How To Have a Top 20 Giving Day

It has to be a really tough meeting. That meeting in January when the entire advancement team is sitting around the table, looking at the numbers, and the year does not look good.

Many schools know that feeling. With giving rates declining steadily over the last 25 years, these meetings are becoming all too familiar. Let us add to the scenario the fact that this meeting is happening in the middle of winter in Houghton, NY. Bleak describes the feeling both inside and outside.

For Rick Melson, Vice President of Advancement and External Relations, and his staff of 26 at Houghton College, despair was not an option. Out of this meeting came opportunity.

“We needed to do something different,” Rick recalls. “We had a member of our staff who had been researching one-day giving campaigns, and we believed this would really resonate with our community.” Not only did it resonate, “it exceeded all of our expectations!”

Over the next four months, the Houghton advancement team worked quickly and furiously in all aspects. The team was already an integrated one, but the big undertaking necessitated tremendous collaboration. Major gifts secured the matching big donors, while annual fund and alumni relations worked to secure the messaging and inform key stakeholders of the impending plan.

According to Rick, social media—Facebook, YouTube, #onehoughton on Twitter—played powerful roles, especially when it came to engaging younger donors.

“Engaging millennials was a key goal to this campaign. 27.9% of donors on the day were from the classes of 2000-2014. By using technology and social media, we superseded our dollar goals way beyond our expectations. This has helped us turn the tide of declining alumni rates; the day brought alumni giving up a full percentage point.”

Rick pointed to social media as the mechanism that fueled young alumni giving.

“The demographic proportions were exactly what we needed. These young alumni did not just give a buck—they gave real money and helped us blow our goals out of the water.”

Rick also credited the faculty and staff at Houghton, whose giving rate last year was a whopping 80%! He said it was hard not to get swept up in the momentum of the giving day.

Houghton’s campaign yielded $749,000 from more than 1,300 donors in a single day! The work was not over at that point, however. Houghton’s One Day Giving Campaign was strategically placed on a Friday so that the Houghton team could work around the clock that weekend to get everything in order. 1,323 individual handwritten thank you notes were sent, gifts were processed, and history was made.

So will Houghton do it again?

“We learned a great deal from the four crazy months last year,” Rick says. “We are following the other schools that are a year or two into their recurring giving days, and we gained so much knowledge from doing it ourselves. We have already started our planning for this year with a real focus on a much more calculated roll out.” The first time around, the Houghton team announced its One Day Giving Campaign the day before the actual event.


Here are Rick’s core takeaways that will help you and your advancement team as you embark on your own one-day campaign:

1. Simplicity

Be sure to create a unified, straightforward message. This singular focus helped Houghton rally people around the cause and understand why they were giving.

2. Institutional Buy In

This was a complete team effort. From prospect research and major gifts to social media and communications, everyone played a pivotal part. The day’s success would not have happened if the team was not all in.

3. Goals

Set goals and strive to exceed them. Make those goals known. This builds momentum and helps snowball the effects of that momentum.

4. Think Outside the Box

Your school has a unique alumni base. Cater to your alums and make this experience stand out from the impersonal asks they’re receiving from other fundraising organizations.

5. Follow up!

Thank your donors and friends individually and authentically. This brings everyone into the fold and makes them much more apt to be there when you need them the next time around.

As Rick alluded, Houghton is not the only school finding success with one-day giving campaigns. You can view the full list of last year’s Top 20 Advancement Giving Days here.

Are you and your team going to do a one day giving campaign this year? Tell us about it in the comments below!

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