ADVANCEMENT DIRECTORS ARE A LOT LIKE gamblers. They can easily recall the vivid details of their "wins"--even years after the fact.
Take Brenda Babitz, president of the Monroe Community College (N.Y.) Foundation. When she came on board 15 years ago, she worked to create an alumni database to be used for telemarketing--a new endeavor for the community college. Several years later, she nervously spent $7,000 on research that would help identify those who had attended Monroe and who might be able to donate.
To her surprise and delight, during one of the foundation's first telemarketing campaigns, an alumnus living in a southwestern state agreed to give $500. She called to thank him. During the brief conversation she made a mental note about this new donor: He was a man who didn't mince words and who prized discretion.
He didn't seek the limelight, but he did commit to helping the college. A phone call to this same donor the following year yielded a $5,000 gift to be given over two years. During Babitz's personal thank-you call, she asked if she could pay a personal visit to the donor. She and her family were coming to his state for a ski trip anyway, she explained. She also asked him to visit her the next time he came to Rochester, Monroe College's home city. He rebuffed both suggestions, but remained supportive.
During the fourth year, Babitz personally called and asked the donor to make a pledge over a multiple number of years. He flatly refused, saying he wasn't going to make a gift that year. Babitz was disappointed, but wise enough to not press for an explanation.
"Then I was in New York City for a meeting. I was walking down the street when my cell phone rang," she says. "It was him and he said he wanted to make a significant gift: $1 million." Turns out the donor, who was a successful entrepreneur, had decided to leave his company and wanted to give Monroe a generous amount of stock.
He remains a significant donor to Monroe, continuing to give financial gifts and helping with a scholarship program. Babitz adds that this donor has grown close enough to go golfing with her. She has also come to learn about his personal community college experience. It turns out that when he attended Monroe he was a single parent with three children. A professor helped him secure scholarship funds that kept him in school. While he later went on to earn a four-year degree and an advanced degree at different institutions, he remained grateful to the community college. He knows that had he not had a positive community college experience he would not have been as successful later in life, notes Babitz.
The point for community college advancement directors to take away is this, she says: Don't buy into the myth that alumni won't give. It has always been assumed that those who attend community colleges will only be loyal to the four-year institutions they later attend. "I decided to ignore this and go ahead blithely," she says. Babitz's experience shows that alumni from community colleges will give if they have positive experiences at two-year institutions.
Babitz conveys another important lesson: It pays to build an alumni database. Granted, it will cost money to track down alumni and to buy the proper software to maintain the data, but the community college will be better off in the long run. The key to smart marketing is a good list.
This president's success is just one of many "wins" for community colleges. She isn't alone in landing a big gift from an alumnus, nor does she want to be. In fact, she is helping spearhead a movement that will bring better management to community colleges' advancement efforts, especially to the area of individual donations. She has joined with six other community colleges to enlist the help of the CORE Group, an Eden Prarie, Minn.-based consultancy, in researching the best fundraising practices at the community college level.
CORE, which started its studies in higher education by analyzing the fundraising efforts of four-year institutions, is now tracking the behavior of individual and alumni donors to community colleges, explains Constance Cervilla, president and CEO. "We are looking at how to make the fundraising operation better."
This is uncharted territory for many community colleges. All signals would say, though, that these institutions are ready for new challenges.
"I would hate to say this is a new trend, but I think it is a noticed trend," says Polly Binns, executive director of the Council for Resource Development, an affiliate organization of the American Association of Community Colleges. Binns is cautious with her remarks, not wanting to slight the community colleges that have been landing big gifts from individual donors. She does admit, though, that many community colleges haven't even hit their stride when it comes to raising money. They still have plenty of catching up to do when compared to four-year institutions.
That's because most community colleges are young; the sector just celebrated its 100th birthday. Many of the 1,157 U.S. community colleges are much younger than that, having been founded only 30, or less, years ago. Compare this to numerous four-year colleges and universities established more than 100 years ago and it is evident that these institutions have had decades more time to form alumni associations, build endowments, and launch capital campaigns.
Traditionally, state and local dollars have funded community colleges. According to breakouts provided by the American Association of Community Colleges, 44 percent of community college resources come from state funds: tuition and fees account for 20 percent; while local funds make up another 20 percent. The federal government kicks in only 5 percent.
The rest of the money comes from other sources, including gifts from alumni and non-alums, endowment income, and other fundraising. For some community colleges, alumni and individual donors make up 5 percent or less of annual funds. By comparison, dollars from individuals and alumni have historically been the largest source of support for four-year colleges and universities, according to a Council for Aid to Education survey. Last year, gifts from alumni and other individual donors made up 48.8 percent of the money raised in higher education.
Cervilla of CORE echoes these observations regarding community colleges and their four-year peers, but she adds a hopeful perspective. "The great news is those who give to community colleges have higher affinity to these institutions. she says. Many alumni, like the man in Babitz's story, may be successful people whose lives changed because of the community college experience. Other generous donors may be those who are tied to a specific community and know that the community college is the only option for ambitious but disadvantaged students, or who see the college as a cultural center. Donors, too, may want the community college to do well as a reflection on the community as a whole. In Monroe's case, successful fundraising provided the support to build a downtown campus and revitalize Rochester--a strong selling point to future donors.
Such efforts also help to close the budget gap for community colleges--a necessity in tight financial times. While community colleges are entrusted with the mission of providing affordable education, it has been more of a challenge to keep tuitions low these past few years. Federal, state, and local government dollars have become scarcer.
"In order to stay true to their missions, they can't raise tuition beyond what local people can deal with," explains Binns. "So they have had to turn to grant writing, foundations, and alumni."
Conventional wisdom says that community colleges' fundraising efforts are dependent upon grant money and the generosity of local companies. But observers urge advancement directors at community colleges to expand their thinking.
"The future of fundraising is in individual dollars," says Cervilla." Revenue sources are shifting. We need to pay attention to private sectors and philanthropy."
Who Are Alumni, Anyway?
To some, the phrase "community college alumni" seems an oxymoron.
Community colleges are seen as places from which students move on, often after taking a series of courses that may not even add up to a degree. Their studies can take them to four-year colleges or technical and professional programs. Community college attendees are non-traditional students who often are weighed down with other social and economic responsibilities. Many may have children; others are caring for aging parents. Many are going to school while holding down jobs.
How does this disparate group of people come to be defined as "alumni"?