Laugh It Up: How Schools Are Using Humor to Fundraise

In advertising, as in life, happiness is a powerful emotion. Many companies strive to associate their brands with happiness; instead of crafting ads that educate consumers about their product, they simply try to make people laugh. This can be a great marketing strategy, as research suggests that humor helps us retain information.

Take Chik-fil-A’s “Cow” campaign, for example. There’s no mention of Chik-fil-A’s food, how good their chicken is, or how affordable the meals can be. They simply infuse humor into their commercials, billboards, and ads—and it’s become one of the longest running ad campaigns of recent memory, dating back over 20 years.

Of course, humor is a tricky thing. If you take it too far, you run the risk of seeming crass or insincere. Especially within the nonprofit/higher-ed world, it can be hard to figure out where to draw the line.

Some schools, however, have successfully used humor to support their annual fund goals. Here are two examples of campaigns that put the fun into giving.

McDaniel College’s “How the Green Terror Stole Knowledge” Campaign

With the tax deadline on December 31, the end of the calendar year is busy for everyone working in annual giving. Many schools run simple campaigns tied to the holiday season—but McDaniel College took the idea a step further.

Playing off of their mascot, the Green Terror, McDaniel created a holiday-themed campaign inspired by How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They crafted a fun short story called How the Green Terror Stole Knowledge (complete with illustrations and a video) that focused on the importance of giving to the annual fund. Not only was it more memorable than a typical holiday solicitation, but it also had great word-of-mouth appeal among McDaniel alumni.

Nyenrode Business Universiteit’s “Take A Seat” Campaign


To raise funds for a new auditorium, Nyenrod Business Universiteit wanted to do something a bit more bold than your traditional campaign. Although the concept for their “Take a Seat” campaign was simple (donate money to sponsor a chair in the auditorium), they decided to have a little fun with their marketing.

The joke is apparent right when you land on the campaign page. At the top, you’re presented with a choice between two chairs: an actual chair that you can buy for yourself (valued at 449 euros), versus donating 500 euros to sponsor a chair as part of the campaign.

Most annual giving professionals would never drive people away from their giving site, but clicking on the call-to-action button below the actual chair takes you to a Pinterest board where you can browse fancy, funky chairs for your own home. If you click on the option to sponsor a chair, however, you get to choose which seat in the auditorium you want—plus you get your name and a quote engraved on the seat.

It’s an unorthodox strategy, but the campaign has raised over 50,000 euros so far.

Thinking about incorporating humor into your next annual giving campaign? Here are three pieces of advice:

  1. Segment your audience appropriately. Certain comments may be funny to one portion of your alumni base, but not to another, so make sure you settle on a target audience.
  2. Run the campaign by a few alumni while it’s in the developmental stages so you have an idea if you’re on the right track. There’s a fine line between humor and cheesiness.
  3. Balance it out with more serious campaigns. Fundraising can’t just be about getting laughs. While it’s good to have some fun, you may lose the respect of your alumni if every appeal is rooted in humor.


It can be a big risk to try out humor in an appeal, but if you have creative people on your team, they’re probably up to the challenge and would embrace this type of brainstorming activity!

Need more campaign inspiration? Learn how universities are using nostalgia as an alumni marketing tactic.

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.

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