Why Your Annual Fund Strategy Should Include Real-Time Marketing

Just a few weeks ago, Villanova University and the University of Connecticut reached the pinnacle of NCAA sports. Villanova won the Men’s Basketball Championship (on an improbable shot), and UConn won yet another Women’s National Championship. Alumni of each school felt huge amounts of pride—and most likely spent a lot of time reading and talking about their alma mater.

Naturally, athletic successes are great events to leverage as it relates to annual giving. Whenever an alumni base is feeling a special affinity to their alma mater (reunion, graduation, etc.), it’s an opportunity to connect philanthropically as well.

Celebration is fleeting, though. With athletic events and other forms of positive PR, there’s not a lot of notice for an institution to turn around and capitalize in a timely manner. If a school is not prepared to mobilize on a big achievement, the window may close quickly.

Traditionally, many companies have made effective use of real-time marketing to stay top of mind with consumers. Last year, Hershey’s was unexpectedly in the limelight when the Washington Nationals started using Hershey’s chocolate in victory celebrations. Instead of resting on its laurels, the company sent free boxes of Hershey’s syrup to the Nationals and ended up receiving even more press because of this marketing move.

via The Washington Post

As another example, Nike’s Air Jordan brand recently leveraged the publicity surrounding Kobe Bryant’s retirement. Nike congratulated Kobe by giving him a complete collection of every Air Jordan shoe release, resulting in coverage on NBA.com, ESPN.com, and other sports outlets for the Air Jordan brand.

Hershey’s and Nike were able to take advantage of these opportunities not because of large budgets, but because they moved quickly and understood what would appeal to their audiences.

Could your annual giving team do the same?

A few institutions have jumped on real-time marketing to raise money for the annual fund.

In 2014, Ole Miss fans celebrated a huge win over Alabama by tearing down the field goal posts. Ole Miss realized the potential of this situation for fundraising and positive PR, so they created a campaign on their crowdfunding site, Ignite Ole Miss. Within hours, the school was able to reach their goal of $75,000. Not only did this help cover the costs of replacing the goal posts and the fines levied by the Southeastern Conference (SEC), but Ole Miss also received a lot of positive press for the campaign.

Oregon State University and Ohio State University also leveraged real-time marketing when the schools faced off in the 2015 football national championship. Although they only knew about the game a week and a half in advance, their development departments were able to organize a giving challenge to see which school could rally the most donors over a five-day time period.

Ohio State ended up winning the game and the giving challenge, receiving over 1,000 gifts, but the campaign appeared to be a success on both ends. The schools were able to turn January—typically a slow period for annual giving—into a busy and exciting time for their annual funds.


You may be thinking that this type of athletic success could never happen to your institution. However, your annual fund team can use other events to inspire a special fundraising campaign—like a new president being named or an alumnus/a winning a high-profile award.

Make sure you follow the news and keep a critical eye towards real-time marketing and fundraising opportunities. Also make sure you have a plan for getting the campaign up and running in a short time period. Is there an ad hoc team that could manage this type of campaign? Who are the key stakeholders? How can you streamline the approval process in order to launch the campaign quickly and effectively? Annual giving departments that are nimble and swift to act will be able to take advantage when an unexpected opportunity presents itself.

If you liked this, you might be interested in this post about giving days: “Bernie Sanders, Higher-Ed Advancement, and Digital Strategy.”

Tim Ponisciak is director of graduate alumni relations at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. Tim also runs the blog Alumni Catalyst and is passionate about promoting how higher-ed institutions can learn from marketing agencies, advertising agencies, and great brands. Tim loves old movies and board games, and is currently trying to visit all 30 major league ballparks.

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