Fundraising is all about cultivating relationships

Small, rural community colleges face some obstacles when it comes to fundraising, but some colleges have succeeded through forming strong personal relationships with donors.

Despite serving a predominantly lower-income population, Sandhills Community College (SCC) in rural North Carolina is able to raise $2 million to $3 million a year. Rick Smith, dean of institutional advancement at SCC, credits that success to three factors: The college is located in an area that attracts many wealthy tourists and retirees “who are extraordinarily philanthropic,” he says.

Also, “we are the only higher education game in town,” Smith says, noting that SCC is the only place in the community that can provide a cultural, academic and intellectual experience. The third factor is the “great stability in its leadership.” John Dempsey has been the president of Sandhills since 1989 and has a strong commitment to philanthropy.

Fundraising, investing go hand in hand

The Sandhills foundation raises money in the traditional ways – through a direct mail appeals and encouraging significant gifts through wills, trusts and estate planning. There’s also an annual golf tournament, but that’s more about recruiting new donors than raising big bucks.

For Smith, fundraising is all about developing relationships.

“People give because of their experience with the college and with our students,” he says.

Bringing donors to campus

To bring potential donors to campus, Sandhills hosts a free, annual “return to the classroom” day for community members. Those invited have an opportunity to take two courses specially designed to give them a college experience. Faculty members volunteer their time, and vice presidents and deans serve as tour guides.

Getting board members on board for fundraising

The college foundation also offers a “Guarantors Program,” based on a principle approved by the foundation board to guarantee that no student would ever have to leave because they couldn’t afford to continue their education. About 150 donors are in the guarantor group, each agreeing to give at least $1,000 a year for emergency funds to students facing unforeseen expenses due to medical bills, car repairs or other needs.

The program was started when a faculty member sought help for a student who was planning to withdraw because she couldn’t afford eyeglasses.

“There was a real sense on the board that the college had to respond to those types of situations,” Smith says. “It takes so little to derail a community college student.”

Donors who give $1,963 or more are in the “President’s 1963 Circle,” named for the year the college was founded.

Investing in economic development

Shannon Hair, executive director of the Educational Foundation at Danville Community College (DCC) in rural Virginia, says “relationships are extremely important to me.”

“In rural communities, people are intimidated by the word ‘fundraising,’” Hair says. “It’s nothing more than a relationship with an individual – knowing what his or her passions are.”

How to build a strong internal fundraising machine

When he was hired to manage DCC’s first major gift campaign in 2002, the goal was $7 million in five years. It only took Hair 24 months to reach that goal, and since then the foundation has raised $20 million, an accomplishment that earned Hair a “fundraiser professional of the year” award from the Council for Resource Development(CRD), an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges.

Hair credits his success to his deep roots in the community. He was born and raised in Danville and went to DCC before earning a civil engineering degree and heading the community’s economic development office.

In a region still struggling from the departure of tobacco and textile companies decades ago, Hair says local residents see DCC as the best hope for training a skilled workforce that can attract new companies in advanced manufacturing, electronics and other industries.

“Do donors give to the college because they’re passionate about what that college does or because they trust the individual sitting across the table?” The answer should be ‘yes’ to both questions,” Hair says.

To gain that trust, he believes it’s important for the college’s trustees and faculty to contribute, as well.

The rural college advantage

For small colleges without a large fundraising staff, hiring a consultant is the way to go, says Hair, nothing that DCC spent $250,000 in consulting fees to raise that $7 million.

Rural colleges face plenty of challenges, such as a smaller pool of donors and fewer large corporations and wealthy donors nearby, but they actually have some advantages, says Rich Gross, the consultant hired by the DCC foundation.

“The rural community college generally occupies a central, visible place in the community it serves and is often a center for culture, sports and the arts,” Gross says.

Rural colleges are also a critical component in the community’s workforce development, economic development, healthcare and quality of life, he says.

Alumni tend to stay in the region, so it’s easier to engage them in the college, he adds, and unlike colleges in urban areas, there are fewer institutions competing for donations.

Colleges turn to individual donors for support

Across the nation, more people seem to be willing to donate to community colleges, as they’re increasingly seen as providing more value – in terms of equipping students with solid job skills with lower debts – than four-year institutions, says Mort Congleton, senior vice president for development and director of the foundation at Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina, and a member of the CRD board.

“I’ve heard so many heartwarming stories about students moving into a future that transforms their lives,” Congleton says.

Telling those stories can be a key part of the fundraising effort.

At Wake Tech, one of the foundation’s goals is supporting programs for underserved groups, including students coming out of foster care who might easily end up on welfare without an opportunity to attend college. These students are matched with mentors who help with life skills, such as money management, as well as succeeding in college. Students in the program who get straight As in a semester earn a $500 bonus.

Return on investment

Colleges that put a higher priority on fundraising, not surprisingly, tend to be more successful, reports a survey by the Center for Community College Advancement. at the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.

According to the center’s director, Paul Heaton, smaller community colleges tend to have fewer staff in their fundraising departments, so they are more likely to hire a consultant, which tends to be more cost effective.

Gift planning poised to be next big thing

“Typically, community colleges are known to do more with less, and that is the case with fundraising, as well,” Heaton says.

Colleges most successful at fundraising hire professionally trained staff, provide additional resources for more staff or consultants, systematically grow their fundraising operation every year, manage their data well, pay close attention to the data, and nurture relationships with donors and potential donors, Heaton says. And “without active participation by the college president, it is virtually impossible for fundraising to be successful.”

He thinks community colleges could raise more money if they improve efforts to track and engage alumni, noting that 85 percent of a community college’s former students return to live and work in the college’s service area.

Many colleges are questioning the return on investment of traditional fundraising events, such as galas and golf tournaments, and are instead finding it’s more effective to focus on donor cultivation and stewardship, Heaton said. A crucial element is thanking donors more than once, he says, and letting them know their gift is being used for what they intended.

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Originally published January 5, 2015. Community College Daily

Fundraising is About Cultivating Relationships Rich Gross Solutions

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