What Educational Institutions Can Learn From For-Profit Marketing—Part 1

You can’t just chase dollars, unmindful of whence they come. You have to build enduring relationships and be particularly alert to the lapsing of loyal donors.

—James Michael Langley, Cultivating a Culture of Philanthropy: New Approaches to New Realities, AGB (2014)

When we first met Patricia Lin, a former advancement professional at UC Berkeley, at a crowded Panera Bread in Wayland, Massachusetts, Rob and I shared our hypothesis that many higher education institutions would benefit from applying more “advanced marketing techniques.” As we spoke, Patricia’s body language sent conflicting messages. On the one hand, she appeared to agree that, in general, traditional fund-raising approaches were increasingly inefficacious. On the other hand, she warned that conventional business marketing would be neither effective nor welcomed as an appropriate fit for the culture of academic institutions.

It turns out that Rob and I were in complete agreement with Patricia. As marketers and alumni of multiple institutions, we understood that bluntly employing marketing methods from the for-profit world within the culture of a not-for-profit educational institution with a public purpose would be a mistake. Instead, it would require the judicious assessment of precisely which techniques would be appropriate and effective. In other words, there are some for-profit marketing best-practices that would, provided they’re appropriately tailored, benefit educational institutions, while others are best ignored entirely. The former have tremendous potential to help foster a more sustainable culture of philanthropy across all key stakeholders, including faculty, staff, alumni, students, and student-parents. If carefully designed and executed, these techniques can deliver more positive results for annual funds, capital campaigns and other fund-raising activities.

At a high level, there are six core marketing techniques that advancement leadership and staff should enthusiastically embrace. All represent foundational relationship building principles that have the power to engender alumni loyalty, accelerate fund-raising success and promote a long-term culture of philanthropy. A special note: not all businesses embrace marketing best practices; but those in competitive markets that don’t are far more likely to disappear eventually.

In part 1 of this series of Insights, we’ll take a look at the first three techniques educational institutions should consider borrowing from the for-profit marketplace. (And stay tuned for future Insights that will examine three business techniques that you should probably ignore.)



Always captures and reflects the “voice of the consumer” in their brand and messaging.


Ensure you consistently embrace the overlap between who you are and what your community values.

No doubt your institution sends frequent communications to graduates for the purpose of driving engagement. Whether it’s an invitation to a class reunion or the promotion of career networking events, every interaction represents an opportunity—either to engage your audience or disenchant it. The effect over time is cumulative. Which means the resources you invest in reaching out to alumni can provide a substantial return by inspiring a graduate’s loyalty to your institution and boosting his or her willingness to give. Or it can lead to audience fatigue, apathy or, worst of all, simmering irritation.

To ensure your engagement activities positively impact alumni loyalty, your first step is to create a messaging platform that both internal and external constituents actively embrace. This should not be crafted in a closed-door brainstorming session; there’s just too much at stake. To truly resonate and engage, it must identify the common themes that surface when interviewing and surveying students, alumni, faculty and staff, while always aligning with the unique history and ethos of your institution. Built and applied properly, a messaging platform will ensure that every communication to alumni will reinforce the value (to the individual and society at large) and unique identity of your institution.



Creates the perception of a valuable (and valued) relationship before trying to upsell customers.


Let relationship-strengthening communications and activities precede solicitations for giving.

We’re all aware of it: a protracted decline in alumni participation rates since the Great Recession. Institutions increasingly recognize that a transactional approach to fund-raising yields diminishing returns and can even alienate many alumni. Since we know empirically that large donors typically emerge after 10-15 years of loyal giving behavior, a long-term relationship approach is the gold standard.

It all comes down to what is often referred to in the for-profit world as “what’s in it for me?” This is the question that needs to be honestly and effectively answered to underscore the value of your relationship with your would-be donors. The challenge, therefore, is knowing and delivering what each of your alumni values and effectively and consistently articulating why your institution deserves their loyalty. While aspects of this relate to messaging, success will also require a comprehensive review of assets available at the university that align with what alumni value.



Uses segmentation and personalization to improve the likelihood that a consumer will take a desired action.


Use what you know (and learn what you don’t) to speak to each alum as an individual.

In a perfect world, your interactions with alumni would be perfectly tailored to each individual. For each graduate, you would understand attitudes toward and perceptions of your institution and you’d focus on the most important information, activities and services you have to offer. You would know how to pull the right “levers”—the motivation points that result in a greater propensity to giving.

The reality is, we live in a world that’s far from perfect. Your alumni information may be fragmented, siloed and incomplete. Yet, opportunities still exist for segmentation and personalization. A practical segmentation of your alumni universe, based on past behavior, capacity and attitudes can help you enhance engagement. Publicly available data can be used to further refine your segmentation scheme. And effective personalization can be incorporated into communications by filtering for pre- and post-graduation data, such as student affinities, affiliations, activities, academic interests, current career, geography, etc.

Ready for three more marketing techniques that can benefit your advancement efforts?