Johns Hopkins

Rising to the Challenge: Leveraging history to strengthen the future

Phase I: Building a new culture of philanthropy—and strategy for a $4.5 billion capital campaign

Question: “How do you prepare a multibillion dollar capital campaign during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression?” When the leadership of Johns Hopkins sought to unite the university under the umbrella of “One Johns Hopkins,” while laying the groundwork for its next capital campaign, this was the elephant in the room.

In advance of Rising to the Challenge, a $4.5 billion capital campaign, the financial crisis compelled Johns Hopkins University to look beyond its cadre of major donors to develop a stronger, more broadly based, institution-wide foundation for giving. At the same time, because several generations of the university’s undergraduates had, at best, an inconsistent college experience, the University’s office of development and alumni relations needed to build a “new culture of philanthropy from the ground up.”

To accomplish this, we used the qualitative research process itself to guide more than constituent engagement strategy, we sought to build alumni engagement. This not only provided the university with a de facto feasibility study of the next generation of givers for the future campaign, while concurrently serving as the foundation for an enduring constituent engagement strategy, and a new compact for relations between students, alumni, and the university.


  • Conducted large-scale qualitative research interviewing core constituencies ranging from current students to multiple alumni segments, faculty, staff, and administration at more than a dozen locations throughout the United States
  • Developed comprehensive strategy to help identify and nurture the university’s next generation of givers to serve as the foundation for building an enduring culture of philanthropy throughout the entirety of Johns Hopkins
  • Created overarching alumni relations, development and philanthropic communications and organizational strategy, including core themes, positioning and targeted messaging for all key constituencies
  • Developed strategy and naming for new alumni giving societies
  • Created naming and foundational messaging for the eventual $4.5 billion capital campaign, Rising to the Challenge

Visual System Development and Constituent Engagement Guidelines

Aside from Johns Hopkins need to create a unified global identity system, students, alumni, and faculty told us on no uncertain terms that they wanted the University to present itself with greater cohesion, clarity, and traditional iconography. The findings from our discussion groups and interviews were clear. We found a powerful sense of dedication among the people of Johns Hopkins to advance not only themselves and their individual fields of study, but the world itself.

Concurrently, was a surprising and hitherto underleveraged reverence and interest in the history of Johns Hopkins, its founding president, Daniel Coit Gilman, and the collective accomplishments of the University’s alumni, ranging from Michael Bloomberg to Rachel Carson, particularly among young alumni. These alumni demanded a sense of “tradition” their Ivy League peers enjoyed—and they felt shortchanged by university communications focused almost entirely on science, technology, and “the future.”

“We bleed Hopkins Blue,” undergraduate alumni told us. But alumni communications were produced exclusively in “Old Gold and Sable,” the colors of the doctoral robes, not the world-famous lacrosse uniforms, because the numerical majority of alumni are graduate students. Undergraduate alumni, who are treated like “Doctoral students from day one,” this was just “one more slight to endure” at a university founded almost exclusively as a “research institution.”

From a development and constituent engagement perspective, this emerged as a critical theme: undergraduates feel ignored, yet undergraduate alumni represent the largest percentage of givers and give a much larger percentage of funds. While graduate alumni may have been almost as passionate about their experience as undergraduate alumni, their relationships with the university were tethered to their advisors, not the university, writ large. To improve undergraduate alumni engagement, the university not only needed to meet them on their terms, they needed to provide something missing from the undergraduate experience—a greater dollop of “humanity” and a stronger sense of “tradition.” This meant celebrating the people of Johns Hopkins, and not just their scientific advances. This also meant greater reverence for the traditional iconography of Johns Hopkins, its architecture, its blue, and it richly complex seal.

The resulting constituent engagement strategy, included:

  • Positioning and communications strategy, including core theme, “Dedicated to Advancing Humanity”

  • Vision, values and voice

Phase III: High-Impact Regional Events

Looking to maintain the goodwill that had developed through a series of major regional events employed during and after the university’s previous campaign, Knowledge for the World, development and alumni relations sought to use regional events to improve and extend alumni engagement in advance of the next campaign. We were charged with leveraging our larger research to develop the overarching concept for these high impact regional events.

  • Conducted qualitative research, developed strategy, naming and creative brief to introduce the university’s recent accomplishments and giving priorities to alumni and friends through the international alumni engagement tour.

  • Segmentation strategy, and targeted messaging

  • Comprehensive visual system, including revised University Seal, iconography, signature, wordmark, colors, brand architecture and messaging matrix

  • Constituent engagement guidelines and training

Phase IV: Financial Aid Initiative

Previous research revealed that Johns Hopkins lagged behind nearly all of its elite peers in the availability and level of financial aid it offered its students. In order to improve the university’s standing among peer institutions and to ensure that all admitted students would be able to attend the university regardless of financial need, a new president chose to make financial aid the university’s top fundraising priority in advance of its larger capital campaign.

To accomplish this, we:

  • Conducted qualitative and quantitative research.
  • Developed the strategy, segmentation and targeted messages necessary to help launch a nine-figure financial aid initiative and to form an essential element of the university’s larger capital campaign and annual giving messages.

Phase V: Development and Alumni Relations Human Resources Recruitment Communications

  • In anticipation of large-scale recruitment for the capital campaign, we:
  • Conducted quantitative and qualitative research to determine key drivers for the recruitment and retention of Development and Alumni Relations staff across the entire Johns Hopkins enterprise
  • Developed recruitment and retention strategy in advance of the capital campaign; Developed creative themes for recruiting materials across multiple media platforms.


  • New-found reverence for the history, iconography, and accomplishments of the university and its people
  • Renewed devotion to alumni engagement, regardless of giving capacity, resulting in redesigned organizational structure, new communications materials
  • Strengthened commitment to financial aid, in order to ensure that Johns Hopkins enrolls the best and the brightest, without regard to financial circumstances
  • Increased annual giving and participation, successful implementation of financial aid initiative, great affinity for the university among alumni and students
  • Campaign achieved $4.5 goal two years ahead of schedule and goal was increased by an additional $1 billion

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