Breaking the Fundraising Monolith

Noah Drezner

Noah Drezner

Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) have always been diverse. Like most colleges and universities, these often tuition-driven, colleges and universities are feeling pressured to increase their revenues. Therefore, as MSIs acknowledge the increasing diversity in their college-going population, these institutions are becoming more and more diverse. So too should their fundraising approaches.

As Nelson Bowman III, rightfully pointed out, although the numbers are hard to calculate, giving to MSIs is disproportionately lower than giving to predominantly White institutions. How can MSIs increase the philanthropic support of their institutions?

Fundraisers know that the more personal the ask, the more successful it will be. Therefore, knowing your alumni and making solicitations, even annual fund letters, as personal as possible is essential to increased alumni giving. Given that MSIs are often tasked to do more with less and therefore often have smaller institutional advancement staffs, here are some thoughts on how to enhance fundraising programs in efficient and hopefully non-taxing ways for staff.

Understand the diversity of your campus and your alumni. There is growing research that looks at the importance of identity in philanthropic giving. What my research and others have found is that people are motivated differently to give based on their different social identities. Therefore, as MSIs become more diverse, it is very important that their advancement offices understand their alumni-base and not treat them as a monolith. To be the most successful at fundraising colleges and universities should truly engage their donor’s whole-self in their solicitations.

Therefore, advancement offices should develop culturally sensitive solicitation strategies. Lori Spears, in her research, found that the way that alumni are approached to give is important. For example, when institutions employed successful strategies to increase alumni giving for majority populations and attempted the same techniques with minority populations, the initiatives were not as effective. Spears’ work looked at both a predominately White institution (PWI) and a historically Black university. She found that both the PWI and HBCU assumed that their fundraising efforts would work in both the White and Black alumni communities. At neither institution was this correct. As MSIs diversify, alumni engagement strategies that have worked in the past might not work for all alumni and should be adjusted as such. With these more diverse student- and alumni-bodies, MSIs should create alumni councils that engage their diverse alumni. For example, an HBCU should consider creating a Latino/a alumni council. These councils should be used to engage these alumni, seek advice on how to increase alumni engagement and giving. However, MSIs should only institute these alumni councils, if they plan on taking the advice and following through. Too often alumni councils are created, advice is given, and then it is not used, resulting in alumni frustration.

• Collect data and use it. In order for advancement officers to engage in dynamic and culturally sensitive solicitations they must have good data to work with and know how to access the data. The power of a good database, strong data, and a person who can run analyses can be extreme. As mentioned, it is common knowledge that the most successful fundraising strategies involve donor-centric personal solicitations. Yet, it is simply impossible to personally ask each prospective donor—especially if an institution’s development office is understaffed. Therefore, using data can help fundraisers understand their alumni and create dynamic segmentations that can make the annual fund letters and calls more personal and, therefore, more successful.

Collecting data and resurveying an entire alumni population can be very expensive. Therefore, thinking about how to collect this data in cost-effective ways is essential. For example, begin collecting data about your students while they are on campus. How do they identify? What are their interests? What student activities are they involved in? All of this information will be very valuable in the decades to come. Many campuses use software packages such as OrgSync or Collegiate Link; these might be expensive programs to implement. However, collecting data on student group membership does not need to be all that taxing. At minimum, having a policy that each student group—or to begin with a select few (e.g.; Greek organizations, marching band, and student government, etc.)—provide a yearly list of members is an excellent start. Those lists should be coded in the alumni database. For current alumni, use events on campus or off to ask one or two important questions when they register. In exchange for answering the questions enter them into a raffle small gift like a t-shirt or sweatshirt. Additionally, many institutions have culled old yearbooks to record alumni student involvement.

• Finally, think about the next generation of alumni as donors. MSIs should begin teaching the importance of philanthropy to your institution prior to students leaving campus. For example, Development officers (lead by the Penn Center for MSIs’ own advisory board member Nelson Bowman III) at Prairie View A&M University, a public historically Black university outside of Houston, TX created a new student philanthropy program that is based on the concept of “philanthropy by the students, for the students.” Beginning in academic year 2012-2013 students made their first contributions, creating an endowment that will provide scholarships to their fellow students.

The power of this initiative is not about the size of the gift. They are asking for $10 per student; however, it is about teaching students about philanthropy, how it works, and seeing it help others around them. The students are involved in the solicitation, the giving, and the decision-making on how the newly created funds will help fellow students. This co-curricular education will be invaluable in engaging these students as young alumni and throughout the rest of their lives.

As MSIs, like all institutions, diversify and realize that they need to increase their alumni engagement and giving in order to meet budget and provide the excellence that they seek, it is important that they look at and understand who their alumni are, and engage them as such—and not settle for cookie-cut fundraising across their alumni population.

Noah D. Drezner is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, College Park and an affiliate at PennGSE’s Center for Minority Serving Institutions

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