By Beth Garvin, Senior Fellow
“It will never work.”
That was my reaction in 2007 when several staff members proposed launching a one-week campaign to ask current undergraduates to make an annual gift.
The staff argued that the Senior Gift was too late to begin to build an understanding of philanthropy and the habit of annual giving. I couldn’t imagine underclassmen making gifts, and didn’t think that a competition between the freshman, sophomore, and junior classes had any chance of working, but I approved the initiative as a pilot, and asked them to run it on the down low.
And I was very wrong.
It turned out many students were willing to make gifts. The program took off and has been growing ever since. Combined with a strong focus on the senior gift and on young alumni programming, the participation rates of young alumni not only reversed a decades-long decline, but began to grow significantly.
What made it work? As I’ve looked at a range of successful student philanthropy programs, a few strategies jump out as effective elements in building a culture of philanthropy on campus.
- Demonstrate the impact of giving early, often, and in as many voices and venues as possible. Most students, and many faculty and staff, don’t really understand what an Annual Fund is or what it does. There are many misperceptions about the percentage of alumni who give – and they may be vastly wrong in either direction. Look for ways for the president, deans, alumni, faculty, and students to talk about how many people are giving, and specifically what those gifts accomplish. Leverage every communication tool possible, from cardboard cutouts to social media, and add an element of fun. Hammer home the importance of participation and the collective impact of annual gifts of all sizes.
- Solicit students for projects that have an immediate impact and provide compelling stewardship opportunities. Students want to make a difference in the world, and they want to do it today. Find projects that support an initiative that will address a specific concern immediately. Real-world projects with a short timeframe make an especially effective case for giving and allow you to report results quickly. While student-centered projects like student lounges or minor enhancements to facilities are still popular, seeking support for student engagement in public service or social entrepreneurship may be more exciting and effective.
- Pilot, Assess, Improve or Reject. Everything does not have to be a “Program.” Label an initiative as a pilot, and test it. Too often, we get stuck in bureaucratic approvals and buy-in – while those are important, they are not always necessary. If an initiative merits continuation, students and staff can work together to develop a sustainable program and develop buy-in where it’s most important: among the students.
- Embrace the culture. The most successful programs are ones that build on existing strengths or cultural norms. There is not one obvious model that will work for everyone. Don’t try to create a formal, hierarchical volunteer organization if that doesn’t fit your organizational culture. Engage students, maybe starting with student callers or student workers you already know, and talk to them about what works on campus.
- Make any fundraising campaign short and sweet. While the messaging about philanthropy needs to be long-term and sustained, keep active fundraising efforts confined to short time frames. It is easier to have two one-week initiatives than to try to sustain momentum with busy students and overworked staff.
While it can take generations to change the alumni culture, the student culture can change completely in 4 years. And if you have students giving, despite current tuitions, it’s a pretty compelling message to encourage everyone else to give, too.