With nearly 20 years of experience in program development and advancement, Mark Terranova leads AJ’s higher education client engagement team. He works closely with nonprofit clients to help them embrace the power of storytelling to drive relationships and demonstrate impact.

By Mark Terranova, SVP, Client Engagement

Live experiences are one of the most powerful ways for institutions to bond with their most important communities. For campaigns in higher education, no single event or series of events sets the tone more than the campaign kickoff. That’s why a well-conceived and well-produced campaign kickoff can serve several goals. It can build confidence in the campaign and in the institution. It can communicate a sense of urgency to key stakeholders and constituencies. And finally, it can serve as a catalyst for deeper engagement.

At August Jackson, we have had the privilege of partnering with colleges and universities from across the country and we’ve noticed a shift in the engagement and fundraising conversations. More and more leaders are looking beyond the constraints of traditional campaign launch events and are starting to ask questions like these:

  • Is our audience changing? Is it getting younger, more diverse?
  • Do we have an opportunity to engage beyond just affinity?
  • Are we taking advantage of all of the tools available to us?
  • Are we meeting people where they are, instead of asking them to come to us?

We think that taking a serious look at changing demographics – and taking the time to learn about and meet people where they are – is a critical step toward deeper engagement.

Bringing the campaign to life

Today, campaigns and campaign events must be strategicnimble and modern.

  • Are you building in opportunities for two-way conversations?
  • Are you on the cusp of pivoting to new regions and/or international engagement and development efforts?
  • Are you launching on campus, or will your launch consist of multiple regional events?

As we think about these and many other questions, we remain focused on several key strategies for building effective campaign kickoff events:

1) Programmaticallyhow can we help tell your story?

When thinking about your program, we try to think of which stories bring your campaign and your institution to life. We think about who your storytellers are and how they can tell their stories in ways that engage your communities, while also surprising and delighting them during the event.

For example, is your story best told through a thoughtful historian in an intimate atmosphere? Or, is your story one of bold vision that incorporates cutting-edge technology and innovation? 

2) Visuallyhow do we bring your brand and culture to life?

We think visual storytelling can begin with the venue. When guests arrive for example, do you want them to feel at home, in a tent with a front porch perhaps? Or do you want to reinforce your traditions by bringing the familiar into the unfamiliar, such as a program space designed in the style of your campus’s original classrooms.

Rethinking the Campaign Kickoff

You can also design a reception space that includes your campaign pillars, which serve as visual markers. Your guests are visually guided through the story and can also find and meet the people they’re supporting though their donations. And don’t forget to bring campus to them, we’ve found that “selfie” spots can trigger great moments of nostalgia.

3) Experientiallyhow do we create opportunities for authentic connections?

When you know what your communities want, you can provide experiences for them that benefit them as well as your institution. Interactive apps that connect alumni to each other can also collect important data.

The same can be accomplished using fun interactive elements. The “Wake Will” book at the Wake Forest Launch invited guests to share an inspiring story from their time at the university.

Finally, virtual and augmented reality can be a powerful tool to connect donors to the impact of their investments both back on campus and around the world.

Rethinking the Campaign KickoffWith Duke, we were able to transport guests from Peru to Fiji to see the impact of Duke’s Global initiatives, while donors from across the country could explore improvements made to the Duke Chapel and other parts of campus made possible through the campaign.

All in all, live events are a great place for your communities to “see your stuff” and meet the people. We want to create opportunities to let guests dive in and explore the research being done and impact being made by your faculty and students.

Our approach in practice

To bring Santa Clara’s “Innovating with a Mission” campaign to life, August Jackson knew we had to first understand the story of the university, and then interpret it through the lens of the campaign. We also knew that the history of Silicon Valley, and Santa Clara’s unique role in it, had to be celebrated – but it also had to be balanced by the stories of Santa Clara’s impact today, as well as its vision for the future.

What resulted was a storytelling framework: “On a Mission.” We created a video that opened with images from the past integrated into today’s campus, followed by stories of impact highlighting students and faculty. A powerful call-to-action incorporating “On a Mission” led directly into a program that featured students, faculty, and alumni each sharing their own “mission” as part of their Santa Clara journey during the kickoff events.

If your college or university is striving to launch a campaign (or needs support for a campaign already underway), we hope you find this insight helpful. And of course, we’re always happy to share our knowledge and talk more about your upcoming kickoff or other important milestones.