Guiding the alumni giving circle

$3.5 million alumni group donation to Eastern Michigan U shows how higher ed advancement leaders can nurture and support independently formed groups of alumni or philanthropists

While any major donation to an institution is something to celebrate, typically the donation inspiration arises after months or years of careful conversations initiated by a gift officer. Sometimes, however, the college gets brought into the fold not long before the gift is announced. Such is the case at Eastern Michigan University, which will be receiving $3.5 million from a group of alumni. The collective group, called GameAbove, is a type of giving circle—a concept that’s more common in the broader world of philanthropy, according to officials at CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

Donation decisions

“The alumni formed it on their own, but GameAbove members have been working closely with the university to determine the structure and recipients of the grant,” says spokesperson Denis Wolcott, a communications professional with Los Angeles-based Fraser Communications, which is providing strategic counsel to the organization. “Discussions were open, fact-finding ones with various parts of the university—from the EMU Foundation to the president of the student senate, to faculty department heads and other officials.” Many members of GameAbove already had close relationships across the university, he adds. “We fully developed our ideas and initiatives to present to the university.”

GameAbove is designating $2 million to support EMU faculty development and retention (for assistant, associate and full professors) across all five academic colleges as well as the university library. It will allow the university to reassign time for teaching to scholarly, creative and innovative activities; to hire research assistants; and to purchase special equipment and supplies. “Faculty need additional resources,” says Wolcott. “They need the ability to take time off from the day-to-day instructional process to further enrich their skills and expertise.”

The additional $1.5 million will be used to support students—with financial resources for learning clubs, intramural sports, priorities of student government and other student organizations, and solutions to student homelessness and other challenges. “Some students need help removing barriers to learning, such as by eliminating basic housing and food insecurity,” says Wolcott.

The organization’s 16-member advisory board is diverse, including former student-athletes, current entrepreneurs and successful businesspeople, and EMU coaches. Future gifts will support and fund other key EMU programs and initiatives, such as enhancing athletic programs, creating student facilities, and providing entrepreneurial and innovation support for students.

In an announcement about the gift, Provost and Executive Vice President Rhona Longworth expressed gratitude for the funds and for GameAbove’s long-range intentions in supporting the university. Her office, within the Division of Academic and Student Affairs, will administer the faculty and student program funds.

Surprise–a check is on the way

Large gifts from groups not officially affilidated with a college or university are rare. Even less common: college leaders being surprised with a check. As the GameAbove donation process shows, alumni or others who are passionate about an institution’s success generally have a close enough relationship with the school to understand that officials would welcome the chance to share where funding is most needed.

Still, guidance may well be needed.

When Linda Durant, vice president for development at CASE, was a senior vice president for advancement at a four-year university, a group of alumni—all former athletes—created a giving circle and sought to support a particular team.

Other examples of group gifts to universities

This fall, Illinois Institute of Technology received a $150 million gift from a group of “prominent Chicago leaders,” the largest cumulative gift in the school’s history. IIT will use the money for scholarships and facilities.

Back in 2004, the Yale Class of 1954 collectively gave $110 million to the institution, the largest gift in its history. The bulk of the gift, $90 million, was from a fund formed by class members after their 25th reunion.

“We were thrilled, but heard about it after it had already started,” she recalls. “They were just sort of collecting money and were going to go ahead and hand it to the coach. These gifts needed to be transacted—put through the system.” That, her team explained to the donors, would allow them to get the documentation needed for the IRS, as well as ensure they get thanked properly. Plus, the office would arrange for the funds to get into the correct budget account. Durant says the message for the alumni was this: “We don’t doubt you know what you’re doing. We just want to help you with this transaction.”

Girl power

One type of giving circle that appears to be gaining momentum is with alumnae. Female graduates can come together on their own or be brought together by the university. “As I was leaving [my institution], we were getting ready to start a women’s giving circle,” says Durant. “The intent was that the women would work with the staff to identify how they wanted their gifts to be used at the university.”

“From what I’m hearing, alumnae giving circles are becoming much more popular and widespread,” she adds. “Research has shown over the past few years that there is a lot of power in women’s philanthropy.”

Also read: Donor dibs: Managing the expectations that come with philanthropy

The peer-to-peer fundraising is very effective. “I wouldn’t call it peer-to-peer pressure, but if women know other women are giving to the school and making the case for support, it means a lot to them,” says Durant.

For any group, Durant says, discussions about intentions for the money are important. “You have to be careful that it’s going to be in alignment with the university’s priorities and goals. You can’t let them get ahead of you.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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