Last Updated:

May 8, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Fundraising for Universities


Instrumentl team



April 29, 2023

When it comes to fundraising for universities, there are unique challenges.

Fortunately, there are some tried and true strategies that universities can use to maximize their fundraising efforts.

In this post, we’ll explore some of the most effective university fundraising sources and strategies and discuss how each can help higher education institutions meet their goals.

Let’s dive in.

Nonprofit Marketing Plan Templates

Explanation of Fundraising for Universities


Fundraising for universities is a form of philanthropy in which universities and colleges seek funding from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

University fundraising can increase financial resources to support important initiatives such as:

  • Student scholarships
  • Research and development projects
  • Capital projects (e.g., renovations or construction of new buildings)
  • Faculty recruitment
  • Program expansion and enhancement
  • Technology upgrades
  • Community outreach programs
  • Endowments for special funds

Often, fundraising strategies help to bridge the gap between the cost of tuition and the actual cost of providing a high-level education. Generous financial support can help drive innovation in the classroom, create opportunities for research, and expand financial aid offerings to make higher education more accessible.

Additionally, fundraising gives alumni and friends of the university a chance to connect with and support the institution’s success.

For example, if donors, particularly large donors, are excited about the university’s goals, they are going to talk about it with their friends, wear the school merch, and invite their friends to university events. These friends can then become potential donors, leading to a ripple effect of support for the university.

Universities also have entire departments devoted to fundraising, alumni relations, and donor stewardship for a reason. Without donations, many schools simply could not operate. Therefore, they employ fundraising professionals to work with potential donors, cultivate relationships, and ensure that the school's goals are met.

Ultimately, fundraising for universities contributes to the success of both students and the institution as a whole. By supporting initiatives that focus on student development and research opportunities, universities can ensure their students are getting the best education possible while helping to boost the reputation of their institution across the country.

Four Fundraising Sources for Universities


When it comes to higher education fundraising, there are a variety of different sources of financial support. We’ve outlined four of the most common sources of university funding below:


Individuals are often the most common type of donors universities encounter. Individuals might provide matching funds for company donations, make gifts in memory of a loved one, or contribute to an endowment fund.

It's not unusual for individual donors to be alumni of the school or close relatives of someone who attended, such as a parent or grandparent.

Individual donations come in all sizes. It may be a $100 donation to a scholarship fund that an individual believes in, or someone donating millions of dollars for a new building (and you bet it gets named after them!).

For example, the David Geffen School of Medicine building was named after, you guessed it, David Geffen. Geffen provided a $200 million gift to UCLA.

David Geffen School of Medicine


Foundations are another vital source of fundraising for universities.

Foundations may make grants to support specific programs or initiatives or provide student scholarship funds. Foundations typically comprise of wealthy individuals, family trusts, or corporations with a shared interest in supporting higher education.


Corporations may also contribute financially to universities. This could include providing matching grants for employee donations, establishing endowed chairs for faculty members, or sponsoring special events such as lectures or symposia.

Corporate contributions may also be made in the form of research grants and even financial assistance programs for students.

Alumni Associations

Finally, alums are key contributors to university fundraising efforts.

Alumni often make gifts in honor of their alma mater, either through annual contributions or endowed scholarships and other funds. Some colleges, like the University of Texas, even have alumni associations that individuals pay to be a part of. You can take a look at the “Texas Exes” alumni group as an example here.

University of Texas Alumni Association

Additionally, alumni can be tapped to serve as volunteers or mentors and provide internships and job opportunities to current students. Alumni can also join boards of advisors to help shape the future of their alma mater. You can view an example of a successful alumni webpage from the University of Illinois here.

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Creating a Fundraising Plan


Developing a successful fundraising plan is essential for both short and long-term success. To create an effective strategy, universities should consider the following factors:

Identifying the Target Audience

The first step of any fundraising campaign should be to identify your target audience.

Who will be approached? Who are the key individuals and organizations that might support the university's mission? Are there any special populations or groups that need to be included in the outreach strategy?

Understanding who your audience is will inform how you can communicate and reach out to them effectively.

Analyzing Resources

The next step should be to analyze available resources and determine what can be done with the available budget.

Many universities are limited in terms of their fundraising staff, so it is important to know what you have at your disposal before beginning any initiatives.

It’s important for universities to focus on creating a comprehensive fundraising plan with their available resources and leverage technology to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.

Be sure to be realistic when analyzing your resources and determining a budget for the fundraising campaign—what expenses will need to be covered, and how much money is expected to be raised?

Developing Outreach and Communication Strategies

Once you know who your target audience is and the resources you have available, you should be ready to develop specific communication strategies to reach those supporters.

What channels will be used to reach potential donors? What materials need to be prepared in advance?

It is important to modify your organization’s outreach and communication strategy to ensure that the message reaches its intended audience. This could include online and print advertising, direct mail campaigns, or special events such as alumni gatherings.

Consider the demographics of your target audience, and adjust your strategies accordingly. Reaching out to your 1970s alumni vs. your 2015 alumni is going to look different.

Creating an Engaging Story

Every successful fundraising campaign centers around an engaging story about a mission and vision that inspires donors to give.

Creating an engaging story will help establish why donations are needed and why supporting the institution is important. Your story should be short and concise, but also emotionally compelling. It should ultimately evoke a sense of hope, connection, and community around the university and its cause.

The story can be manifest in a donor campaign video, a newsletter campaign, or even an interactive website. All of these mediums have the potential to create engaging content that resonates with donors and inspires them to give.

Planning for Follow-up 

No fundraising campaign in complete without a plan for following up with existing and prospective donors.

How will donations be acknowledged and relationships maintained?

Planning for follow-up with supporters is an essential component of successful fundraising. Thanking donors in a timely manner helps ensure that they feel appreciated, recognized, and valued by the university. It can also motivate them to continue their support further down the line, creating a sense of loyalty and engagement.

A follow-up could consist of a thank you letter or email that includes simple ways to stay connected, such as an organization newsletter or special events. The follow-up should also provide donors with tangible evidence of how their contribution is making an impact on the university’s mission and vision. This could come in the form of success stories, updates on projects created from donations, or special events that the donor is invited to.

University fundraising is a complex process, but by focusing on developing strong relationships with donors, universities can maximize their resources to secure needed financial support.

Evaluating the Success of the Fundraising Campaign


You've put countless hours into this fundraising campaign—but how do you know if it is successful?

Developing metrics for success allows universities to measure the effectiveness of their fundraising efforts. It also serves as a way to assess what is working and where changes can be made in order to improve future campaigns.

Evaluating a fundraising campaign's success requires analyzing both quantitative and qualitative data.

Quantitative data:

Nonprofits can use quantitative metrics such as donation amounts and donor count to assess the success of their campaign.

Examples of quantitative data include:

  • Amount of money raised
  • Number of donors
  • Average donation amount
  • Conversion rate (percentage of prospective donors that become actual donors)

Qualitative data:

Organizations can also use qualitative data to help them determine what works and what needs improvement for future campaigns.

Examples of qualitative data include:

  • Donor feedback on communication strategies
  • Engagement with digital campaigns such as social media or email campaigns
  • Overall satisfaction with the fundraising experience

By regularly measuring and evaluating these metrics, universities can ensure their fundraising efforts are on the right track so that they can reach their goals.

Wrapping Up: The Next Steps


Fundraising for universities is a complex process, but with the right tools and strategies in place, it can be successful.

With a well-developed plan, universities can maximize their resources and ensure positive outcomes for all involved. With the right approach, anything is possible!

For more tips and advice on nonprofit fundraising, check out Instrumentl’s blog.

Happy fundraising!

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