Pre Alumni Giving

April 15, 2006       Mark Hrywna      

Beer. Pizza. Charitable contributions. The stereotypical college student probably budgets for the first two on a regular basis, but the third? Some colleges are hoping that is the case.

“We ask every student on campus to give $2 or less,” said Graham Smith, special campaigns coordinator at the University of Alabama. “We equate it to less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”

The average donation to the Students Playing Important Roles in Tradition (SPIRIT) campaign at Alabama is about $1.63, according to Smith. In a period of ninth months, two campaigns raised more than $17,000, she said, enough money to award 10 scholarships to students who were the first in their families to go to college.

“The goal is purely participation; we just want everyone to get involved with the university,” Smith said, adding that students can even use their swipe cards to make a donation. “It’s a way to establish a tradition of giving.”

Giving to education is “a very significant component of American philanthropy,” said Richard Jolly, chair of the Giving USA Foundation, noting that charitable contributions to education reached $34 billion, almost 14 percent of the $249 billion in overall giving during 2004.

Approximately 5,200 donors gave to SPIRIT, making the participation rate in the campaign about a third of the 20,000 students at Alabama.

A student board that coordinates the campaign decides how the contributions will be spent, and for the first year decided to give scholarships. The SPIRIT campaign runs eight weeks and has been conducted the past two semesters, with planning initiated in fall 2004. To get the word out, they post signs and use a tried and true college message board: chalkings in the quad. And at a big-time football school like Alabama, a voicemail message to every student from Head Coach Mike Shula can really get the giving going.

SPIRIT is “semi-groundbreaking,” Smith said, because it’s one of the only campaigns that is so comprehensive, asking for donations from all students — freshman all the way to graduate students — rather than just seniors, as some colleges do.

Seniors at Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles, Calif., compete among five sister schools for the highest participation rate in the senior gift program. “They really rally nicely around the fund,” said Steve Siegel, associate director of development at Claremont McKenna. “It’s their first step into this. We don’t make a big deal about the dollars, it’s all about participation, get them used to it.”

Contributions from the senior class, which last year was beaten out for the top prize despite 97 percent participation, get pooled with other alumni gifts throughout the year and usually go toward scholarships.

The senior gift usually raises between $2,500 and $5,000. Siegel attributed the program’s success to getting seniors involved. “It’s not just the development office going out and asking for money,” he said, but students asking their peers, and a committee of about 25 overseeing the program. With fewer than 300 graduates each year, he said, it’s also manageable to keep track of each person and get a definitive answer as to whether the person will contribute.

The University of Georgia established the Senior Signature campaign some 20 years ago, but there’s a tradition of seniors donating for campus improvements or to honor a faculty member that dates to the 1860s, according to David S. Jones, director of annual and special giving.

The campaign asks graduating students to contribute a minimum of $35, with funds going to general academic purposes, Jones said. Last year, there were more than 1,850 donors, and Senior Signature typically raises $65,000 each year. About a third of the graduating class, which usually averages about 5,000 students, participates in the campaign, he said. For their contribution, students get their name permanently engraved on a class plaque displayed in a plaza at the student center.

Students present something of a captive audience for colleges. “This is a time when students are actually attending school, when they’re most connected to it,” said Ann Kaplan, Voluntary Support of Education Survey director for the Council For Aid to Education. “If they’re going to be lifelong contributors, why would you wait until they leave to talk to them about money?”

To build a relationship with an institution that students care about, Kaplan said, is much easier to do while they’re attending.

Soliciting students while they’re in school also widens the donor base, as some students don’t spend all four years at one college. And those who take just one course might be counted as alumni in a database but institutions don’t work as hard soliciting those potential donors, Kaplan said.

The Quarters program at Skidmore College is almost 10 years old, but will be folded into the Student Alumni Society next year.

Quarters historically ran three years, asking freshmen to give 25 cents, sophomores 50 cents and juniors 75 cents, leading into the senior gift program, when students are asked to contribute $1 or more. “Quarters has been a very strong program in the past, one that leads into the senior gift program,” when most colleges start their giving programs, said Lisa Hilberg, assistant director of the annual fund at Skidmore, about 30 miles north of Albany, N.Y.

The intent of Quarters was not to raise a lot of money — “We probably spent more money doing it,” Hilberg said — but it was meant to “get in front of students to talk to them about fundraising.”

Participation usually reached 100 percent of the freshmen class, dropping to 80 percent for sophomores and about 50 percent for juniors, she said. The few hundred dollars that each class raised would be rolled over into the class bank account to start off their senior gift giving campaign when participation was back up near 90 percent. But over the years, as the focus became keeping participation numbers up, student volunteers assigned to collect donations sometimes would toss in their own money if they had difficulty tracking down individual students, raising questions about the accuracy of participation rates. “We got away from the whole message of why it’s important to support Skidmore,” Hilberg said.

Instead, the Student Alumni Society, whose mission is to educate current students about being a Skidmore alum, will spread the message of why it’s important to support the college. “When we ask them senior year, they have a better understanding of why they’re being asked,” Hilberg said. “We’re kind of training them for the senior gift.”

Next year, rather than asking freshmen for a quarter, the society will aim to educate students about the importance of contributing to Skidmore through fundraising facts on posters around campus and in student mailings, combining that with events that the group plans.

Hilberg, a 2004 Skidmore grad, realized she wanted to pursue a career in fundraising after learning her senior year that every Skidmore student receives a “silent scholarship” of sorts. Some students might bristle at being asked to donate to a college that they’re already paying $32,000 a year in tuition. But, Hilberg said that at Skidmore the annual fund and alumni gifts help to meet a $7,000 gap in the cost of educating each of the 2,300 students. It’s those kinds of facts that she hopes will resonate with current students.

“Quarters wasn’t being as effective enough as we would’ve liked,” she said, in terms of educating students about the importance of giving. Skidmore, she said, is much more dependent on alumni support because it has a smaller endowment than most of the colleges it compares itself to. “We’re trying to train our students so they understand that by the time they leave.”   DRFE

NonProfit  Times
The Leading Business Publication For Nonprofit Management