Sunday, November 16, 2014


Recruiting Donors

I’ve given the New York TImes’ education coverage a hard time over the years, mostly because it’s so provincial.  But once in a while, it gets one mostly right.  This weekend’s story about donors to LaGuardia Community College wasn’t perfect, but it got the big picture right.  And it put that picture in a venue in which the donor class might actually see it.  Now we just have to do something with it.

Briefly, the Times pointed out that although community colleges enroll more students than any other sector of higher education, they receive far less philanthropic support than any of their non-profit peers.  (For-profits don’t receive philanthropy at all, for obvious reasons.)  The article even notes that charter schools receive almost twice as much philanthropic support as community colleges, even though community colleges have four times as many students.  The president of LaGuardia, Gail Mellow -- of whom I am a fan -- sends handwritten thank-you notes to anyone who donates $500 or more.  At most four-year colleges of similar size, that would be unthinkable.

Community colleges have struggled, comparatively, with donors for a host of reasons.  One is age; the average community college in America was founded in the 1960’s, and the first classes were often quite small.  They simply don’t have the length of history of an Ivy.  Another is the class background of the student body.  When you’re climbing out of the lower working class and making your way to a middle class job, you typically aren’t in a position to make five-figure donations to your alma mater.  Open-door admissions policies mean that there’s no competitive advantage for your kid if you’re a donor; the kid gets in whether you donate or not.  (Selective institutions aren’t shy about implying that donations grease the wheels.)  And many community colleges simply didn’t see it as part of their missions or identities until several decades had passed, by which point many of the first cohorts of graduates -- the ones most senior in their fields, and likely the wealthiest -- had dispersed around the country.  Reconstructing records is much harder than maintaining them.

I was disappointed, though, to see the Times publish as fact the contestable statement that “When students from a community college ascend to the affluent classes, they tend to feel a stronger affinity to the institutions that eventually graduate them than to the places where, often, they had no option but to begin.”  Maybe yes, maybe no.  At the first CASE conference on community college development a few years ago, Lisa Skari presented research from her dissertation suggesting that isn’t true.  She found that what looked like indifference was often a function of not being asked.  That rang true for me; I’ve certainly seen successful alumni show loyalty to where they started.  Skari’s findings give cause for hope; the Times’ assumption suggests fatalism.  I’ll side with Skari.

To the extent that philanthropy can go beyond alumni, though, it’s worth wondering why community colleges have been comparatively neglected. I wonder if part of the reason is the no-frills aesthetic that the sector as a whole favors.  Most cc’s don’t have high-profile athletics, for example, and they’ve generally opted out of the amenities arms race.  (At HCC, for example, we don’t have a football team, a climbing wall, or a lazy river.)  Most don’t have a homecoming weekend.  Community colleges are comfortable speaking the language of need, but many donors prefer to be part of something glamorous.  The sector as a whole has not made a point of trying to be glamorous.  It’s likelier to conjure images of workforce development programs and developmental writing than of semesters abroad in Italy.  But that’s sort of the point.

Wise and worldly readers, do you have any thoughts on ways that community colleges could become more effective players in the philanthropic world?

Ask graduates of cc's for philanthropic help. I receive 2-3 letters a year from my college where I got my undergraduate degree and my graduate degrees. I never hear from the community college where I took classes, but didn't graduate. The cc's need to ask philanthropic organizations and their own alumni, graduates or transfers.

I think that part of the problem is that until the recent wave of privatization of public post-secondary education, there was no real need for philanthropy in colleges. Sure, the private institutions thrived on flashy gifts to cement social status, but the public universities ran a more austere budget off of taxpayer contributions.

But now that the governments have decided to spend only on people who carry guns (the military, the police, and the prison guards), the public institutions are having to scramble to find donors to cover what the government no longer pays for. And getting donors to pay to keep the lights on and the teachers paid is difficult—it isn't the socially glamorous giving of a new football stadium or opera hall.

It is tough even at R1 research universities, so it must be even tougher at the community colleges, where the work is even less glamorous (but at lest as important to the future of the country).

Personally, I think that community colleges would be better off convincing voters and politicians to return to historic levels of support, as that will provide longer-lasting returns than the enormous never-ending effort of chasing after philanthropic dollars.
I agree with gasstationwithoutpumps. The more you can do without government funding the more they'll be happy to take it away from you.

Given that government money is easier to get than the work it takes to get it off philanthropists in dollar for dollar terms.

The only way you could win is to get money for things the government won't pay you for anyway - which is maybe why some colleges spend phil-money on seemingly crazy things.

Perhaps the easiest way to get the ball rolling is to ask the graduates what they would have wanted to make their life easier at a CC and then go after that first. Then once things are ticking over you could go after the things the CC wants.
I would say that there's less of a need for philanthropic funds at a CC than a 4-year college. In California, the large capital projects that CCs get paid for with locally funded bonds (and then those buildings sit empty because there’s no money to hire anyone to teach.) The R-1 and 4-year schools need private donors to build new buildings, either because bonds aren't big enough to cover the cost or because private dollars are easier for them to get.

If I were doing fundraising at a CC, I would focus on endowed chairs and pitch those to local businesses and the uber rich grads and transfers. I would also talk about endowing boutique programs that target hard to reach students (but that have a proven track record of success - perhaps after a round of grant funding) or innovation funds. Have a catalog of your past successes to help sell donors on your value. With “normal people” I would also try the "every little bit counts" method that has worked for politicians - try to work out a way to get small monthly donations from credit cards or direct deposit rather than one big check (most people can manage $20 per month easier than a lump sum of $240.) Give them a Chinese menu of places the money could go so that they get invested in what they are “building” at your school. Levar Burton just raised $5 million in a Kickstarter campaign to make Reading Rainbow into an ap and most donations were less than $50. Would Kickstarter work as a fundraiser for a program or project at your campus?

I would also get to know the local businesses that do matching funds and target messages to grads that work for those companies to encourage them to double their dollars. I would ask the businesses for help with this as well – ask them to remind their employees that you are on the list of potential places the money could go.
ask the graduates what they would have wanted to make their life easier at a CC and then go after that first This is brilliant – I would do this too.

My alma mater has an endowment that comes out to about $400,750 per enrolled student. The community college where my daughter is spending her senior year of high school through a dual enrollment program has an endowment of $30 per enrolled student. I've decided that every time I get a fundraising appeal from my uber-wealthy alma mater, I will instead make a contribution to the community college. The payoff is far greater.
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