In the face of declining public trust, your college or university can ensure fundraising momentum with these strategies.

Building trust in your college or university is more important than ever to maintain giving levels. Public trust in educational institutions is declining overall. Political polarization continues to heighten leading up to the US presidential election, which can be a recipe for increased criticism and controversy. Higher education institutions are not immune, as evidenced by the recent congressional hearing and subsequent resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania’s Liz Magill. Confidence in higher education has declined steadily over the past decade, with 57% expressing a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in 2015, compared to 48% in 2018 and 36% in 2023.

Your college or university can’t control the volatile tides of politics or public opinion, but you can control how you communicate and engage your constituents to uphold your brand. We have outlined three guiding principles to help you build trust in your higher education institution and maintain fundraising.

1. Focus on your college or university’s impact

Revisit your higher education institution’s mission and strategic plans and take an inventory of your communication and marketing pieces. Are you telling a consistent story about your impact on students, alums, and the broader community? Do these align with your stated vision?

Get clear on your value proposition. What sets your institution apart? These differentiators are important for enrollment and fundraising. Feature stories of students, faculty, successful alums, innovative programs, and leading research. Gather and share data validating your impact (e.g., job placement rates, percent of students receiving scholarships or grants, participation rates in unique experiential learning opportunities). Use all communications channels (e.g., website, social media, direct mail, e-newsletters) to cohesively share these stories to provide proof of your positive impact. It’s hard for critics to argue with specific stories of impact backed by data.

In addition to protecting and promoting your brand, impact stories inspire higher giving levels. The number one donor motivation is the perceived or real impact of their gift. Fold this into your stewardship practices to ensure that your donors can see how they support your mission in specific and tangible ways.

2. Proactively engage your college or university’s audiences

In many public relations crises, a common misstep is poorly timed communication. Information can be leaked and misconstrued by the media to create controversy. A preventative approach to avoid this is regular, proactive outreach to your constituents to keep them apprised of your unfolding initiatives.

The COVID-19 pandemic opened new and creative ways of engaging with constituents virtually. You can continue to leverage this technology to share key updates and invite conversations with alums, donors, parents, and the broader community. What in-person and virtual events does your institution offer throughout the year? Are you reaching all your key constituents? Might there be an opportunity to offer a webinar in which the president or key campus leaders provide updates?

When your board is considering key policy decisions, think through:

If you need additional support, have PR firm(s) in your back pocket. You can consult with your marketing or public relations team and/or contact peer institutions to gather information on firms they may have used.

3. Empower your volunteer leaders as school ambassadors

Your college/university’s board members and other volunteer leaders are your strongest advocates. Equip them with stories and proof points they can easily share with their families, colleagues, and peers. This will amplify and provide credibility to your positive messaging efforts.

Gather quotes, video testimonials, or develop stories around these volunteer leaders to illustrate their commitment and confidence in the institution. As alums, donors, and community leaders, your volunteers exemplify your institution’s impact. Showcase their accomplishments and tie this back to their experience at your college/university. You might consider capturing their responses to the following questions to ensure fundraising trust:

Thoughtful Donor Engagement Builds Trust in and Credibility for your college or university

It is a challenging time for higher education amid declining public trust and increased political polarization. Fundraising professionals at colleges or universities can successfully navigate these challenges by consistently promoting positive impact stories, engaging proactively with donors and the wider community, and empowering volunteer leaders as advocates. These three guiding principles will help to maintain fundraising momentum while strengthening the trust and support of your biggest school advocates over the long term.

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