Sunday, October 07, 2012

When Fundraisers Attack, Part Three: Mind the Gaps

Sometimes the best moments at conferences come in between the official presentations.

Day three of the CASE conference was like that.  I got word that Lisa Skari, the Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Highline Community College, wanted to shed some light on a comment I had captured the day before.  I had quoted Susan Kubik referring to the “old wives’ tale” that community college grads who transfer to four-year colleges and beyond generally don’t contribute to their community colleges; the idea is that they transfer allegiance when they transfer enrollment.  I noted that the paltry percentage of overall philanthropic giving that goes to community colleges – less than one percent – suggested that the old wives were on to something.

As it happened, Skari just finished a dissertation on this very topic.  She agreed that the community college share of overall higher ed philanthropy is disproportionately low, but in her research, she found that the folks who do give were, in fact, mostly folks who also gave to four-year schools.  In other words, the issue wasn’t so much a transfer of allegiance; it was a shortage of givers generally.

In her findings, the key predictors of giving to community colleges were age (70+), income, and giving to a four year college.  Each was positively correlated with giving to community colleges.  (In a separate discussion, Richard Morley mentioned that women are far more likely to give than men; Skari didn’t mention that in our brief conversation.)

Taking Skari’s findings into account, the picture becomes more hopeful.  If the key demographic for philanthropy is wealthy (female) transfer alumni over age 70, then it isn’t surprising that community colleges have been relatively small players thus far.  Most American community colleges were founded after 1960, and most of them started small.  With a few exceptions, most of them simply haven’t had the time to build the demographic that their older four-year counterparts have been able to tap for so long.  

(This would also explain the percentage decline in alumni giving over the last ten years.  Given the enrollment increases of the last ten years, the alumni pool is skewing younger.)

Additionally, many community colleges have only started taking alumni giving seriously over the last decade or so.  One panel on Thursday was devoted largely to ways of using technology to track down successful grads from the 70’s, and to start reaching out to them.  It’s one thing to keep good track of the people you have now; it’s quite another to work backwards and then start building bridges with folks whom the four-years have been dunning for years.

If Skari is right, and I’m guessing that she is, then there’s some cause for optimism.   The numbers of community college grads in the key demographic will start to reach critical mass soon; cc’s are getting better at tracking them and reaching out to them; and the motivation (or need, if you prefer) has never been stronger.

Solidifying relationships with successful alums can also have a useful political payoff.  High-income seniors vote at remarkably high rates; if they feel an allegiance to their local community college, that can only be to the good.  They also wield political influence out of proportion to their numbers, for a variety of reasons; again, swinging that influence over to our side makes a world of sense.

The other offhand moment was a comment by Richard Morley, of Irvine County cc.  At the end of a panel of foundation program officers describing what they will and won’t fund, Morley raised the issue of institutional capacity building.  Basically, in a time in which foundations are becoming much more demanding in their expectations of grant recipients, the money at colleges for hiring grants officers is drying up, and foundations aren’t supporting their cost anymore.  Morley pointed out that a major grant in California – I missed the name – recently failed to give away about half of what it intended to, because the colleges were too strapped to be able to meet the reporting requirements.  This is penny wise and pound foolish.

The foundation officers – one each from the Kellogg, Irvine, and Hartford foundations – conceded the point, but didn’t have an answer.   I’ve seen this on my own campus; we’ve actually declined to apply for certain grants when it became clear that the care and feeding of the gift would cost more than the value of the gift.  As gifts get smaller and requirements tighter, this is starting to become more common.

The official program was appropriate for a last day, in which about half the crowd had already left to catch flights.  The foundation officers did their duty, though the most memorable line was from the representative of the Irvine foundation, who noted that they deliberately don’t give to backfill budget cuts.  As with federal grants, they follow a “supplement, not supplant” rule.  Until that changes, I’d expect to see colleges continue to skimp on supporting foundations and fundraisers.  Extras are great, but when the staff to raise more extras are paid for by hollowing out the core, it’s fair to ask some questions.

The conference ended with an amusing presentation on storytelling, presented by former television writer Andy Goodman.  (Quote of the Day: when he wrote for The Nanny, with Fran Drescher, the show was “a swirling, sucking vortex of despair.”)  He reminded everyone that when it comes to changing behavior, anecdotes trump data.  I thought about the election and became a little sad.

At the end, I came away with a sense that community colleges as a sector are well-positioned to raise a good deal more philanthropy, but that questions of capacity and supplanting stand in the way.  Alums may be far more willing to help than we’ve assumed thus far, but we need to be more creative about how to use that help.  The growth will be slow, even as the needs are immediate, and until some basic changes happen, it won’t make up for shortfalls in operations.  In the end, the political support of the powerful may matter more than their direct financial support.  That wasn’t the official message of the conference, but sometimes you learn the most in the gaps.