How DonorSearch Helps Higher Education Increase Donor Counts and Revenue

The already challenging task of fundraising at non-profit colleges and universities has been further complicated this year. A firestorm of politics hit Ivy League institutions as well as many other centers of higher learning throughout the nation. Combined with economic challenges and a negative overall trend in giving, political issues rocking campuses are causing big problems for schools—even if they’ve tried to avoid the conflict in Gaza entirely.

It’s not all negative news though. More and more colleges and universities are finding a way to reverse negative trends in giving. Their solution? The unparalleled data generated by DonorSearch’s AI-driven tools.

Returning to the political clash that’s become frontpage news across the nation, it can perhaps best be understood by focusing on one of America’s most prestigious universities, the legendary Ivy League institution of Harvard. Billionaire and long-time Harvard donor Bill Ackman claimed at the end of 2023 he knew of more than $1 billion in potential gifts to Harvard that would be withheld due to claims of antisemitism on campus. Other prominent donors like hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who has gifted more than $500 million to Harvard, has announced they are withholding donations as well.

According to the New York Times, early applicants to Harvard dropped by 17% even as they increased at other Ivy League schools. As Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld explains, “Despite near 400 years of history, the value of brand equity is nowhere near as permanent as Harvard trustees think it is. There used to be a term in the industry of something being the Cadillac of the industry. Well, Cadillac itself is, you know, sadly not the Cadillac of the industry anymore.”

Certainly, fundraisers and leaders at non-profit colleges and universities may read about Harvard’s troubles and conclude they have nothing to do with the challenges they face. After all, most campuses did not have massive protests as seen at Harvard and USC. Also, many higher education institutions have far fewer large donors than Harvard, and also don’t enjoy Harvard’s astounding $50 billion endowment. This may all be true, but all colleges and universities need to add increased focus around fundraising. Why? The political strife at Harvard masks a deeper and more concerning problem about negative macro trends in individual giving facing so many American nonprofits.

As the Chronicle of Philanthropy reports, individual giving is expected to fall to 62.8% of overall giving from 64% in 2022. Also, the number of American households giving to charity dropped from 66% to less than half as of 2021. Why does this matter so much in higher education? Because most colleges and universities don’t have the high profile megadonors of Harvard and Yale. Instead they rely on those individual donors comprising their alumni and the local community. In other words, the very donors who are trending downwards and also suffering from economic challenges like inflation.

Thankfully, DonorSearch helps higher education nonprofits reverse the downward trend in giving by concentrating efforts in the right direction. Our clients are often shocked (then thrilled) at the number of prospects DonorSearch and its AI-driven data identifies. These include people and organizations they may have never spoken to before. Meredith Cope-Levy of Hollins University explains DonorSearch data uncovers “hidden gems” the university didn’t have on their radar. She adds, “DonorSearch has been particularly useful in finding those people who are consistent donors but are under-giving. People who clearly care about the mission but haven’t received the cultivation from us necessary to move them to the major donor level.”

Sabrina Latham of the University of Alabama at Birmingham shares a similar story: “DonorSearch let us drill down on data and find very interesting prospects we didn’t have on our radar before. We’ve uncovered a lot of new donors, and it has re-engaged our development officers in a way we haven’t seen before.” Latham explains how the university has received some major gifts simply based on a qualification visit after DonorSearch identified a new prospect. She adds, “It’s been kind of wonderful to see!”

DonorSearch Executive Vice President and Co-Owner Sarah TeDesco explains further, “Americans are still philanthropic at heart. Alumni still have the same feelings about their alma mater as they did before the pandemic and the recent economic and political struggles that have gripped the country. But in a society that bombards them with transactional donation requests, colleges and universities must be more focused than ever on building engagement and connecting with the right prospects. DonorSearch has the right tools and data to help every higher education nonprofit achieve their fundraising goals.

To join colleges and universities like Rutgers and the University of Buffalo that are achieving new levels of fundraising success based on DonorSearch data, please contact our client success team for a demo today. And if you are an experienced non-profit professional interested in helping new nonprofits build for future success every day, consider a career with DonorSearch.

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