For Year-End Donation Solicitation, Harvard Relies on Email over Social

by on Feb 03, 2016


The end of the year presents a final opportunity for charitable donations, with donors and organizations alike working against the clock to meet annual giving and fundraising goals. As a college or university is just one of many possible beneficiaries at that time of year, all schools should have smart outreach strategies to stay top of mind for alumni and other potential donors.

In recent years, schools have added social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Snapchat to their suite of communication tools – a set that already included email, mailed outreach and phone banks (often student-run). Most schools have embraced social media to share news, alumni updates, pictures and networking opportunities, but the jury is still out on its effectiveness relative to other communication methods when it comes to fundraising. This year, at least one prominent university sent a clear message as to which digital channel is its priority for soliciting donations from alumni. While Harvard kept up active posting on networks like Twitter through the holiday season, the university clearly preferred email for more direct year-end appeals.

Over the last two weeks of December, a Harvard alum on our panel received the following four emails:

December 17“Make a gift, make a difference at Harvard”
December 22“10 days left in 2015”
December 30“Two more days to make your year-end gift”
December 31“Last chance to make your year-end gift”

All four emails employed similar approaches, focusing their message on the ways the Harvard College Fund benefits current students. The exact appeals differed, though, as did some design elements. As a point of comparison, the December 30 email presented a classroom scene and simple icons illustrating the benefits derived from donations to the College Fund: financial aid, residential life and curriculum innovation. The December 31 email put a winter image of campus front and center, greeted the recipient by name and referred more generally to donations’ helping “open doors for Harvard students” and providing “exceptional opportunities.” Overall formatting was similar, including the prominent Please Give Now button. While repeated appeals in a short time period may seem excessive, each message was simple, clear and not completely repetitive.

Examples of Harvard End-of-Year Email Outreach

In contrast to the volley of emails received, there was little social media activity counting down the final days of the year in reference to a giving deadline. Harvard’s main Twitter profile had a variety of seasonal content – holiday greetings, 2015 highlights, New Year’s resolution-related articles – but nothing explicitly soliciting donations. When looking over the final posts of 2015, there were even a few that seemed like opportunities to ask for donations at first, but linked to other types of content. For instance, a post about visiting Harvard’s museums on December 27 linked to a feature on recent renovations instead of to a request for financial support. Likewise, the Harvard Alumni Association Twitter profile stuck to its usual posts, primarily articles and networking events with no direct appeals.

Harvard End-of-Year Social Media Activity

While email is still too new to really be considered a “traditional” method of outreach, for now it seems to remain a priority over newer channels at some top schools. It’s possible that our panelist’s recent donation history led to more eager outreach from the university; however, any differences on that front merely highlight a perceived advantage of the email channel – allowing for more targeted campaigns. Instead of reiterating existing appeals, or ignoring the channel as a venue for solicitations altogether, colleges and universities should approach social media with an eye for new opportunities. For instance, a forthcoming Alumni Monitor Report has found that many schools’ Twitter feeds positively lit up for Giving Tuesday, a popular charitable alternative to Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the rest of the holiday shopping season. A little social media savvy can go a long way in helping schools connect with the young, tech-centric grads that populate networks like Twitter.

For more information on Alumni Monitor and our research on alumni outreach and engagement, please contact Dana Peterson at or visit us at