In Pursuit of the Perfect Stranger: A New Model for Higher Ed Campaign Prospecting

The Winkler Group is proud to feature Farhana Mather, Director of Development, External Relations, and Strategic Initiatives, Columbia University, New York, in this month’s blog.

University campaigns have traditionally been built on faculty, school and unit-based priorities and by tapping into their alumni affiliations based on the grateful mindset of graduates who want to give back to their alma maters.  But several leading universities are undertaking a new breed of campaign.  Ones that are organized differently and offer new ways for the university to engage more directly with both alumni and non-alumni donors.  

These campaigns are organized around “big ideas” that often transcend the faculty, school and unit priorities.  They create a case where the university articulates how it will contribute and engage with the world in very tangible ways through its research and teaching and service.  

Big ideas allow for campaigns to set the stage for how any donor, with a belief and shared vision, can become part of the campaign—even if their affinity is to a different institution.  By creating compelling areas that the university commits to advancing, and by focusing on today’s pressing issues, the campaign takes on a bigger life–one that has reach well beyond its own walls and its alumni base.

These could be ideas associated with traditional areas of science, medicine, arts, or business, but the notion here is that the university stakes its role and place in helping to solve major issues.  Think social justice, poverty, climate change, cancer, for example, where a university sets out its goals to make major advancements in teaching and research and student programs.  The university then demonstrates the ways in which it will leverage its resources and assets to driving meaningful progress to make a difference in these areas. 

In campaigns like these, universities engage their alumni to see beyond the walls of the institution from which they graduated.  They foster donor motivation driven by ideas that touch our alums where they are in life, and not from where they came.  These campaigns also open the door to the “perfect stranger”–the donor that does not hold a degree from our university– but who connects because they see that the university has committed to ideas and that their gifts can do great and powerful things in the world.


Farhana Mather is Director of Development, External Relations, and Strategic Initiatives for EI and LDEO at Columbia University, which recently launched its $5 billion The Columbia Commitment campaign.  She is a former Senior Campaign Consultant with the Winkler Group.

The Winkler Group is a full-service fundraising firm headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, with offices in Orlando and Atlanta.  The Winkler Group specializes in capital campaigns, planning studies, and strategic development planning.


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