Seizing the Season, Gonzaga Capitalizes on Historic Year with Fundraising Success

By Holly Jones, Development Communications Specialist, Gonzaga University

Ask anyone associated with Gonzaga University — students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff, friends and fans — what makes Gonzaga special, and you will get a single-word reply: "community." This community is a unique one, filled with people whose concern for the whole person, or cura personalis, is in many ways showcased in their giving habits and patterns. Over the past year, some innovative approaches on the part of Gonzaga’s University Advancement team to encourage increased giving participation have been very successful. It is all part of a strategy to ensure that the exemplary education intended to develop every student's intellectual skills, imaginative capacities and ability to innovate is, in the Jesuit tradition, accessible to all.

In addition to this strong sense of community, Gonzaga has also built a national brand for its success through basketball. The ascension of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program to the NCAA Division I national championship game in 2017, followed by Gonzaga's 20th consecutive appearance and 21st overall in 2018, has presented extraordinary opportunities to engage the community, by reminding them of how their support helps students to excel on the court and in the classroom, and become leaders who shape and serve their communities. 

As soon as there was even a sense that a championship appearance was a possibility during the 2016-17 basketball season, the University Advancement division began planning for ways to both fundraise and express gratitude for those whose hard work, vision and generosity lifted Gonzaga to that moment. At the same time, strategies were put into place to publicize the University’s stories from off the court — of the community, academics and Jesuit values — through various media sources and events.

“Well before the tournament started, we contacted University Trustees with winter homes in Phoenix (site of the 2017 Final Four®) and asked them to host special donor-focused gatherings," said Brian Ruark, assistant vice president of development. "These events featured University leaders, including the president, athletic director and academic deans, and enabled development staff to leverage the excitement and attention that Gonzaga received thanks to the success of the basketball program. Being in the national spotlight, it was critical for us to engage with donors to share the many stories of our academic success and priorities, in addition to the story of our basketball success."

One year later, still capitalizing on the excitement leading up to Gonzaga's tournament appearance in the previous year, advancement staff planned Zags Give Day, the annual 24-hour giving drive on March 8th (the Thursday before Selection Sunday and one week prior to the start of the NCAA tournament). Gonzaga used the one-day, all-digital campaign of email, blogs and social media (organic engagement and paid advertisements) to strategically target potential donors based on segmented strategies using geotargeting, demographics and behaviors. Prospective donors were invited to support their choice of twelve crowdfunding projects that were carefully selected to represent a broad range of schools, programs and other giving opportunities to help students.

Among the opportunities were a scholarship named for a beloved, retiring faculty member; a solar-panel installation; equipment for the University's manufacturing technology center; and research programs. Matching challenges for each project were secured from major gift donors in advance, and those matching gifts were “unlocked” when each campaign reached a predetermined donor goal. The projects and the digital marketing that led donors to support them brought in gifts from donors in all 50 states, exceeding the overall donor goal of 1,887 (chosen to recognize the year of Gonzaga's founding by Rev. Joseph Cataldo, S.J.) and raising over $421,000, breaking all previous one-day giving drive records at Gonzaga. Additional details and results can be found at gonzaga.edu/ZagsGiveDay.

"Gonzaga's community of alumni, families, friends, fans, faculty and staff made a bold statement of their belief in this University [on Zags Give Day]," said Stephanie Rockwell, senior director of advancement operations. "Their generosity has [made] an unmistakable impact on Gonzaga students today and into the future."

Looking ahead, Gonzaga has continued enthusiasm for even more innovative fundraising and gratitude strategies as the advancement team considers solutions for traditional models, such as telephone and direct mail, which are starting to show diminishing returns. Gonzaga has begun using texting platforms and personalized video messaging for solicitation and stewardship, and advancement officers are exploring even more creative opportunities. At the same time, Gonzaga's advancement team is ensuring that time be allotted for careful, grateful reflection on efforts thus far. Through it all, maintaining focus on the University's mission and goals to cultivate lifelong relationships with the Gonzaga community will be key to attracting, retaining and converting well-engaged Zags of all ages into donors.