In Practice: The Power of Social Media for Fundraising

Spring 2021

By Alex Magay

shutterstock_1733442014.jpgLike a majority of development directors at small independent schools, I wear many hats. In addition to the annual fund and major gifts solicitations, I manage alumni relations and marketing initiatives, partnering with our director of admission on the institutional advancement team at Learning Prep School (MA), which provides individualized learning opportunities to students with complex language-based learning profiles.
When I arrived in 2018, my goal was to improve the school’s engagement strategies to cultivate a wider audience through a multichannel communication strategy and enhance our philanthropic and enrollment efforts. A big part of that plan included adding social media marketing to reinforce and better amplify our fundraising efforts with our vast regional community. We have students from 80 different communities who commute to our school from greater Boston, central Massachusetts, and even New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
We know that small independent schools have compelling stories and that a good story, picture, or video can be the essential ingredient that motivates and compels parents, grandparents, and alumni to take action to help a school meet its primary goal of educating students. Social media and digital storytelling give us greater reach and a more robust platform to educate and engage donors, some of whom already understand the importance of giving back and others may not understand why it’s so important to support their child's independent school or why they should continue to support LPS even after their child graduates.
And while social media will never replace face-to-face visits, annual fund appeals, phone calls, handwritten notes, reunions, and alumni publications, these online platforms have created a powerful space where we can share what’s happening at our school, remind alumni of their experiences, and reach new audiences.

The Background

In 2011, LPS formally began its fundraising program by targeting mostly current parents, grandparents, former parents, trustees, and foundations. We only engaged donors in-person, on the phone, or by mail. Twitter was used mostly for making announcements about snow days or special events. To be more donor-centric, we had to meet our current and potential donors where they were most comfortable consuming information.
It was critical to understand what social platforms current and prospective donors used and where they spent their time online, so we conducted some basic research. We talked to our community members and learned about national social media demographics. Sixty-eight percent of Americans age 50 to 64 are on Facebook, according to (we found that many of our current and former parents and grandparents were using Facebook). Sixty-seven percent of Americans ages 18–29 spend time on Instagram and 62% on Snapchat (our younger parents, students, and young alumni were more likely to be using Instagram). 
Based on this research, we chose which platforms to focus on for our fundraising efforts. In 2018, we created Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn pages and reactivated our inactive Twitter and YouTube accounts. Then we created both applicant and donor personas to make sure that we connected with all of the fictional representations of our perfect applicant or donor. For example, one persona was a new parent whose child transferred to LPS from a public school and who had never donated to a school before; another was a parent who contributed a modest annual fund donation last year who might be ready to increase their donation this year because they were seeing the impact of an LPS education on their child’s life. Then we’d need to tell stories that appealed to those groups, ultimately encouraging them to give.

Our Approach

Although we have a well-earned reputation among the families we serve and the educational consultants most familiar with us, many people in our region do not know much about LPS or our mission. To address this and create a bigger social footprint, we started following the accounts of businesses, politicians, colleges, peer schools, foundations, museums, and professional sports franchises in greater Boston. We commented on their posts, and soon, many of them started following us. Then we started following other independent schools across the country to get ideas and for inspiration.
To deliver on our social media strategy of engaging community members, increasing donor participation rates, and fundraising in general, I quickly learned to become a one-person communications team while also fundraising and developing an alumni relations program. I scheduled multiple photo shoots on campus, and I guided photographers—former students with developing skills to conserve resources—to capture a creative mix of classroom teaching and engaging segments of student life. We showcased our small class sizes (no more than eight students) and the typical interactions during a student’s day. We soon had a large archive of quality photos that we could share with others to promote our successes. I also identified several free or inexpensive apps to help edit, enhance, and add text to images to tell our story and market LPS.
To help stay organized, I created a monthly social media content calendar. First, I put holidays, #GivingTuesday, reunions, school anniversaries, and graduation on the calendar. Then I built more content around them. To ensure that we stayed connected with the entire community, I incorporated each persona into our schedule as well.
I measure our performance weekly with our account insights, and I report our post reaches, engagements, and new page likes to our institutional advancement team when we meet every other month. We’ve found that a total of five to seven posts per week spread out across our various platforms generally works well for us since we have such a small team. We use about five to eight hashtags on Facebook and Instagram, including #learningprep #lpspanthers #greaterboston #newton #specialeducation #indyschool, etc. Posts in the middle of the week (Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) generally perform better than posts on weekends. Pictures of staff engaging students always perform well.
Throwback Thursday, when we post pictures from “the good old days” of LPS, create an uptick in alumni social media chatter. These friendly interactions on social media help us reconnect with our alumni and their parents and grandparents—many who had stopped donating to our annual fund started donating again.

Building Connections

Telling our story to a broader audience has engaged our donors and has added another layer to our advancement program. Using the right platforms, tools, creativity, and imagination has been critical to our success. We had a 10% increase in annual giving over the past three years. In early January 2021, we raised more than 100% of our annual fundraising goal with just under six months to go in our fiscal year.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve used Facebook Live to connect with our community and build confidence in our fall 2020 reopening plan. Weekly yoga, horticulture classes, and cooking shows have been a big hit. And like many schools that have had to pivot and move in-person events online, we rescheduled our 50th anniversary celebration to take place on Zoom—which helped us surpass our annual fundraising goal by 5% last year, which seems like a feat considering many nonprofits had difficulty reaching their goals. Was this a result of our additional social media programming? Probably not directly, but it helped us enhance our donor engagement, which we see as connected to performance.
Similarly, creating a LinkedIn page for our school has not directly helped us increase annual giving, but it has helped us increase donor engagement by providing thought leadership to our community and the opportunity to promote our programs. I encouraged our well-connected board of directors to engage with our content on this platform so their LinkedIn contacts can learn more about LPS—which now allows us to conduct valuable prospect research and helps us identify people in our community who can make a difference.

The Takeaways

The feedback about our social media fundraising efforts from our parent committee, trustees, and newly formed alumni executive council has been overwhelmingly positive. As our followers and likes increased, so did our annual giving participation as well as our admission inquiries and applications. Here’s what we’ve learned: 
  • Set annual social media goals for the whole year during the summer and revisit them throughout the year. Goals may include increasing page likes or followers, post reach, and engagement numbers.
  • Tell compelling stories about student success by focusing on your mission, your school’s values, and what your school does well. Share your school’s challenges and offer solutions that your community can help you solve.
  • Develop personas and create a plan to reach each of them every week.
  • Use a monthly content calendar to plan your communications, and stay flexible because things always come up that may require you to pivot.
  • Have fun and be creative with your social media program. This will make your content more authentic.
  • Study and reflect on your Google, Facebook, and Instagram analytics weekly to measure your performance and plan your strategy.
The digital landscape continues to evolve. Staying committed to growing with it will help engage the school community effectively and help them stay connected in meaningful ways. Our donors support our mission because we tell them the stories they want to hear, and share with them problems they can help us solve.
Alex Magay

Alex Magay is the director of development and alumni relations at Learning Prep School in West Newton, Massachusetts, and has been an educator, coach, dean, and fundraiser for more than two decades.