Best of 2014: Social Media Innovation for Higher Ed Advancement

In 2014, I challenge you to find a major college or university without a social media presence. Unlike five years ago when social media could be written off as a passing fad, university leaders now seem to recognize its long-term value for marketing, recruitment, student engagement, and alumni relations — or at least they realize that ignoring social media is not a viable option.

Most schools dedicate resources to running university-wide social media accounts, as well as incorporating elements of social media into jobs around campus.

But there’s a big difference between having a presence on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and strategically using this presence to engage populations and move a school toward meeting its larger goals.

As we careen toward the end of 2014 and the start of a new year, let’s recognize five schools that found success leveraging social media for advancement during the last twelve months:

Columbia University: Giving Day

For the third year in a row, Columbia orchestrated a wildly successful online giving day. On October 29, the school raised more than $11 million from 10,000+ gifts in 50 states and 53 countries worldwide. Though billed as an online effort, Columbia’s success had much to do with offline organization, planning, and cross-campus coordination.

In trying to crack the code to Columbia’s multimillion dollar fundraising tradition, I discovered one element that deserves special attention: practically the entire university stands behind the online giving day, not just the advancement team. Through outreach and trainings, individual schools, colleges, and departments are empowered with guidance on using their own social media channels to drive interest and actively participate in the day. The university even has a social ambassador program to effectively harness the enthusiasm of alumni and students. The results are powerful.

Northwestern University: Cats Give Back

Capitalizing on the philanthropic spirit of Giving Tuesday, a national day to celebrate personal philanthropy amidst the start of the holiday season, Northwestern crafted its very own social media campaign for December 2: #CATSGiveBack. During an ambitious $3.75 billion campaign, the school raised more than $300,000 from 700+ donors during the 24 hours.

To inspire participation, Northwestern developed videos with prominent members of its community (such as football coach Pat Fitzgerald, President Morton Schapiro, and alumna Ana Gasteyer). The school also offered a “social media kit,” which included sample posts and special #CATSGiveBack icons that allowed supporters to easily galvanize interest among their own social media followings.

Syracuse University: @WorkingOrange

Not all social media initiatives in the realm of advancement have to do with raising money. At my alma mater, Syracuse University, dozens of well-established alumni reconnected with the university this year through a forward-thinking Career Services initiative: @WorkingOrange. This Twitter account affords a different alum each week the opportunity to live-tweet his/her workday and share valuable career advice with students. This is a fun, easy engagement opportunity for alumni with busy lives; plus, it equips students with a real-world perspective to help them launch their careers.

Among the participating alumni in 2014 were Foursquare CEO Dennis Crowley, Mashable real-time news editor Brian Ries, and US Soccer Federation marketing executive Michael Gressle. Rumor has it that @VP Joe Biden is on the @WorkingOrange wish list for 2015!

Cornell University: Prospect Discovery

Some of the most effective, strategic social media work takes place behind the scenes. This is the case with Cornell’s social media prospect discovery process, which produced concrete results for the development office. Through interacting digitally with alumni on a daily basis and keeping in mind potential wealth indicators, Cornell’s social media team identified lists of people who might be capable of supporting the university through financial gifts. These were all individuals not already being tracked by the development office.

A thorough review by Cornell’s prospect research team found that 96% of these “fresh leads” were capable of giving $25k or more over the next five years. About 42% were capable of giving $100k or more. This is a case where the work of a social media team directly supports the development function — a model for other institutions.

Marquette University: @PresLovell

Marquette embraces one of the key tenets of social media — be human! — by having its new president tweet. @PresLovell comes across as authentic and real, interspersing commentary about basketball with academics and volunteerism with vacation plans. He has an incredibly engaged community of about 5,000 followers.

What I most enjoy about @PresLovell’s tweets is how he incorporates messaging about development. For example, he recently sent a tweet to recognize and thank a high-profile donor for a major gift. Another time, he shared an announcement about a $3.5 million donation to Marquette’s College of Communication. By publicly stewarding gifts and championing the importance of giving, @PresLovell is building a culture of philanthropy among students and alumni.


2015 will undoubtedly bring more innovation at the intersection of social media and advancement. What schools should be on our radar? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments