On Colleges with Advancement Issues

When I talk to college presidents at colleges with dormant or underperforming advancement programs, they are quick to express their commitment to advancement and their good intentions for improved performance. Unless this stated interest is matched with institutional commitments to meet quantifiable metrics, however, the prognosis for improved performance is weak.

Fund raising is hard work. Most nonprofits excel at it only when their survival depends in some measure on their success in this arena. For those that don’t perceive fundraising to be an essential, core activity of the college, promoting culture change from the outside is extremely difficult. If a college tells you they are serious about fund raising but leaves the chief development officer position open for a year, the inertia speaks louder than words.

When a dysfunctional advancement program is an issue, what motivates a change in institutional behavior is real need, a commitment to change, the implementation of real metrics, and evaluation of outcomes. That, and the personal involvement of the president, who must invest time, cultivate prospects, and be prepared to make a few asks.

Visionary leadership on the part of the president can—and should—jump-start the whole process.

 

Repositioning for Fundraising

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See if this article of mine originally published in 1994 by Nonprofit Management Strategies remains relevant today. I am struck by how many of the principles presented here made it into Fundraising Strategies for Community Colleges eighteen years later. Can you recognize any organizations you know in the advice below?

Repositioning for Fund Raising

Loss of Government Funding Often Sparks Attempts to Enter the Fundraising Market

You are the executive director of a small agency that historically has not raised much in the way of private funds. You have just been notified that long-held government funding will be lost or curtailed. After the initial panic wears off, you take a deep breath and resolve—once again—to approach the board about the need to raise funds.

Just don’t overlook the need to reposition the agency for fundraising.

Organizations that ask themselves, “Why can’t we raise funds?” often overlook one obvious answer: government funding.

Like an I.V. in a patient’s arm, government funding is an artificial-life support compared to fundraising in the private sector. Yet there’s no problem until it’s cut off.

In the book Nonprofits for Hire (Harvard U Press), authors Steven Rathgeb Smith and Michael Lipsky assert that governmental funding now accounts for roughly half of all social service agency income. They estimate the amount of governmental funding to be in the range of $15 billion a year.

Can this amount of money change nonprofit organizational culture? The answer is, “You bet!”

“Is he knocking government funding?” you ask.

Only to the extent that government funding breeds an organizational culture of indifference to fundraising. And that, unfortunately, is a common occurrence.

The reason not to engage in fundraising is, of course, it’s too hard. And organizations that have failed in past attempts to raise funds know better than anyone how hard it can be.

Repositioning 101

Repositioning involves three elements:

  1. Make your own commitment. (You. The executive director.)
  1. Give volunteer leadership a stake. (Here comes the culture change…)
  2. Enlist your board of directors. (They may never forgive you, but they will respect you.)

The Executive Director’s Commitment

A note to the executive director: You are the fundraiser in-chief. It’s your responsibility to:

  • Educate yourself.
  • Get serious about fundraising.
  • Develop a realistic plan to reposition the agency.
  • Cultivate volunteers everywhere you go.

Volunteer Leaders Are Made Not Born

Certainly one of the most fascinating elements of philanthropy is the human drama of volunteer relations, and the leader of any nonprofit organization has got to be good at it.

Many seasoned professionals will tell you the most satisfying part of their job consists of the many and varied relationships they enjoy with their volunteers. So how do you and your organization take advantage of this? You know the old saying about business—“location, location, and location.” With volunteers, it’s “cultivation, cultivation, and cultivation.”

The Board of Directors: They Really Will Forgive You

Here’s a premise you may not like: It is the responsibility of the executive director to manage the culture and performance of the board of directors.

And a premise they may not like: Repositioning for fundraising nearly always requires significant change at the board level.

Significant change at the board level is accomplished via the Alpha and Omega of board building: the nomination process and evaluation process. These processes belong to the board, but are managed in part by the executive director.

You can be successful without a high-powered board in the traditional sense of the term. There are many wonderful organizations out there proving it every day.

But you cannot be successful without the attention—and involvement—of your board. The trick is in finding the right roles for committed, trained board members to play. And of course, everybody gives.

Here are 12 keys to board success:

  1. The board must establish the repositioning effort as the number one or two priority of the organization. The effort must be characterized by measurable goals and accountability for performance.
  2. Find your potential board president and work for his or her advancement to that position. Lobby.
  3. Educate the board as to the principles of fundraising. Use outside counsel.
  4. Define “Give, get, or get off” and enforce it. This means offering nonperformers an “out” such as your new “advisory council.”
  5. Recruit strategically.
  6. Seek commitment, time, talent, connections, influence, and money.
  7. Without commitment, the other resources are wasted.
  8. Define expectations up front. Be firm. Be clear.
  9. Cultivate those who really interest you. Their time should be worth your time.
  10. Make a compelling case for the need and the mission.
  11. Giving begins with the board. Make it your first campaign.
  12. No one is exempt. All trustees must feel some involvement with the fundraising process.

Ira S. Robbins wrote in Fundraising: A Crucial Role for Board Members:

“The first responsibility of a board member, of course, is for himself or herself to make a contribution. It may be a large amount or small, but giving is of great importance.”

Nine Handy Maxims by Which to Survive & Thrive

  1. It is not sufficient to preserve the status quo.
  2. Success on a modest fundraising project is better than failure on a large one.
  3. Avoid committees where possible.
  4. Get out of the office.
  5. Fundraising performed in the context of a cohesive plan wastes no effort.
  6. Grantwriting is not fundraising.
  7. Board giving is the cornerstone of all giving.
  8. Give yourself two years.
  9. The truth about fundraising is that it’s hard—but it’s worth it!

The Scholarship Recognition Event: an Essential Cultivation Tool

One thing I’ve learned in 25 years of raising funds is that a little recognition goes a long way.

Hundreds of two-year colleges have had success bringing scholarship recipients together with the donors who funded the scholarships through a scholarship recognition event.

But make sure that donors are connected with the students they have helped to support, and that students themselves are doing the talking from the podium. Just vet them and coach them in advance, and keep the remarks short. Three minutes will do. The goal, as one foundation board member put it to me: not a dry eye in the house.

Have some donors onstage to speak, too. Unless there is a strong narrative arc in the remarks five minutes can seem like an eternity (particularly true when administrators are doing the talking!).

One nice touch when you don’t have too many students in attendance: have them receive scholarship certificates, convocation style, where each is called in turn to the podium to shake the hand of the president and a donor and receive the certificate.

Don’t forget to pair scholarship recipients and donors at their tables.

And whatever you do, put the mission first.

Don’t Overlook Employee Annual Giving

One of the most reliable Annual Fund methods is employee annual giving. Who better to understand the critical importance of support to the college than those who are closest to your students? Employee annual giving can play a role in the fundraising plan of every college.

Consult Fundraising Strategies for Community Colleges for a thorough presentation of a proven employee campaign model. Many colleges have found they can raise $25,000 to $50,000 per year—and more—for the Annual Fund through employee annual giving.

The only caveat is, make sure to seek community support with the same intensity you use to win employee support. Employees are, after all, somewhat a captive market.

The Role of Grants in the Annual Fund

While grants are often not renewed on an annual basis, they are an important source of annual operating income and scholarship funds in college Annual Fund programs. When one funder cycles out the mix a new one is found. And some funders do support colleges with annual grants over long periods of time.

Some colleges raise as much as one-quarter of their Annual Fund goal through renewable annual or multi-year grants. Either way, multiple-year grant funding will provide you with a stable funding base from which to cultivate funders for future grant awards. And Annual Fund grants for operating or scholarship support can be based on a boilerplate grant proposal template.

But be sure to call the foundation program officer or corporate giving officer before you write. A few strategic questions can save both parties valuable time.

The Two Most Important Gift Levels for the Annual Fund

The two most important gift levels in a community college Annual Fund are the $1,000 and $5,000 levels. Why? A combination of fiscal impact and relative availability. For example, aggregated $500 gifts don’t have enough impact and $10,000 gifts are too rare in the two-year college prospect universe. Classify $1,000 and $5,000 gifts as special gifts and cultivate them as an Annual Fund priority.

The most efficient way to reach your Annual Fund goal may be through special gifts. You might think of special gifts simply as larger than average Annual Fund gifts and smaller than major gifts.

Although there are several methods by which to raise special gifts, personal asks usually work best. Who should ask? The president, the chief development officer, development staff, foundation board members, senior leadership, and volunteers.

Variations on this theme include strategies such as Board-Inspired Giving, which relies on personal letters from board members to their peers followed by face-to-face or telephone follow-up by board members.

Certain donors respond well to personal letters followed by a phone call, just as they do in scholarship program solicitations. This technique, a variation on the scholarship ask, or the giving club ask, can be an effective way to raise special gifts.

Time-tested advancement practice holds that organizational and community leaders who “tell the story” and “ask for the order” are the most successful fundraisers and this is most definitely true with special gifts.

Six Best Practices for College Annual Funds

The best way to fund annual operating support in the long term is through the development of sources for repeatable, sustainable gifts—in short, the Annual Fund. The following best practices are key indicators of community college capacity to raise funds to support annual operations.

1. Raise funds as part of a well-defined Annual Fund.

2. Develop a diversified funding base with multiple revenue streams specific to the Annual Fund.

3. Raise funds for restricted funds in addition to scholarships by making the case for support to the college beyond scholarships in the same manner as four-year colleges make restricted appeals.

4. Commit to a specific Annual Fund goal and increase that goal by a realistic percentage every year.

5. Ask perennial donors to make additional matching gifts for targeted initiatives.

6. Emphasize the use of individual solicitations, annual grants, and employee annual giving in your Annual Fund appeal.

Rationale

1. Raise funds as part of a well-defined Annual Fund.

By definition, the Annual Fund is the source of repeatable, sustainable gifts. Even if you do not conceive of your annual fund raising efforts as a formal Annual Fund, you do raise repeatable, sustainable gifts every year. My goal is to help you develop long-term, committed stakeholders for the program, year after year by formalizing your approach to the Annual Fund and by clearly defining what types of gifts are for annual operating support and what types of appeals will yield those gifts.

2. Develop a diversified funding base with multiple revenue streams specific to the Annual Fund.

Relying on one fundraising strategy – an event, for example, provides an insufficient funding base for the long-term sustainability of annual funding. Incorporating a variety of fundraising methods that may include grants, individual solicitations, employee annual giving, and targeted written appeals will build a more dependable base of support.

 

3. Raise funds for restricted funds in addition to scholarships by making the case for support to the college beyond scholarships in the same manner as four-year colleges make restricted appeals.

The best way to raise awareness of the value of annual support – and the need for program support – is to make the case for a variety of needs under the umbrella of the Annual Fund. This strategy is advanced in contrast to the strategy of allocating precious unrestricting operating support dollars to fund specific, more or less restricted, priorities. Colleges sometimes seek to allocate unrestricted funds raised through special events and unrestricted mail campaigns to program-focused need. But you can always just sell those needs to charitable stakeholders. The reason you to build a donor base of committed, long-term stakeholders who understand various aspects of you mission.

 

4. Commit to a specific Annual Fund goal and increase that goal by a realistic percentage every year.

Making a public commitment to a specific goal is the best way to align good intentions with a commitment to outcomes. The funding model for annual campaigns is based on goal attainment. Depending on where you are in your developmental curve as an advancement program you may be looking at annual percentage increases as high as 10 to 12 percent if you are just starting out, or as low as 2 to 3 percent if you are raising a million dollars a year via your Annual Fund.

 

5. Ask perennial donors to make additional matching gifts for targeted initiatives.

Once way to raise the bar for long-term donors to increase their giving is to ask them for additional gifts to match the gifts related to a specific initiative or, for example, for first-time gifts. Minnesota Public Radio uses just this strategy with its donors who give via permanent monthly pledges. You could try the same tactic with employee annual giving donors who give via payroll deduction. I do hope you EAG donors are giving via ongoing payroll deductions as opposed to via annual commitments that must be renewed each year.

 

6. Emphasize the use of individual solicitations, annual grants, and employee annual giving in your Annual Fund appeal.

I recommend that you include in your fund raising plan a combination of three proven methods: individual solicitations for higher-dollar gift, annual grants, and employee annual giving.   These methods have been shown to be reliable sources of funding over time. If you wish to raise funds through special events, don’t “cannibalize” these tried-and-true methods to support the event. You don’t need it to close these gifts.

 

Nine Rules for Special Event Success

If you’ve read my book you know I’m not a fan of special event fundraising in a community college advancement program. I know that special events can play a limited role in four-year college programs that have already mastered the core programs of the collegiate advancement model. Those events serve a variety of niche purposes in the college or university program.

Despite these reservations, I have run many special events in my fundraising career and have formulated a few rules on how to make them successful. So, especially for those readers who do not come from the higher education sector, here are the nine rules for special event success…

1. Make the event FUN! (…or otherwise emotionally compelling.)

2. Know your audience and appeal to their tastes. (Cowboys don’t do opera. Culture vultures don’t do tractor pulls. And nobody likes boring speeches.)

3. Recruit a large event committee (20 or more).

4. Make sure 3 or 4 core volunteers own the event.

5. Have board members make a ticket pledge.

6. Create the widest possible reach for ticket sales. (Call your mother. Ask her to bring friends.)

7. Sponsorships are where the big money is. (Start with your vendors.)

8. If there is even the slightest chance you are going to lose money, forget it. (An event must have a minimum return on investment of 100%. And 500% is optimal.

9. Be very clear about why you are doing the event. If the purpose is largely PR, it’s impeding more lucrative fundraising opportunities.

 

Avoid Over-Reliance on Special Events

One of the premises of my book is that a community college advancement program that is heavily dependent on special event revenue will yield a lower return on investment than one that uses what I call the collegiate model of advancement. This advancement model focuses on direct, person-to-person cultivation of major gifts and a varied Annual Fund program featuring five to seven product lines.

That said, I know that most community colleges are dependent on special events for a significant portion of their annual revenues. That worries me when I look at areas like major gift development and even employee annual giving.

Some community colleges make almost nothing on employee annual giving, while top performers raise more than $40,000 a year. What makes for the difference? Sometimes it’s little more than culture and tradition. Sometimes it’s the special event, especially when there are many staff and faculty attendees paying for premium tickets to attend the event.

Mark Drozdowski, former executive director of the Fitchburg State College Foundation, a four-year college located in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, referred to this dynamic in analyzing a golf tournament for The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“…When all the dust settles, we net anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000…That irks me for two reasons. First, we dedicate an inordinate amount of time to raising 10 grand. If you calculate the number of work hours involved, we barely break even. Staff members running the tournament spend months planning every detail, gathering auction items, selling sponsorships, producing brochures, and managing logistics…

Second, we cannibalize our own donors. Instead of asking a small company to contribute $750 for a day of golf, of which only $100 will be added to a scholarship pool, why not just ask them for the $750 outright?”[i]

So why not just ask our employees for stretch gifts outright, and not rely on them too much for the special event? I think it is a useful goal to target a 60 percent participation rate with a yield of over $30,000 in an employee giving program. Let the event budget recalibrate itself. I like to see 100 percent of the employee gift going to support the mission of the foundation, rather than perhaps up to 50 percent of it going to support dinner and event décor.

The same dynamic is at work in a community college major gifts program when an event, or multiple events, dominate the calendar. The ability to focus on major gifts cultivation and solicitation works better when the prospect is not being hit up for repeat, relatively low-value sponsorship gifts.

Kathy Breslin, executive director of Delaware County Community College Foundation, has come up with what I consider to be a best-in-class solution, one that I recommend in my book. She has formatted her special event function as that of a high-end donor recognition event. While she has a few sponsors, invitees are invited because of their record of support to the college, or because they are under cultivation as donors of potentially significant gifts. They don’t pay for dinner. Kathy can offer a number of stories about guests who make significant gifts after being exposed to this level of cultivation.

Cultivation events offer the college a venue to tell its story. Students, the president, donors, and other leaders can all offer unique, inspiring stories that motivate donors to give outright gifts, which produce return-on-investment yields far higher than those seen in special event-dominated advancement programs.

I’m not saying ditch your event without a plan. I’m saying that there are more avenues available to you than we might think to simply—as Mark Drozdowski puts it—ask for the gift outright.

It takes time and cultivation to accomplish that, but major gifts, based on direct, face-to-face asks, can equal the net of a special event by way of a single gift.

 

[i] Drozdowski, Mark J. “Teed Off.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 53(10), October 27, 2006, C3.