Point of View: Lessons in Resource Development
Robust Fund-Raising Is Critical to a College’s Health
Over the long term, state disinvestment in higher education has shifted costs to students and families and has made it difficult for colleges and universities to deliver needed programs and services. The impact of funding cuts has been most serious at community colleges. These institutions, which serve 43 percent of America’s undergraduate students, including the most at-risk students in higher education, receive only 27 percent of federal, state, and local revenue. Not only are too many students academically underprepared, they struggle financially. The Wisconsin Hope Lab reported in January of 2016 that 22 percent of community college students in its sample were unable to pay rent or mortgage expenses at some point during the year, and 10 percent of them lost utility service. Many students struggle even to buy food, and college costs can be prohibitive.
Fundraising has become a critical component to support essential community college programs and services as well as providing funds for student scholarships and revenue for capital projects.
However, most community college leaders do not have a background in private fundraising. What follows is a story of a partnership between a college president and a chief advancement officer. We hope that the lessons learned will help other leaders to build an effective philanthropic program.
The college had an existing foundation, but it was dormant, raising money only periodically for special projects. Foundation bylaws were outdated, and the foundation had no staff other than the college president’s secretary. After an external review of the college’s fundraising potential, the president convinced the college governing board to authorize the funds necessary to hire a chief advancement officer/executive vice president of the foundation with the promise that the foundation would be revitalized and would generate significantly more revenue than costs.
The successful candidate had a background of accomplishment in fundraising but not in higher education. He provided a valuable complement to the college president, who knew about community colleges and their students but who had no experience in philanthropy. The two leaders formed a partnership, learning from each other while building a productive fundraising program for the college. The first lesson that we offer is to note the importance of establishing a strong relationship between the college president and the development officer. The chief development office should report directly to the president, and they should communicate frequently. The president should ensure adequate staffing support for the advancement office and should include the chief advancement officer in cabinet meetings. The chief advancement officer needs to help the president learn how and when to ask for gifts from selected donors.
The second lesson is to recognize that the center of the philanthropic effort is the college’s foundation board of directors. Board members help to raise funds needed for annual and capital programs as well as special projects and student scholarships. They support the college’s mission by advancing the relationship donors and potential donors have with the college.
Every foundation board should develop a matrix of skills, characteristics, and experiences the board is seeking in new members. The board should have a written description of the formal process used to suggest, identify, research, and recruit new board members.
Each foundation board member should be held accountable by signing a statement of understanding. This statement should outline board member duties, responsibilities, and time commitment. The statement also should be signed by the chief advancement officer/executive vice president of the foundation and specify the foundation’s responsibilities to the board member. Expectations of board members are made explicit through the statement of understanding.
A hallmark of a great foundation board of directors is that it has an effective board development committee that focuses on evaluation of the board’s effectiveness, potential board member identification and recruitment, orientation of new board members, and honoring and keeping board members engaged in the foundation and committed to the mission of the college.
The third lesson is to understand the passions and interests of potential donors. Building a connection between a donor’s interests and passions and the college is the main motivation for giving. Donors are motivated by the potential to make a positive impact. The college can be a conduit to fulfill their interests.
Donor research is an effective way to identify interests and passions. What charities does the donor already support?
What are the donor’s hobbies? Are there some benefits that the donor might value by connecting with the college? Get to know prospective donors by meeting with them. What would they do to change the world or their communities? What would they want to accomplish that is most meaningful to them? What is the most satisfying charitable gift they ever made and why? What personal events have deeply touched their hearts? What legacy do they want to leave?
One example of how a donor connection was made is the story of Sam Stein.
With only $23 and an idea, Sam launched a one-man business in Ohio in 1940, inventing a press that made pre-formed hamburger patties. Sam sold the business and retired to San Diego County, where he and his wife, Rose, became important philanthropists. We learned about Sam’s hobby of collecting logo golf balls and delivered six Palomar College logo golf balls. Sam had never been to college, and was delighted when we told him that he was invited to commencement where we would grant him an honorary associate degree in humane arts for his significant contributions to the community. We learned of Sam’s great respect for nurses, whom he credited for his wife Rose’s quick recovery after a recent complicated surgery. When we told Sam about the college’s registered nursing program, he wrote a check for $250,000 for nursing student scholarships. We invited Sam back to the college every year to meet the scholarship recipients and to hear their stories and how his support made it possible for them to complete their programs. Sam told us that he couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t want to donate money while they were still alive so they could see what an impact that it had.
The fourth lesson is to thank donors and let them know what impact their donations are making. Written impact reports assure donors that their gifts are being used in accordance with their designation, demonstrate that their gifts are changing the human condition for the better, prove that their gifts were good investments, and persuade them to give again. Donors should also be thanked in personal ways through telephone calls and handwritten notes from the college president, from foundation board members, and from students who benefit from the gift. Enclosed photographs can make the notes even more personal. There are many other creative ways to thank donors. The key is to make the message meaningful to donors — to touch their hearts.
The fifth lesson is to find ways to connect with local business owners and community leaders. In 1991, we formed the Palomar College President’s Associates, an arm of the foundation. Membership grew quickly, and members seemed pleased to pay dues of $1,000 per year to meet quarterly with the college president and become more engaged with the college. We found that the Associates offered valuable networking opportunities for its members. The college president also benefited from the association with the community and business leaders by receiving valuable information and support. The Palomar College President’s Associates proved to be an energetic and highly supportive group. Not satisfied with attending occasional meetings, the group sponsored an annual gala that featured the talents of students and that continues to be an important community event 25 years later. Funds from dues and sponsored activities like the gala support college needs and student scholarships.
The sixth lesson is to understand how to build support for the foundation with governing board members and college faculty and staff. It certainly helps to be able to say that a high percentage of the college community is donating to the foundation when asking people outside the college for their support. Building a culture of philanthropy within the college is essential to getting buy-in from faculty and staff. Culture changes take time, but we were able to expedite acceptance at Palomar College when the foundation purchased needed equipment and supplies for departments or supported an innovative faculty or staff proposal.
The college community needs to learn and acknowledge that fund development is critical to the college’s health and that each person has a role in supporting it at an individually determined level. The percentage of people who donate is even more important than the amount donated.
Building a culture of philanthropy means that people understand their responsibility for fundraising success. Building a culture of philanthropy also means integrating messages about fundraising into meetings of the governing board, faculty, and staff. It is important to point out how fundraising is making a difference. Governing board members, foundation board members, and college employees should be ambassadors for the college—and for fundraising.
The last lesson is one of persistence. It takes time to build the community network, the capability of the foundation board, and the college culture of philanthropy necessary for an effective resource development program. We started with a modest goal of raising $125,000 in 1991. By 2000, when the college president retired, the foundation and President’s Associates were raising $1.5 million per year in donations and planned gifts.
George R. Boggs is superintendent/president emeritus of Palomar College and president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges. He is an adjunct professor in the community college doctoral programs at San Diego State University and National American University. Dale Wallenius is director of philanthropy for Shriners Hospitals for Children in Lexington, Kentucky, former chief advancement officer/executive vice president of the Foundation for Palomar College in California, and an active fundraising consultant nationally.
This is a continuation of a series authored by principals involved in the Roueche Graduate Center, National American University, and other national experts identified by the center. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between the Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or, call 512-813-2300.