Content Marketing for the Annual Fund: How to Get Started

In my last post, I discussed a significant shift in donor behavior that is influencing fundraising and marketing strategy for higher education institutions and nonprofit organizations alike. Organizations today are confronted with savvier, more selective donors who have developed screening strategies for managing the daily marketing bombardment.

It is our responsibility as fundraisers and relationship builders to find new and effective ways to tell the stories of our institutions, rise above the din of the marketplace, and make a compelling, yet personalized case for support.


Donors, like investors, want to be fully informed before they make philanthropic choices. They want to be confident that their gifts are making an impact. Without helpful, informative, and compelling information from your institution, they will find a way to divine the truth, or their perception of it, through their own channels and networks.

Content marketing offers a viable solution to these challenges. (See my last post for an introduction to content marketing.) In today’s post, we will look at how content can engage (or re-engage) your constituents with the mission of your institution, build trust and credibility, and create a compelling case for support that will increase revenue and participation while at the same time meeting the interests and needs of your audience.

Content can come in a myriad of formats: blogs, social media posts, newsletters from your leadership, university publications, video or photo streams, and more. Here are a few examples of schools that are employing content effectively to engage their current audience and reach out to those not currently connected to the institution:

  1. State University of New York’s Big Ideas Blog

The SUNY Big Ideas Blog does a great job of bringing the vast SUNY system together, tying everything happening on the 64 campuses back to a singular mission. The content on the blog is interesting, informative, and tangentially tied to academic and fundraising initiatives. The posts absolutely demonstrate the impact of the institution and its donors without always including a direct appeal.

  1. Sewickley Academy’s Pinterest Board

Sewickley Academy, a PK-12 independent school near Pittsburgh, PA, has done a fabulous job of curating a multi-layered, useful library of content on Pinterest that connects to its mission. Some boards are directly related to the school (e.g., “Where is the Class of 2015 headed to college?”), while others speak to external audiences who may become more engaged in the future through this content (e.g., parenting advice in the digital age, summer reading lists, and craft projects for snow days).

  1. Point Park University’s People of Point Park campaign

At Point Park University, we are using the individual stories of alumni, faculty, staff, and students to help strengthen the brand and define the identity of our relatively young institution. These stories play a vital role in the development of collateral and communications for annual fundraising appeals, help us to identify new segments of our population, and serve as an effective tool for outreach and engagement.

The key to the success of these content marketing strategies is that they are truly donor-centric. In other words, they answer the questions: What do your donors want to hear about? How do they want to receive it?

Important note: While it’s great if your content has a direct lead-in to some sort of “next step”—whether that’s to subscribe, register for an event, or make a gift—not every blog post, magazine article, or social media campaign requires a call-to-action! Useful, interesting content alone can help us combat the donor fatigue and skepticism that marketing bombardment has created. Include links to your website so your constituents can learn more, but try not to turn every piece of content into an urgent call for support that emphasizes your needs above the donor’s.


So how can you integrate content marketing into your annual fund campaign? Here are a few pointers to get you thinking about this new strategy:

1. Align with your institution’s strategic priorities. When in doubt of what to write about, look for stories that reflect the strategic focus of your institution. For example, if your university is about the launch a campaign for scholarship dollars, it might be beneficial to start telling stories about those who benefited from financial aid. Additionally, if you are going to spend time generating stories, it’s always good to ensure that they align, however loosely, with the narratives that your institution is already sharing.

2. Mix up the voice. The trustworthiness of any message is often tied to the person speaking. Personal messages from an individual—whether your president, board chair, or popular faculty member—always get more readership and response than a generic institutional voice. When planning new content, think about adding new and different voices to your campaign in order to build credibility.

3. Think strategically about the mode of delivery. When incorporating your content into your general fundraising communications, think carefully about how you want to share it. Your beautifully crafted story will be lost if the selected channel is inappropriate for the piece or for the intended audience. Some content is better suited for a blog while others should live on different social media platforms. We will look at these channels in detail in the next post.

4. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. When adding new elements to your existing strategy, it’s important to not take on more than you can handle. Writing, taking photos, or filming and editing videos takes time—a lot of time, actually. Make sure you have the resources and staff necessary to handle whatever elements you wish to add. (Pro tip: Consider hiring students who are looking to expand their skills and beef up their resumes. Their work may need more polishing than a professional’s, but they are eager, hard working, and often more tuned into social media trends than staff.)

5. Prepare for analysis. Before you launch your first content campaign, make sure you’ve built in the necessary mechanisms to analyze its impact. How will you measure campaign effectiveness? Clicks, impressions, opens, gifts? Whatever you are hoping to learn, it is imperative that you have the tools to peel back the layers and analyze your results.

Content marketing will not replace the essential elements of a functional annual giving program, such as direct mail or telethons. Rather, content marketing can augment those efforts, continue to expand your case for support, and demonstrate the value of investing in your institution. When done right, content marketing can address the needs of your changing donors, keep your fundraisers attuned to the marketplace, and help ensure that your fundraising efforts will be successful.

In my next post, I will look more closely at using various channels for content distribution and measuring the results of your campaign.

Update: Greta’s next post is available now–“Channeling Your Mission: A Guide to Content Distribution for Nonprofits.”

Greta Daniels is the director of annual giving at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, and formerly served as director of alumni relations for Sewickley Academy, a PK-12 independent school in Western PA. Greta is fascinated with how cultural consumer trends and big data can drive authentic and sustainable growth in the nonprofit arena. Connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter and Instagram to hear more about annual giving trends and women’s cycling initiatives or to see her latest kitchen adventure.

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