Campus Crowdfunding: A Way To Solve the Young Alumni Engagement Puzzle?

These days, graduating from college can be a bittersweet time. You get your diploma, a proud moment, and then move on to the storm and stress of finding employment and starting a career. Not long after they don that cap and gown, many graduates also face two more hallmarks of modern post-collegiate life: their first student loan statement and the first fundraising ask from their alma mater. 

Unsurprisingly, cash-strapped grads just don’t see why they should donate, especially as they face down those monthly loan payments. Alumni fundraising so soon after graduation can rub salt in a financial wound, and that’s bad news for colleges and universities. Early patterns of alumni giving, even in modest amounts, make it far more likely that the same alumni will give in a major way later on. Fewer young donors now means fewer big gifts down the line.

Kestrel Linder, CEO and co-founder of the fundraising platform GiveCampus, sees the disconnect with younger donors as a communications challenge. Schools simply aren’t engaging recent alumni the right way. Sometimes, technology is the issue: Mailers and even emails can be less likely to catch the millennial eye. And tone-deaf direct appeals coming in with those first loan statements don’t help, either. 

The GiveCampus solution is crowdfunding. The tool gives schools an online platform designed to facilitate fundraising through social media-enabled campaigns. Linder’s startup takes its inspiration from general-interest crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe, but restricts giving to campaigns that—with a few exceptions, like class gift committees—go directly to school coffers. 

GiveCampus campaigns can support anything from scholarships to student clubs, class gifts to facilities upgrades, athletics to acappella groups. They can also be unrestricted. According to Linder, educational institutions enjoy a fundraising advantage other nonprofits lack: ready-made communities of alumni who know each other and pay attention to what their friends are doing. GiveCampus gives schools a way to activate those communities, establishing that coveted pattern of early giving. 

Unlike another online giving startup we recently profiled, GiveCampus doesn’t channel itself through the big names in social media. It’s a separate social platform, despite the fact that most of those alumni communities interact on Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Campaigns on GiveCampus require marketing, and the site provides tools to help an initial body of interested donors share giving opportunities with the wider community.

The question is whether that wider community will actually find a giving campaign worthwhile. Increasingly, says Linder, donors want their money to have a demonstrable impact on campus, rather than simply to demonstrate loyalty and appreciation. At Inside Philanthropy, we’ve been tracking how more donors are skeptical of campus giving compared to other priorities—like, say, fighting malaria—or even hostile to universities that they see as inefficient and inattentive to student needs. Tuition costs are the elephant on the quad, here, with many young alumni resentful of the debts they've incurred at institutions that haven't worked hard enough to control costs. 

Community engagement on social media is a two-way street. GiveCampus makes it easier for schools to connect with younger alumni, but it also gives those communities a way to sound off on administrators’ policies and priorities. Over 200 schools now use GiveCampus, possibly opening the way among donors for those conversations—and assuring young alumni that their concerns are being heard.  

GiveCampus is a very promising addition to the roster of startups seeking ways to revolutionize online donor engagement. But in the end, we suspect that until colleges and universities do something to address the tuition crisis, engagement from younger alumni will continue to lag.