Wednesday, April 26, 2017


It’s a standing joke that at private four-year schools, the president reports to the development office.  It isn’t literally true, but in some places, it’s close.  

Community colleges have lagged the rest of higher education in fundraising.  In one sense, that’s counterintuitive: a donation goes a lot farther, and comes closer to students, at a community college than at an elite private college, but that doesn’t seem to drive donors.  Some of it has to do with prestige, and the felt desire to be part of something successful.  To the extent that community colleges have identified themselves as struggling to serve the struggling, that turns off some people.  They’d rather give to “winners,” who are already well-resourced.  

But part of it, to be honest, is that the community college sector simply hasn’t made it a priority at the same level.  And to the extent that some have tried, they’ve had to use different techniques.

A few years ago I saw Lisa Skari, from Highline Community College, present some findings from her dissertation research, which addressed community college fundraising.  She noted the popular myth -- still widely held -- that says that students who start at a community college and then transfer “upward” will identify with the highest-level school they attended.  Her data showed that the myth is simply false, but that falsifying it requires community colleges actually to try.  Too many have simply swallowed the myth, and used it as an excuse, consciously or not, for not trying.  

To be fair, community colleges are still relatively young as a sector.  Most were started in the 1960’s, so most didn’t have large numbers of alums far along in their careers until the 1990’s.  In many cases, their foundations have only been working at any significant level for one generation.  Given inexperience, it may not be surprising that many of them started out imitating their four-year counterparts.  If you don’t have any better ideas, it’s a reasonable place to start.

This week at AACC, Jo Blondin, the president of Clark State Community College, mentioned on behalf of Generation X presidents that she hates the “golf outings” model of fundraising.  It’s stale, it plays to the strengths of other sectors, and it’s just not relevant to many people under fifty.  Given a youngish and diverse alumni base, compared to other sectors, golf may not always be the best fit.

I’ve seen a few nifty ideas along the way, but I’ll end with a shameless call for more.  

One is to capitalize on mobile phones.  Holyoke adopted a version of “text 12345 to XXX to donate $10” to get younger alums into the habit of giving.  It doesn’t yield a lot at first -- ten bucks times a few hundred people doesn’t add up to a lot -- but it starts to form a habit.  The downside is that it doesn’t bring names and addresses, so it doesn’t lend itself to cultivation.  It’s an icebreaker, and a low-cost one, but only in one direction.  

(Yes, I know, ice breaks in two directions.  Just roll with it.)

Brookdale got itself included in Amazon’s “smile” program, by which people buying stuff through Amazon can have a portion of the money sent to Brookdale’s foundation for no extra charge.  I don’t want to admit how much I spend at Amazon, but it’s not trivial.  As with texting, it doesn’t lend itself to cultivation, but it’s easy, and money is money.

Longer term, though, it’s about building relationships.  That’s where community colleges have the potential to shine.  Their alums tend to stay local.  Geographic density can translate to political support, if the group is properly mobilized.  Last year I heard an alum of a local university mention that the university specifically targets alums who married each other, on the theory that if you met your beloved at a given college, you probably have warm feelings for that college.  The idea struck me as both brilliant and transferable.  I’d guess that most community colleges of any size have pretty good numbers of alums who’ve paired off, but very few consciously reach out to that group as a resource.  It’s a missed opportunity.

Beyond methods, there’s also the question of objects.  Yes, naming rights for buildings are always potential revenue sources, but some people aren’t moved by buildings.  Scholarships are great, too, but they don’t speak to everybody.  

I was impressed when I heard Bob Templin, the former president of Northern Virginia CC, mention that he bundled a bunch of student success initiatives together, gave it a name and a theme, and marketed it to donors.  Foundation support for, say, the development of OER can make a material difference in student success, and therefore in both the success of the community and the sustainability of the college.  That kind of move, done right, moves the logic from “donation” to “investment,” which appeals to a certain sort of donor.  It’s a way to leverage the benefit from a gift across a much larger group of students.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen clever and effective fundraising by a community college?  If so, any tips you’d be willing to share?