Bernie Sanders, Higher-Ed Advancement, and Digital Strategy

“Decision 2016” is in full effect all around us. You can’t open a device or stroll past a newsstand (those are still a thing, right?) without hearing about the candidates’ latest moves. While Americans have six more months before they’ll decide on our next commander in chief, higher-ed advancement is faced with a decision of our own: digital strategy or bust?

To anchor this discussion, I’m going to give examples from a campaign that has been making waves in the political fundraising arena—something no one thought possible, especially considering President Barack Obama’s record-breaking campaigns. That’s the campaign of Bernie Sanders, who has captured voters around the nation and millennials in particular. He’s raised over $20 million from a grassroots backing of more than 770,000 individuals —and almost all of it from small online donations.

Courtesy Michael Vadon

How has he done it? Have we finally reached a point where, by creating a donor-centric digital media environment, you can bring in millions of dollars just by asking for it? By drawing parallels to Sanders’ campaign, I’ll show how higher-ed advancement can leverage a digital strategy to inspire annual giving.

Higher Ed’s Pipeline Problem

“Despite appearances, the strategy behind Sanders’ small-donor juggernaut is deceptively sophisticated, using cutting-edge technology and techniques to create a perfect fundraising storm never before seen in presidential politics.”


Obama ran innovative campaigns, but Obama made it far enough to receive the full backing of his party and all the benefits that come with that. Obama also didn’t shy away from big money to help set his fundraising records.

Sanders, however, began his campaign by making it clear that he was against big money and would not ask for it. The result? He shattered Obama’s fundraising records.

Imagine if your school decided to stop pursuing major gifts. That absolutely would not (and should not) happen, but if it did, how would you inspire your donors to make up for it?

Higher ed’s current focus on major gifts is eerily similar to politicians’ reliance on corporate money and super PACs. In my recent whitepaper, I talked about how 95 to 99 percent of our institutional funds are coming from the top 1 to 5 percent of donors.

Download “Dollars Over Donors: Is Higher Ed’s Reliance on the Wealthy Minority a Sustainable Strategy?”

This has worked for a long, long time, but the Sanders campaign is showing us a scary reality: digital evolution has put donors/voters in the driver’s seat, and they’re prepared to hold out if we don’t honor their rules of engagement.

“Small donors go where they’re needed. If you’re a candidate who can raise all the money in the world from the establishment, they don’t think they’re needed. Bernie Sanders, his whole message is that he’s running against the establishment, and that their $20 matters.”

Ari Rabin-Havt

We might be disappointed to learn that many of our alumni see our institutions, especially the larger ones, as “the establishment.” Not in a “controlling the world” kind of a way, but in a “you have millions or billions in your endowment and tuition is $45,000 a year” kind of way.

As advancement professionals, we know that these numbers don’t tell the true story of our institutions’ need for philanthropy. But we also know we can do a better job of telling that story.


Millennials flock to Sanders because “his whole message is that their $20 matters”—and he and his team have effectively delivered that message through a comprehensive digital strategy. This just underscores the importance of ensuring that your social, mobile, email, and web properties are working in unison to make your institution’s case for annual support.

Yet although most of the advancement industry is beginning to accept the importance of an integrated digital strategy, by no means it it easy to implement. Not only do you have to grasp the many aspects of the strategy, but you also have to possess the ability to sense opportunity and then be nimble enough to take advantage of it. I’ll get to this in the next section.

Small Donations Add Up

“The way to ‘take our country back from the billionaire class,’ Sanders wrote, was a $3 contribution. The donations flooded in at a record-setting pace—$6.3 million in the 23 hours after the polls closed and counting—at one point coming so furiously they overwhelmed the interface that processes them.”


Howard Dean may have invented the political internet, but Bernie Sanders broke it. (Apparently, in 2016, you can still collapse servers.)

How did this happen? Opportunity mixed with a genuine solicitation.

Once it was clear they were going to win the New Hampshire primary by nearly 20 points, the Sanders campaign doubled down. Knowing their supporters were excited by the big win, they immediately pivoted to a call for donations. Sanders himself turned his victory speech into a five-minute fundraiser in which he encouraged supporters to show the world he didn’t need to host a high-profile fundraising event in New York City.

Here are some other statistics from Sanders’ fundraising campaign:

  • $3 million contributions to his campaign through December 2015 (broke Obama’s record)
  • $6.5 million raised in one 24-hour period (broke Ron Paul’s record)
  • 72% of donations are $200 or less

“You do have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.”

–Princess Leia

These moments of public success are much easier to achieve if you’re a politician as opposed to a college or university. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have moments when a large portion of our alumni feel really good about their alma mater.

Take, for example, national sports events, reunions, homecomings, famous alumni making headlines, and yes, even Internet listicles. These probably won’t inspire $6.3 million in one day, but they all represent an opportunity to fire up your alumni supporters.


Certainly, you need to make a genuine ask to avoid being perceived as opportunistic. However, if you have a cohesive strategy in place, you should be able to deliver the message in an authentic way—and at the very least bring a crop of previously unengaged alumni into the fold.

For a higher ed example of this, and for an idea of what to do with homecoming beyond marketing a football game, look no further than Williams College. They set out to capitalize on homecoming weekend by taking their rivalry with nearby Amherst College from the gridiron to the giving page.

Dubbed the “Biggest Little Challenge,” the two colleges went head to head to see who could secure more young alumni donors. Williams unleashed a thorough digital campaign complete with a new online giving page (optimized for mobile), built to increase conversions by offering a more donor-centric experience.

The result? They increased conversions by 36% and beat their rival at the same time. Williams capitalized on an event already full of school spirit by adding a fundraising layer that excited their donors, while also making sure their giving site was equipped to maintain alumni enthusiasm. Bad UI can be a real buzz kill.

So are we adopting the successes of political campaigns and even the private sector? Or are we continuing to do business the same way we’ve done it for decades, all while shrugging our shoulders to plummeting participation rates?

I’d like to take a timeout and reassure you that I respect the work and history of the advancement industry. We do good work, we do important work—but there is so much potential to do even better work.

Some think that converting and retaining new donors at low giving levels is a fool’s errand and not worth the effort and expense. Generally, I don’t maintain a defeatist attitude… well, unless we’re talking about the Buffalo Bills. I think we can bring more people in, and I think we can do it more efficiently and cheaply than many believe. We have to look beyond initial start-up costs and seize the moment, recognizing the long-term benefits that come with investing in digital technology.

Digital Strategy or Bust?

You could certainly argue that this whole concept is an apples-to-oranges comparison—that political movements inspire people in a completely different way than higher ed ever could.

I thought long and hard about that and then I realized something. Bernie Sanders found a way to convince over a million people that $27 can change a country.

Why do we struggle to convince alumni that $27 can change a campus?

If the answer to that were simple, we wouldn’t be talking about it. However, Sanders shows us that a well-orchestrated digital strategy is crucial to delivering the right message, to the right people, in the right places, at the right time.

Our jobs in advancement are becoming more difficult—and more important—as the funding of education comes under scrutiny and as alumni look elsewhere to make charitable donations. To succeed, we’ll need to use every tool in our arsenal and maybe even adopt some new ones. A 74 year old from America’s smallest state may have just created the blueprint for how to do it.

Keith Hannon is the associate director for digital innovation for Cornell University Alumni Affairs & Development. You can connect with him on LinkedIn or catch him on Twitter @KeithHannon.

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