising 2.0: Using Social Media to Raise More Money,” in October. “They’re totally wrong. You directly engage them not because you just want their money, but because you care enough to talk to them directly.”

College fundraising campaigns that post a constant stream of social media messages and links on Twitter, for example, won’t hold donors’ attention and could prompt alumni to block their alma mater’s Twitter feed altogether, Frost said.

“Don’t use social media just to send messages out,” he said, adding that universities should track direct messages sent to the school’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and thank alums for re-tweeting their college fundraising messages. “Try to have real conversations with people. … Otherwise, they’re very likely to fall away.”

Colleges struggling to meet their fundraising goals, Gasman said, could take a lesson from President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, which used social media platforms—especially Facebook—to spread its message.

The constant sharing on Facebook—and other sites such as Twitter and LinkedIn—means a college fundraising clip could be spread quickly by alumni who connect with hundreds of family, friends, and strangers via social networking.

“People are well connected online and can use those connections to assist their alma maters or favorite causes with fundraising and increasing the image of an organization,” Gasman said. “Although many individuals are not likely to … ask someone on the street for money, they will fight for a cause or ask others for contributions.”

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