Creative Ways to Get Major Donors Involved in Giving Challenges

Securing major gifts is all about matching engagement with interest. We want to get our top prospects plugged into what’s happening on campus and connect their individual interests to a project that benefits everyone.

I’m a believer in the power of the giving challenge; I’ve run several and contributed to others as a donor. Not only do these campaigns unify the donor base and make people feel like they’re part of something big, but they also give laser focus to the organization’s messaging and outreach. One-day campaigns and matching challenges also help to attract new and lapsed donors in huge numbers, which is a good sign for the future of fundraising.

However, it’s just as important to look at short-term giving campaigns as opportunities to engage top prospects. Giving days are unique in that they allow us to focus on both the top of the pyramid and its base simultaneously.

Let’s look at how some schools have partnered with top prospects on giving days:

Columbia University: Make your VIPs feel very, very important.

We’ll begin with where it all began: the university credited for the rise of one-day campaigns. Early on, en route to record participation and total dollars, Columbia rolled out the red carpet for their top prospects, inviting them to make commitments in the weeks before the actual giving day.


If a giving day makes people feel like they’re part of something special, offering prospects early access is the proverbial icing on the cake.

Emerson College: Make them celebrities.

This works best when your top donor has an amazing moustache.

For several years, Emerson ran a matching-gift challenge for its young alumni. Mike MacWade, an Emerson alum, matched each gift. Called the MacWade Challenge, the campaign centered on MacWade’s trademark moustache and became an event that GOLD (graduates of the last decade) alumni looked forward to every year.


MacWade, as a donor, became the pitchman, encouraging younger classes to step up to the challenge. In turn, it motivated him to continue giving at leadership levels.

Phillips Exeter Academy: Let leaders lead.

At PEA, we’ve run a pair of weeklong, challenge-gift initiatives for the last two years. When each campaign reached its donor goal, alumni and parents would unlock an additional gift provided by a small group of donors. The challenges were a success on both ends of the pyramid.


To secure the challenge gifts, we tapped into our “older” alums’ desire to see younger generations carrying the torch.

“The challenge-gift donors were very pleased to see the success of the initiatives, particularly as it related to acquiring new and lapsed donors,” said Wayne Loosigian, director of The Exeter Fund. One of the donors said that seeing so many young alumni participate gave him confidence that the school’s future continues to be bright.

Be the connection between interests and needs.

It’s easy to take advantage of a gamified one-day campaign like the creative #CornellGivingDay or a crowd-sourced, project-based campaign to make the connection between donors and their interests. We know these top prospects so well—and (shameless plug) we can learn so much more about them through a platform like GivingTree—that it should be easy to link a prospect with an area of need that makes a clear impact on your institution.

Campaigns that reach the largest sections of your donor base are critical to the future. But figuring out new ways to get major donors involved in these short-term initiatives is just as important for the here and now.

When these challenges are done right, top donors see the excitement and success they’ve helped generate—and they continue to remain connected and generous, regardless of the size of their gifts.


Mike Nagel is the Associate Director for Advancement Communications at Phillips Exeter Academy. He spends his time managing and creating stories for PEA’s social media, alumni website, email marketing campaigns, and other mostly-digital play spaces. Say hi on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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