Playing Percentages

July 1, 2001       Craig Causer      

College commencement is a turning point in which the newly crowned graduate is welcomed into the “real world” with often eye-popping student loan bills, job market concerns and the ever-pressing question, “How can I move out of my parent’s basement?”

Detachment from old State U. continues as families and 9 to 5ers replace fraternities and all-nighters. For many alumni, the annual fund appeal becomes an aside from a previous life and the goal of academic institutions has been to try to keep themselves in a position of priority in an alumnus’ ever-widening world.

Many nonprofits are ready to pop the champagne when an appeal response is 1.5 percent. Get to 3 percent and an ambulance may be needed for the delirious staff. Amherst College in Massachusetts, every year since 1995, has received an annual fund gift from more than 63 percent of alumni.

“The rate of participation in the Annual Fund is something we work very hard every year to maintain and build sort of an annual referendum about the value of an education,” said Michael Kiefer, chief advancement officer at the school.

Founded in 1821, Amherst continues it’s small school success with an enrollment of just under 1700 students. Those modest numbers coupled with the general loss of alumni who have passed away leaves the school with a select target.

“We also make it very clear to people that although Amherst is well known and generously supported, and we have a phenomenal applicant pool, there really only are 18,000 or 20,000 people in the world who can call this place their own. We need everyone to pitch in every year.”

That seed of becoming a part of the alumni giving community is planted early as potential donors begin hearing about the annual fund while the ink is still wet on their final exams. It’s just one method to identify and track the young, as well as the old, who hold an Amherst degree.

“We’ve tracked data from before 1930. So there’s a great amount of historical data which allows the classes to position themselves and set goals for their own records and also goals that would help them be the best class that ever had participated,” explained Betsy Cannon Smith, alumni secretary and executive director of the Office of Alumni and Parent Programs.

That data is put to use in a variety of ways. The direct mail program has been tailored toward a feeling of history and intimacy. All alumni receive a series of four to five general mailings that feature a specific theme. This year’s theme is titled “Talking About Amherst” and offers different perspectives including those of a student, faculty member and an alumnus.

During the course of the last five years, the college has used this technique in their series of colorful mailings as subtle reminders that Amherst is a small community rather than a 40,000-student monolith. Through the literature, people have become familiar with the stories that bind the school’s communities – past and present.

For the 1996-97 Annual Fund, alumni were introduced to the story of Clarence “Spots” Birdseye, Class of 1910. Birdseye used his education to become the inventor of quick-frozen foods. The 1997-98 fund presented a look at some distinguish faculty, including Dr. Richard Martin Foose, a geology professor who despite suffering from a weakened leg due to polio, left his students in the dust during field trips. This year it’s author and alumnus, Scott Turow who proclaims that he contributed to the fund even during his financially-strapped “salad years.”

The “who” in the mailings may change from year to year, but Amherst officials believe they have identified the “what” of the annual fund. Cannon Smith said that the goals of the fund are based on the building blocks of the school. Those blocks include financial aid, faculty and facilities, all of which are worked into the annual appeal.

It’s not only the direct mail that has spurred giving but also the freedom in which donor dollars are channeled. Donors know that their money is not restricted to certain areas of the institution.

“In most of the universities in the United States today the annual fund is no longer strictly for the unrestricted operating purposes of the college,” Kiefer explained. “We hear about all the time the growing desire among donors to earmark their gifts for specific people, programs — aspects of the institution to get immediate and direct impact and to put their imprint on the place. An institution the size of Amherst and with the tradition and habits we have has nurtured in our alumni, parents and friends (there is) an identification with the institution as a whole. We are therefore in the very fortunate position of having an annual fund in which there are no check-offs.”

Agents for change

In an attempt to keep school ties strong, Amherst has developed the framework of a system that relies heavily on volunteers, calling upon “class agents” for help. Class agents are individuals who donate their time to head-up the fundraising efforts for a specific class. For each year, two co-agents are assigned to each class and work closely with staff at the college to meet annual goals.

“The staff member that works with a given class works to make sure that the class agent is familiar with all of the procedures and the history of the class and understands the cycle of the calendar,” Cannon Smith said. “The class agents then recruit teams of what we call ‘associate agents.’ They are assigned particular classmates for about a three-month period. Sometime in February our associate agents are given a set of classmates, or assignments, and their phone numbers, their contact information, their giving history and off they go to start making phone calls.”

The game plan is a change of pace from the mass telethon-like solicitations conducted by many schools. According to Cannon Smith, Amherst student phoning drive is quite basic. It simply consists of two discreet periods of time each year – not exceeding six to eight nights per period – where 10 to 22 students focus on contacting specific groups. One example would be attempting to contact the 10 youngest classes, where just locating the people is the challenge, she explained. “Right now the students are calling people who are not assigned to an associate agent, which again is a small group. Or maybe never-donors and again, the group of never-donors to Amherst are a fairly small group because over a five-year period of time is probably close to the high 70s. So that would be like 20 percent of our alumni that have never been donors.”

While the staff/class agent/student hierarchy has worked wonders for the school’s annual fund, Kiefer attributes much of the success to a move away from specialization. At most schools, fundraising is lodged in the development offices while alumni offices generally handle the programmatic end of things – running reunions and clubs, Kiefer said. At Amherst the model serves to combine programs and the giving process. It’s made a big difference and that isn’t the case at most institutions because of specialization, he reasoned.

Cannon Smith labels the versatile staff as “alumni programs/alumni relations and annual fund people.” They act as liaisons for the reunion chair, for the class president, the class secretary and the class agent. This allows the staff member a familiarity with the class that he or she is directing. With such high returns for their efforts the question remains whether or not the Amherst annual fund has peaked at that 60-plus percent level.

“If the question is saying, ‘Would you take this level of giving if it meant putting all of your efforts into it and the dollars would stagnate,’ I think the answer would have to be no,” Cannon Smith admitted. “But when you get up to this level of participation the cost of say, getting 70 percent (of all alumni to donate) or raising a million dollars more – it may be harder to get to 70 percent. What we’re always looking for is that balance and I’d be hard pressed to say that we’d sacrifice one over the other.