How to Design and Run a Successful Class Gift Campaign

In 2011, I was the co-chair of the senior class gift at The College of William & Mary. With full confidence I can say it was both the most challenging and most rewarding experience of my college career. After the year-long campaign, my team ended up breaking every senior class gift record with 79% participation—all cash gifts, no pledges. The following are some bits from our story—maybe it will help some of you loyal EverTrue readers out there.

If what you’re given doesn’t work, build something that does.

In the beginning of my senior year the Development office informed me what the senior class gift campaign should look like, the size of my budget, and precisely what I was supposed to spend that money on. At the same time, previous chairs of the gift told me what they’ve always done and gave me some advice:  Accept everyone onto the committee, go with a mass-marketing approach, and try to hold on.

I spent some time visualizing all this, and I promptly scrapped it.

If your class gift is generally unsuccessful year after year, it’s time for a change. Don’t be afraid to start from scratch. Don’t be afraid to say “no” to people in authority, ask for a bigger budget, or rebuild the foundation.

For me, my whole strategy was going to be different. Instead of a walk-on committee, I needed a selective, tightknit, committed team of all-stars. Instead of a top-down storm of advertising, it was going to be a bottom-up campaign based on engaging with individuals, emotionally. It was going to be more difficult, but I believed it was going to be more effective.

Have a vision.

Having a vision is incredibly important for two reasons. First, it helps you and your team navigate. The vision is your goal, and nothing should keep you from reaching that goal. To achieve your goal you must break it up into smaller goals and move forward on them every single day.

More importantly, however, the vision is what binds. It will not only bring you and your team together, but if you do it right it will begin to fill the hearts and minds of your whole graduating class. Remember: the vision is about the community, not you. Your role is to be the unwavering champion of this vision, constantly moving towards the goal.

For me, the only way I was going to build this campaign was if it was going to be the best senior class gift W&M had ever seen. (Why else would you waste your time?) My vision was to break the fundraising record by creating a culture of life-long giving back to the College.

Surround yourself with people better than you.

Building your team is the most important set of decisions you can make. Sit yourself down and ask the following: What kind of skills and people does this campaign need to be successful? What are my capacities? What are the gaps that need to be filled? Set the bar high—you can accomplish extraordinary things with a great group of people.

One of my first steps was to identify two rock-stars out of my graduating class to be my co-chairs. I was looking for people who could not only run a student organization successfully, but could run several at the same time. Brian and Wesley were absolutely phenomenal and more importantly we worked well together. Remember—you’re probably going to hang with these people enough to make your significant other jealous.

My co-chairs and I then selected about 25 seniors from our applicant pool. Every single person brought something special to the table—it’s important to bring the right puzzle pieces together. Don’t compromise.

Build a good team culture.

My favorite aspect of building the committee was taking a group of 25 individuals and transforming them into a one unified group. The group then trained to become one capable team. Then we broke them down into smaller teams. I wanted our teams to be lean, flexible, and effective.

You already know leading a team of 25 seniors—crazy enough to work on a year-long campaign during their final year of college—will be tough. Nothing can derail you faster than some baby-mama drama. Avoid that by focusing aggressively on creating a great team culture. The first step is to make sure every team-member makes the vision of the class gift their own. Promote transparency, fun, and creativity. Listen to every team member and empower them to tackle big goals. Any time you spend promoting culture is time well-invested.


People make decisions emotionally. Understand that quickly. The typical strategy is to pitch your classmates all the reasons why they should give to the gift, and all the cool stuff they’ll receive once by doing so. Wrong.

The better (and more difficult) approach is to ask your classmates what’s important to them. What do they care about in terms of your university? What student activity/class/professor/organization has affected them the most in the past four years? What will they remember? Why? Once you can understand where they’re hearts are, you can begin to make the connection between the things they care about and the importance of giving back to the gift.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking, on any level, that your campaign has anything to do with you or your team. Your campaign is all about your college community, all day long. What can you be doing to ensure you are listening and learning from everyone in your class?

Reward loyalty, and escalate.

One of my biggest mentors (although he doesn’t know it yet) is Seth Godin. He wrote Permission Marketing, which just may change the way you look at the world. One central premise of his is to escalate permission to change “strangers to friends, and friends into customers.” Try to incorporate this as much into your campaign as possible. Create an incentive and reward structure for interacting with your campaign.

They “liked” your campaign on Facebook? Maybe they’ll be interested in attending this event. Did they come to this event? Maybe they’re interested in talking to someone about what they care about on campus. Did they participate in the gift? Maybe they want to talk to a friend about doing the same. At every step be personal, be generous, be honest and always be escalating permission.

Help others help others to believe.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment. Visualize your graduating class. What do they look like? Who is standing with whom? How would you sort them?

I remember I saw a landscape of overlapping circles. Big circles, small circles, some circles had clear, bold borders while others were faded. But while every senior was a part of at least one circle; most were a part of several.

In my eyes, the best way to make an emotional connection with people was through their affinity groups. For example, a fraternity is one circle. If I can’t reach you through your fraternity, I’ll reach you through the service trip you went on last summer, or your academic department. My goal was to reach critical mass—once enough of every circle was feeling the campaign, it would spread rapidly to all the others. Starting with person one, I was going to touch all 1200 people in my graduating class.

Your primary function, all day everyday, is to help people believe in your vision. But that’s not all—once someone believes, how are you empowering them to help their friends also believe?

Take care of yourself.

My co-chairs and I had a recurring joke—that at the end of the year the three of us would suffer from ulcers. Funny, right?

Make no mistake, if you’re going to spend a year asking broke seniors for money, you’re going to be a little stressed. Big lesson I learned: stay centered at all costs. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably all or nothing. If you really believe in something, it becomes a part of you—you don’t know how to separate yourself from your goal and your team. And that’s a beautiful thing. But you’re no good to anyone if you’re off-balance and not at your best.

So sleep. Eat well. Go out with your significant other. Do stupid things with your friends. No matter how excellent your campaign will be, you don’t want to look back upon your final year of college and regret not doing something. Balance is impossible, but always strive for it.

If I Could Change One Thing…

Without any doubt if I could go back in time I would incorporate more tech into the campaign. A mobile app would have been incredibly helpful from day one. That’s why I’m so pumped about EverTrue. I could see it accelerating engagement and communication, freeing up the committee to focus on other things. And taking gifts by mobile phone? I love it. Can’t wait to see how EverTrue changes the development game in the next few years.


This is post is by Michael Tsidulko. Michael is an active volunteer and proud alum of The College of William & Mary, and a recent graduate of the inaugural class of the Boston StartUp School.

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