Caitlin Townsend
Creative Strategist  |  August Jackson

It’s time to change the story we tell about financial aid.

We’re all familiar with the traditional case for financial aid as a fundraising priority for universities. Tied to the university’s endowment, student scholarships and fellowships promise to be the backbone of all other priorities: the foundation that ensures a healthy and diverse student body. These future leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and influencers are the key to an alumni community that embodies the university’s promise to the world.

But this powerful story is often outshined by priorities with more immediate and specific outcomes, such as pioneering new research or pursuing infrastructure projects that change the face of campus. As your donors consider their potential gifts, public misconceptions about large endowments can make gifts to financial aid seem routine and ineffective—a means of enriching the institution rather than directly impacting student success.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A handful of universities today are making history by jumpstarting initiatives to change the stereotype that many donors have about endowments. They are working to change the way financial aid is passed on to the student. And they are working to ensure that potential donors are fully aware of these efforts. All of these initiatives mean they’re driving more successful campaign fundraising now—and are looking to the future with even higher aspirations.

Bold visions drive bold giving—and the case for financial aid can be transformative.

Your donors want their gifts to have a lasting impact: to go beyond meeting a need to solving the conditions that created that need. In the case of financial aid, it’s important to share both the personal impact that a financial aid gift has on students and the way your campaign fundraising will help eliminate student debt and prevent student attrition. Across the country, universities and colleges of every size, public and private, have begun to make the case for transformative financial aid—and donors are responding.

There’s never been a better time to raise donors’ sights for financial aid.

University campaign fundraising is reaching record levels, with an unprecedented $43.6 billion raised in 2017 and no sign of slowing down. Among these record-setting gifts are mega-gifts to financial aid. Just last year, the University of Maryland received its largest-ever gift of $219 million, of which over 40 percent will be dedicated to student scholarships and fellowships. Within a half billion-dollar gift to the University of San Francisco was a $200 million commitment to student scholarships and fellowships in the medical, nursing, dental, and pharmacy schools.

Comprehensive scholarships eliminate student loan debt.

Since Harvard’s 2005 guarantee of full scholarship support for students with family incomes under $65,000, other universities have made comprehensive financial aid packages a key priority in their university campaign fundraising. Last year, the Brown Promise campaign achieved its $30 million goal to replace all loans with grants funded by philanthropy; and Brown University is now pursuing a $90 million goal to secure the future of the Promise. Donors are rising to the occasion to support Opportunity Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt University’s pledge to replace all need-based student loans with scholarships and grants.


Even in less comprehensive efforts, innovative tactics like emergency and completion grants turn smaller sums into life-changing interventions. Wisconsin HOPE Lab is partnering with universities and higher education funders to study the impact of these philanthropically-funded grants that cover shortfalls that would otherwise derail a student’s future.

SUCCESSFUL university campaign fundraising tells a story of the transformation your donors helped achieve.

Eliminating student loans, ensuring that driven and talented students have a safe path to graduation, and ensuring that comprehensive support is truly comprehensive—these are financial aid goals that can move communities to invest. When you tell a story that changes the game for students—and when you combine that story with the power of an endowment gift that will grow and keep giving for generations—you have a transformative case for financial aid.

At August Jackson, we help universities and colleges worldwide put purpose into practice through transformative campaigns. We understand how important it is to your donors to see your purpose put into action: groundbreaking ideas, real-world solutions, and alumni whose achievements inspire today’s students and transform the world we live in. An innovative, solution-oriented approach to financial aid storytelling can make all the difference in rallying support for your vision—and all the difference for the students whose lives you’ll change.