A Fundraising Boost

A Fundraising Boost

Community colleges are learning about alumni in the quest for more financial support.
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Advancement directors are a lot like gamblers. They can easily recall the vivid details of their "wins"--even years after the fact.

Take Brenda Babitz, president of the Monroe Community College (N.Y.) Foundation. When she came on board 15 years ago, she worked to create an alumni database to be used for telemarketing--a new endeavor for the community college. Several years later, she nervously spent $7,000 on research that would help identify those who had attended Monroe and who might be able to donate.

To her surprise and delight, during one of the foundation's first telemarketing campaigns, an alumnus living in a southwestern state agreed to give $500. She called to thank him. During the brief conversation she made a mental note about this new donor: He was a man who didn't mince words and who prized discretion.

He didn't seek the limelight, but he did commit to helping the college. A phone call to this same donor the following year yielded a $5,000 gift to be given over two years. During Babitz's personal thank-you call, she asked if she could pay a personal visit to the donor. She and her family were coming to his state for a ski trip anyway, she explained. She also asked him to visit her the next time he came to Rochester, Monroe College's home city. He rebuffed both suggestions, but remained supportive.

During the fourth year, Babitz personally called and asked the donor to make a pledge over a multiple number of years. He flatly refused, saying he wasn't going to make a gift that year. Babitz was disappointed, but wise enough to not press for an explanation.

"Then I was in New York City for a meeting. I was walking down the street when my cell phone rang," she says. "It was him and he said he wanted to make a significant gift: $1 million." Turns out the donor, who was a successful entrepreneur, had decided to leave his company and wanted to give Monroe a generous amount of stock.

He remains a significant donor to Monroe, continuing to give financial gifts and helping with a scholarship program. Babitz adds that this donor has grown close enough to go golfing with her. She has also come to learn about his personal community college experience. It turns out that when he attended Monroe he was a single parent with three children. A professor helped him secure scholarship funds that kept him in school. While he later went on to earn a four-year degree and an advanced degree at different institutions, he remained grateful to the community college. He knows that had he not had a positive community college experience he would not have been as successful later in life, notes Babitz.

The point for community college advancement directors to take away is this, she says: Don't buy into the myth that alumni won't give. It has always been assumed that those who attend community colleges will only be loyal to the four-year institutions they later attend. "I decided to ignore this and go ahead blithely," she says. Babitz's experience shows that alumni from community colleges will give if they have positive experiences at two-year institutions.

Babitz conveys another important lesson: It pays to build an alumni database. Granted, it will cost money to track down alumni and to buy the proper software to maintain the data, but the community college will be better off in the long run. The key to smart marketing is a good list.

This president's success is just one of many "wins" for community colleges. She isn't alone in landing a big gift from an alumnus, nor does she want to be. In fact, she is helping spearhead a movement that will bring better management to community colleges' advancement efforts, especially to the area of individual donations. She has joined with six other community colleges to enlist the help of the CORE Group, an Eden Prarie, Minn.-based consultancy, in researching the best fundraising practices at the community college level.

Don't buy into the myth that alumni won't give.

CORE, which started its studies in higher education by analyzing the fundraising efforts of four-year institutions, is now tracking the behavior of individual and alumni donors to community colleges, explains Constance Cervilla, president and CEO. "We are looking at how to make the fundraising operation better."

This is uncharted territory for many community colleges. All signals would say, though, that these institutions are ready for new challenges.

"I would hate to say this is a new trend, but I think it is a noticed trend," says Polly Binns, executive director of the Council for Resource Development, an affiliate organization of the American Association of Community Colleges. Binns is cautious with her remarks, not wanting to slight the community colleges that have been landing big gifts from individual donors. She does admit, though, that many community colleges haven't even hit their stride when it comes to raising money. They still have plenty of catching up to do when compared to four-year institutions.

That's because most community colleges are young; the sector just celebrated its 100th birthday. Many of the 1,157 U.S. community colleges are much younger than that, having been founded only 30, or less, years ago. Compare this to numerous four-year colleges and universities established more than 100 years ago and it is evident that these institutions have had decades more time to form alumni associations, build endowments, and launch capital campaigns.

Traditionally, state and local dollars have funded community colleges. According to breakouts provided by the American Association of Community Colleges, 44 percent of community college resources come from state funds; tuition and fees account for 20 percent; while local funds make up another 20 percent. The federal government kicks in only 5 percent.

Many community colleges haven't even hit their stride on raising money.

The rest of the money comes from other sources, including gifts from alumni and non-alums, endowment income, and other fundraising. For some community colleges, alumni and individual donors make up 5 percent or less of annual funds. By comparison, dollars from individuals and alumni have historically been the largest source of support for four-year colleges and universities, according to a Council for Aid to Education survey. Last year, gifts from alumni and other individual donors made up 48.8 percent of the money raised in higher education.

Cervilla of CORE echoes these observations regarding community colleges and their four-year peers, but she adds a hopeful perspective. "The great news is those who give to community colleges have higher affinity to these institutions," she says. Many alumni, like the man in Babitz's story, may be successful people whose lives changed because of the community college experience. Other generous donors may be those who are tied to a specific community and know that the community college is the only option for ambitious but disadvantaged students, or who see the college as a cultural center. Donors, too, may want the community college to do well as a reflection on the community as a whole. In Monroe's case, successful fundraising provided the support to build a downtown campus and revitalize Rochester--a strong selling point to future donors.

Such efforts also help to close the budget gap for community colleges--a necessity in tight financial times. While community colleges are entrusted with the mission of providing affordable education, it has been more of a challenge to keep tuitions low these past few years. Federal, state, and local government dollars have become scarcer.

"In order to stay true to their missions, they can't raise tuition beyond what local people can deal with," explains Binns. "So they have had to turn to grant writing, foundations, and alumni."

Conventional wisdom says that community colleges' fundraising efforts are dependent upon grant money and the generosity of local companies. But observers urge advancement directors at community colleges to expand their thinking.

"The future of fundraising is in individual dollars," says Cervilla." Revenue sources are shifting. We need to pay attention to private sectors and philanthropy."

To some, the phrase "community college alumni" seems an oxymoron.

Community colleges are seen as places from which students move on, often after taking a series of courses that may not even add up to a degree. Their studies can take them to four-year colleges or technical and professional programs. Community college attendees are non-traditional students who often are weighed down with other social and economic responsibilities. Many may have children; others are caring for aging parents. Many are going to school while holding down jobs.

How does this disparate group of people come to be defined as "alumni"?

Advancement directors at some community colleges are coming up with their own answers to this question and relying on technology to create a better understanding of the potential donor pool.

The fundraising team at Montgomery Community College (Md.) hired Harris Connect, a database marketing firm, to track down various groups of people and gather demographic information: those who took 30 credits or more at the college; others who completed 15 to 29 credits; and those who earned 15 credits or less. Still other categories were created for those who took continuing education credits or noncredit courses. The effort, which was sustained during the past few years, has helped boost the alumni database from 28,000 to more than 110,000, explains Jessica Warnick, alumni director.

This was necessary to revitalize the alumni association. Although administrators had the foresight several decades ago to create an association, the energy put into maintaining the database waxed and waned through the years, says Warnick. Today, Montgomery uses SCT's Banner enterprise system to maintain data files and target appeals to various donors.

Close to five years ago, Valencia Community College (Fla.) underwent a similar database-building effort. Several lists--graduates, donors, and others--were collapsed into one to update information and to allow the fundraising team to mine the data and market to various donor segments, says Geraldine Gallagher, president and CEO of the Valencia Foundation. In her case, Blackbaud's Raiser's Edge software is now used to integrate functions. The software helps analyze who gives, how often, and the average gift size.

Warnick adds that those contacted are educated as to how her community college defines "alumni" and told why their support is crucial to the college. Montgomery now steadily adds to the alumni base by signing up graduating class members on commencement day.

Warnick has also worked on creating more sophisticated communications materials for alumni and donors.

Two years ago, Montgomery redesigned its alumni magazine to look like a more traditional higher ed publication. In keeping with the fundraising effort, every issue includes a donation envelope. A newer e-mail newsletter endeavor now includes chat features for specific alumni from engineering, nursing, and other fields of study.

Building this list was crucial to help with ever more sophisticated fundraising efforts. In fall 2005, Montgomery was just shy of $500,000 in raising $10 million as part of its most ambitious capital campaign.

Not bad, all in all, for a community college once discouraged from launching its first $3 million capital campaign in 1992. "A consultant conducted a feasibility study that said we couldn't do it," says Warnick. "The feeling was that people wouldn't support a community college."

Almost on cue, an alumnus and former Montgomery alumni association president stepped in to dispel any myths that successful alumni leave their community colleges behind. Milton "Sonny" Clogg, now 80, and a local attorney, gave several substantial gifts, typically running into the six figures. One of his annual gifts was as large as $1.1 million. Clogg's support for the school has also spurred other local businesses to help, notes Warnick.

Montgomery's experience with this one alumnus points to another community college strength.

"We have made a gut guess that 85 percent of those who have attended a community college still live in the community in which they went to school," says Binns. Four-year colleges and universities can't say this. It would be more likely that 85 percent of their alumni live in other areas. Because the community college students have roots in their communities, they may be more likely to give back. Community colleges won't know this, though, until they start asking for money.

The average community college student is 27 years old, notes Binns. These are students who are already established in an area. Providing they had a positive experience at the community college, their thoughtfulness can show up in other ways. "Let's say you need a $45 million bond passed. The community college alumni can vote and make that happen."

This is a very different type of relationship than the one an alumnus has with a four-year college or university.

The alumni who are close to home are a key segment of Northampton Community College's (Pa.) fundraising program. Susan Kubik, vice president of institutional advancement, estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the college's alumni live in the Lehigh Valley. None of the other 11 four-year institutions in the area can say that, she adds.

Northampton, which is one of the seven community colleges supporting CORE's research, has worked to cultivate alumni donors and community leaders, she says. The college recently landed three, seven-figure gifts from women in the area, she reports. Further, almost $1 million out of $2.5 million raised during the college's fiscal year that ended June 30, 2005, came from alumni and individual donors. The rest of the money came from foundations, corporations, and other sources.

Kubik notes that she and her staff cultivated individual and alumni donors between the two recent capital campaigns, the latter of which has been a three-year effort to raise $13.5 million. Kubik expected to close in on the goal by fall 2005.

If CORE has its way, there will be more winning stories like this reported by community colleges in the coming months. When it comes to private giving, community colleges are at the inception, says Cervilla.


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