Clarkson Com & Media Students Serve as “In-House” Talent for University Development Campaigns
By Courtney Johnson-Woods
Instructor, Department of Communication & Media
Engaging alumni to be stakeholders in Clarkson’s future is a major goal of the University’s Office of Development and Alumni Relations. And cultivating students before they graduate yields some of the most active life-long alums.
With this in mind, development staff had a creative idea: Why not harness the talent of current students and future alumni to help execute Clarkson’s next major giving campaign? They turned to our Department of Communication & Media to pitch the concept, and as it happened, a newly developed social media course taught by Assistant Professor Jason Schmitt, proved an ideal testing ground.
In fall 2016, two dozen students had the opportunity to put into practice what they were learning in the classroom when the campus became both their client and their source of rich, storied content. . They produced multi-media features about current student athletes, teams, and successful alumni athletes, while galvanizing student athletes and coaches to promote a one-day campaign to support Clarkson Golden Knight athletics. Content was published across Clarkson’s social media outlets under the #letsCUgive campaign umbrella, driving traffic to Clarkson’s givecampus.com crowdfunding site.
Their efforts culminated in the spectacularly successful CU Athletics Giving Day held on September 29, 2016, which raised $135k from 3,391 donors, exceeding monetary goals and their desired 500 donors by an estimated 680 percent.
It was a win-win for Clarkson’s development team and for the communication students.
“Our students learned a lot working on a real campaign,” said Professor Schmitt. “They had to understand rhetorical strategies of crafting content and utilizing impactful graphics that would be meaningful for potential donors.”
Students also had to learn quickly how to edit those stories for Facebook posts or 140-character tweets to garner impressions, clicks, and ultimately donations. “In many ways, content development for emerging media is very much like going through numerous design modifications in engineering – an exceptional end-product is often the result of what you strip away as much as it is about what you add,” he said.
Clarkson baseball team member and Communications major Alex Hill ’19 says his involvement in #letsCUgive was deeply personal as well as a lot of fun. “At times I completely forgot the work I was doing was for class! Everyone we reached out to was eager to cooperate, and I feel like this campaign brought our already close student athletic community, even closer. I met new people from other teams and made new friends.”
Hill said Professor Schmitt allowed students a great deal of creative freedom. “This project forced me to push my production abilities in order to create some of my most inspired work, deliverables to which I was both proud to attach my name and the Golden Knights logo.”
2017 Campaign for The Clarkson Fund
The success of student involvement in the fall campaign led to student engagement in a Spring 2017 campaign supporting The Clarkson Fund. The campaign was integrated into as one of several projects in a Public Relations special topics course I taught as well as a major focus of my colleague Professor Stephen Farina’s Video Production course.
There were new challenges to tackle in this campaign, including a focus on engaging current students and recent graduates, groups that are historically less likely to donate but important to long-term development efforts. In addition, funding an unrestricted campaign in which donations are earmarked for a variety of uses —supporting everything from student scholarships to lab equipment or less glamorous needs like classroom lighting. So in terms of messaging, we weren’t able to rely on the same level of built-in emotional connection that people feel with our sports teams for this campaign; we were anticipating a tougher sell for something less focused.
In addition to teasing out emotive content across the themes of “Clarkson Proud” and the ways in which the Clarkson Fund has made student success possible, the campaign also publicized the expanded Reh Challenge, a generous match offered by alumnus Dave Reh ’62 and his wife, Sue, in the amount of $1896 for each three-year recurring gift that was completed using a credit card during the April 18-20, 2017 campaign.
The effort proved to be an exceptional collaboration, raising an estimated $300k from more than 1,400 donors, including many students and recent grads, an important metric of the campaign’s success.
From an academic perspective, Professor Farina said students learned far more than simply producing and publishing media. “They unearthed valuable lessons about how to work with clients who have their own goals, their own ideas, and often operate on their own schedules.” I know in my own class, in addition to honing skills, students realized the essentials of tying campaigns to strategic planning and established SMART goals. And for their efforts, they now have real value-added experience on their resumes, which for some has become a major talking point with potential employers in interviews for jobs in PR, communications, and media.
“Employers loved it!”
Alumna Emily Fountain ’17, a communications major with a focus on Digital Arts & Sciences, stopped by and visited me on campus this fall as I was writing about this experience. She shared that her new employer, Catapult Marketing, said her participation in both campaigns was an impressive experience that made her a standout candidate. Emily joined the company in October in the role of Legal Compliance Administrator for Marketing & Advertising and is responsible for offering guidance on the legalities of social media and traditional marketing efforts for the company, while also using her creative skills.
“Involvement in the Clarkson giving campaigns was a great experience and employers loved it!” Emily said. “They said the ways in which we worked with students across disciplines and coordinated with numerous departments proved our ability to be impactful on cross-functional teams in real-time.”
That’s good news for students enrolled in Professor Schmitt’s course this past fall who participated in Clarkson’s second athletics giving day on October 11, 2017 as an encore project. According to Shannon Desrosiers, former co-head coach of Clarkson’s championship Women’s Hockey team and now Stewardship Liaison in the Department of Development & Alumni Relations, the second #letsCUgive raised $139,225 from 2,940 donors.
“Although there are certainly risks in utilizing students who have to balance multiple demands, I think all of us involved feel the decision to look inward for student expertise continues to pay off,” notes Desrosiers.
With a slew of graphic and digital designers and producers, writers, and social media experts, our Communication & Media department is an asset of pooled high-caliber talent that not every university has at its disposal, so this campus-as-client model offers tremendous value for Clarkson. At the same time, our students are gaining real-world experience tied to fundraising markers, which is know-how they can tout as they embark on their careers.
“In many ways, content development for emerging media is very much like going through numerous design modifications in engineering – an exceptional end-product is often the result of what you strip away as much as it is about what you add,” Professor of Communication & Media Jason Schmitt.
CU Athletics Giving Days
- $135k from 3,391 donors
- $139k from 2,940 donors.
Courtney Johnson-Woods is an instructor in the Department of Communication & Media and serves as director of the Clarkson Writing Center.