How UCSD Increased Donations Without Asking For Money

You know how you can say a word over and over until it loses its meaning?

Joy Joy Joy Joy Joy Joy Joy Joy Joy

It starts to sound like someone bouncing up and down on a trampoline, right? We use a lot of “power words” in development, and the more we use them, the more they can lose meaning, too. “Integrated” and “multi-channel” have been at or near the top of the list for several years. So let’s stop and talk for a moment about what they actually mean.

Have you ever heard of “parallel play”? This is a term I’ve heard to describe the stage when children play alongside each other, and perhaps mirror each other’s behavior, without actually interacting or engaging. I would argue that much of what we might call multi-channel is really “parallel channels.” Or, as I am fond of saying, “faux integration.” Sending a direct mail appeal and then a followup email is, technically, using multiple channels. But isn’t it really more parallel play than integration?

I submit that an integrated, multi-channel fundraising effort is coordinated, subtle, thoughtful, and employs all possible channels and partnerships. If you’re not considering social media as a critical channel opportunity in everything you do, you’re missing a priceless opportunity to reinforce your messages and engage your donors (and potential donors) where they hang out (and if you doubt the power of social media to drive traffic, check out this hilarious but factually fascinating Buzzfeed post on what happened when Facebook went down for an hour!).

I encourage you to consider social media possibilities as a routine part of your planning process for every solicitation and communication. What are the thematic elements and key messages of the project—and are they things you can communicate effectively and creatively through your social media channels?

I’ll share an easy example:

When I send our annual Dean’s Appeal about supporting academics, I’ll want to leverage our social media channels to reinforce the cool, interesting, important things that are happening in our academic units. Perhaps I’ll even build up to the appeal’s drop date with exciting updates on innovative academic research. Then follow up after the in-home date with a series of short videos from beloved and revered faculty! At the three-week mark of an appeal being in homes (the start of the historical surge of gifts), I could use funny classroom or lab moments to create a Vine and an Instagram video!  The possibilities are only hindered by our imagination and willingness to play in the sandbox together.

Let me point out that the above uses of social media in our Dean’s Appeal didn’t actually include an ask. It’s not all specifically asking, which is why I say that effective and thoughtful integration is done with grace and subtlety. Integrating social media is about presenting a consistent, unified front that reinforces key messages. It’s being intentional about the larger conversation and discourse your organization is having with your constituents. Does what you are saying all add up to something meaningful that resonates or are you creating so much white noise that people can’t hear what’s really important?

I tend to be of the opinion that your social media, with a few exceptions, is not a place to put the “hard ask” (leave this to your online ambassadors, who can challenge their peers in an authentic way). Social media is the place to reinforce your key messages, start introducing new priorities and galvanizing a prospect pool, learn what resonates with your audience, and educate and inspire current and future donors.

Now, just because you don’t always ask for a gift on social media does not mean that it doesn’t yield results.

It does—but you need to be attentive to see them! I’ve tested this time and time again: infusing key messages appropriately into all relevant channels boosts my phonathon and direct mail performance. I’ve compared notes with colleagues, and those who are also infusing key messages throughout their channels have the same stories to tell. Repetition, reinforcement, and a diversity of packaging and delivery in your positioning, illustration, and articulation of key messages will broaden and strengthen your reach for annual and major gifts (yes, your major and planned gift prospects are using social media!). And, if you’re really lucky, you’ll see a direct correlation between social media and funds raised like University of Cincinnati President Santa Ono, who raised more than $1 million through Twitter.

When you’re ready for a little more complexity, stop and think about the unique social personalities of each channel your organization uses. Don’t just copy and paste the same thing into Twitter and Facebook.  They’re extremely different, and as such, the social etiquette is different.

We live in a hyper-connected world where communication paradigms have dramatically shifted. And we’re never going back. This is our world now—and it’s a good thing!  It presents new, exciting, and creative opportunities to evolve with these changes and remain engaged and relevant in our donors’ lives in ways that were unimaginable 15 years ago. Super exciting, right?  Good luck, and I’ll see ya on Facebook!

For ideas on how to leverage social media as a development officer, read this post from Syracuse University’s Dan Klamm.


Meredith Blair is the Executive Director of Annual Giving & Regional Advancement at the University of California, San Diego. She has almost ten years of higher education development experience in annual giving and major gifts with a background in marketing and communications. You can reach Meredith on Twitter or via email at


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