Fundraising at the University Level

When the opportunity arose for my choir to participate in a festival performance at Carnegie Hall this year (which, of course, we had to take advantage of!), I was presented with the task of working with the students to raise sufficient funds for the trip to be feasible. Since the invitation came in May of 2016 after classes were already over for the year and the performance was to take place in March 2017, I had essentially six months in which to get the job done. So what I share with you here is based primarily on what we were able to make happen in that time frame, as well as some ideas for what I think would work better next time around.

To give you some background, Dickinson State University is a rural, public institution with a growing enrollment currently totaling about 1,400. Because we are a public institution, the majority of our fundraising efforts are done in cooperation with the DSU Heritage Foundation which, as a private, non-profit entity, has far more latitude in how it raises funds. Although I have only taught at public institutions, it is my understanding that most private universities also have some sort of fundraising office, so my first bit of advice is to be sure to talk to the individual at your institution who is in charge of fundraising to ensure that your efforts are aligned with theirs. For example, our university (like most) has several ongoing fundraising campaigns, and the director of the foundation was anxious to ensure that I was not approaching any individuals or businesses for large donations who had already given significant sums. In your conversations with this individual/entity, be sure to be clear on which responsibilities are whose: as I worked without our Foundation this year, there were a few times where I was under the impression that they would be taking charge of something that ended up being my responsibility, which delayed our fundraising efforts unnecessarily.

The first aspect of our fundraising campaign this year was for the foundation to add a “Carnegie Hall Experience” category to their annual fundraising campaign for the Department of Fine and Performing Arts. This was 100% executed by the foundation, so I have little insight into how it was done, other than that it was included on a donation card sent out to department donors at the beginning of the year and distributed at all fundraisers throughout the year. I capitalized on this by announcing the campaign at every concert we held, and by performing selections from our Carnegie Hall repertoire on every concert to keep the campaign in our audience members’ minds. In this case, our repertoire was Mozart’s Requiem, so it occasionally felt a bit out of place in the program (e.g. our holiday concert), but it gave me an opportunity to talk about the invitation to Carnegie Hall, and to introduce my audiences one of the great monuments of the choral repertoire, so I felt it was worth it.

Second, we implemented a letter writing campaign. The students in the ensemble were instructed to collect contact information for at least ten individuals that they knew personally, and that they would be willing to ask for donations. I prepared a brief form letter on DSU Foundation letterhead that was signed by the students, as well as a more detailed form letter on University letterhead signed by myself to provide background on the opportunity and ask for donations. We spent about an hour one afternoon hand-signing these letters, hand-writing short notes on them (“Hey Uncle Joe, I hope you guys are doing well!”), and stuffing them into envelopes to be mailed out. It was a bit time consuming, but we felt the time spent was worth the personal touch it afforded.

For our final push, we held a spaghetti dinner fundraiser on the day of our last concert before the trip. The manager at one of our local grocery stores was very supportive and donated all of the food for the event so that every dollar we earned was profit. We distributed the food preparation duties among the students in the ensemble (those who had access to cooking facilities, of course) and held the dinner as close as possible to the location of the concert to encourage as much overlap as possible between dinner attendees and concert attendees. (In our case, the location of the concert was a local church whose policies prevented us from holding the dinner at the concert venue itself, as would have been our preference.) The dinner was held two hours before the concert to allow enough time to wrap up the meal and give the students time to change clothes, etc., as well as have some time to rest before the performance.

In addition to these, there were a couple of other ideas that were suggested, but that we just didn’t have time to implement. One was singing Valentines, where members of the ensemble would have learned some short love song, and students/faculty would pay $20 to have the ensemble show up at a person’s class and sing it to them. Another was to include various music-related items (free voice lessons, the conductor’s baton, a chance to conduct a piece in a concert, etc.) in a silent auction that was held as part of a high-end fundraising dinner.

So here are a few things I learned that I hope might be useful to you:

  1. Like most things, plan on everything taking twice as long as you expect.
  2. Set specific deadlines for your students and hold them to those deadlines. It took far longer than it should have for my students to collect contact information for the letter writing campaign.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask. This was the hardest part of this effort for me, but I discovered that people were far more willing to participate than I would have expected. For example, I did not expect all of the food for the spaghetti dinner to be donated, but when I approached the grocery store manager with our needs he just said, “Let me see what we can do,” and gave us more than we really needed. Later, it occurred to me that this is a tax write-off for his store, so we weren’t the only ones benefitting. In the future, I think I’ll extend this idea further by approaching local businesses about making cash donations—it can’t hurt to ask, and you might be surprised at what they’re willing to give.
  4. Fundraising works best when it’s personal. Although this wasn’t for the Carnegie Hall trip, I was also doing some fundraising this year to defray the cost of hiring a small orchestra for our holiday concert. When I tried making phone calls, they generally weren’t returned. When I approached donors in person with a specific request (including a specific dollar amount), they were almost always willing. Similarly, when I approached the grocery store manager about the food donation, it was in person. This can be time consuming, but it ended up being very much worth the time.
  5. Know your community and set your expectations accordingly. Our community is small and not particularly affluent, so it was not reasonable to expect that we would raise huge sums. If you know you have wealthy donors in the area, you might expect to raise sufficient funds to significantly defray the costs of whatever it is you’re planning; if not, plan accordingly. If you do need to raise a large sum, find ways of spreading it out over a longer time period and larger numbers of people. For example, sometime in the near future we are hoping to replace our concert grand piano with one of higher quality. Rather than just going out to ask for large sums from a few donors, I’ve been thinking we could run an “88 Keys” campaign, where donors are asked to pay for one of the keys on the new piano over the course of two or more years. If we were to buy a good quality, refurbished Steinway or Yamaha we could probably get it for around $88,000, meaning the donors would pay $1,000 for a key. Spread out over the course of two years, this would only cost them $41.67 per month, which donors in our area would probably be willing to commit to. A more affluent community might be able to afford twice that, or be able to raise the funds over one year instead of two.

Perhaps more than anything, what I learned from this experience is that the possibilities are practically endless. Just about anything you can think of that people will pay for can be turned into a fundraiser. It’s just a matter of determining what will work best for your group and finding a way of implementing it that makes sense for the population you’re targeting. I’m certainly not the most experienced in this area, and many of you probably have better ideas than these, but hopefully a few of these can be useful to you. If you’d like additional information on any of these ideas, please don’t hesitate to contact me at

About the author

Brent W. Rogers

Brent W. Rogers

Brent Rogers is Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Dickinson State University.