Want to Start an Award-Winning Donor Engagement Program in 2020? Check Out Our Guide (Part 1 of 2)

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Photo shared on the Dinner for 12 Strangers #D12UCLA Tagboard.

Let’s start with a hypothetical. Each year, University X puts on the same donor and alumni events they’ve been doing as long as anyone can remember. The events are like white bread—familiar, safe, and, to be honest, getting a bit stale. 

Sound familiar? 

University X is missing a vital opportunity for innovation by not trying something new. So many colleges and universities are engaging alumni and donors in awesome and innovative ways. But, across the silos of higher education, how do you know what other schools are doing? How do you find new ideas that will work for your institution

Anyone out there?

In an effort to bridge the divide, we’re bringing you five success stories of how institutions are engaging alumni and donors AND supporting students through award-winning, innovative programs. And we’re going to tell you exactly how they did it so you can replicate it! 

I spoke with practitioners whose advancement departments won 2019 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards*:

Alyson Beckman, Director, Student Alumni Programs & Family Engagement at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Event: Dinners for 12 Strangers. This past year, over three nights, alumni hosted more than 500 dinners around the world, bringing together more than 3,700 UCLA supporters for good food and great conversation!

Kevin Morgenstein Fuerst, Senior Director of Annual Giving at the University of Vermont Foundation

Program: LUVMyClub Crowdfunding Campaign. In 2018, nearly 2,000 donors gave more than $32,000 to support UWM clubs.

Christina Kline, Assistant Foundation Director at Portland Community College

Campaign: Save a Seat Campaign. Last year, over 600 members of the Portland Community College family gave $380,000 and pledged an additional $1.6 million in estate gifts to support students!

William H. Arnold, Senior Director of Alumni and Family Engagement at Alma College

Program: Alma Ambassador Program. Through this program, over 4,000 Ambassadors have contributed their time, talent, or treasure to Alma College.

Lauren Luffy, Director for Lifelong Learning at the Ohio State University

Event: Women’s Leadership Symposium. Last year, more than 450 women alumni and other OSU and Ohio University community members attended this daylong exchange of ideas surrounding the unique strengths and challenges of being a woman.

In this post, Part 1, we’ll cover the first three programs and in Part 2 we’ll cover the last two programs.

*About the awards from the CASE website: “Each year the CASE Circle of Excellence Awards recognize hundreds of institutions whose talented staff members advanced their institutions last year through innovative, inspiring and creative ideas. The awards acknowledge superior accomplishments that have lasting impact, demonstrate the highest level of professionalism and deliver exceptional results. Some winners are showcased on the CASE website, in Currents magazine, and at various CASE conferences.” 

1. Dinners for 12 Strangers

What is it? According to UCLA, “Dinners for 12 Strangers is a 51-year UCLA tradition that has become a global phenomenon. Every year, on one of three nights, alumni, faculty and students come together to enjoy good food and great conversation. This past year, alumni hosted more than 500 dinners around the world involving more than 3,700 Bruins.”

Why do we love it? Bringing together donors, alumni, and students over a shared meal is a great idea—it’s personal and taps into shared school spirit and nostalgia. One top of that, Dinners for 12 Strangers is so well-organized. We especially love the microsite the university built for the program, where hosts and students can sign up and read testimonials and FAQs. The microsite also offers a detailed tips for how to host a dinner at your own institution.

Screenshot from Dinners for 12 Strangers microsite.

How can you replicate it? For schools who want to start a similar program, Alyson Beckman says, “Start small. Host 2-3 dinners and recruit students you trust, like student workers in the alumni office, or those in a student alumni or philanthropy group. Invite them to get some of their friends to join. A lot of the success [of the program] comes from the students themselves. Also, send a member of the alumni relations team to the dinner(s).” She explained, “These dinners are a great way to create a specialized experience for people, and relatively easy to plan.” 

Final tip? Use icebreakers and games, like “celebrity guest.” Alyson: “Getting everyone talking and laughing early on can lead to a more authentic experience.”

How did this program start? This program has a long history. Alyson explained that in the 1960s, a group of volunteer alumni wanted to engage with students. So they came up with the simple concept of bringing together alumni, students, faculty, and staff over one shared dinner. 

Who is it for? Hosts can be alumni, faculty, staff, parents, or friends of UCLA. Dinners for students are limited to Los Angeles-area hosts to make it easier for students to travel to the dinners. Any student can sign up to join one of the dinners. If there is interest, dinners may be focused on particular majors, professions, affinities, or student groups (such as a dinner just for transfer students). Any alum can host an alumni dinner in their region. 

Photo shared on the Dinner for 12 Strangers #D12UCLA Tagboard.

How do they do it? The Alumni Association handles marketing, coordination, communications, the matching process between students and hosts, and RSVPs. They send each host a kit which includes name badges of dinner attendees, a sign-in sheet, etc. The hosts cover the cost of the dinner, but they’re given an in-kind gift receipt for tax credit. 

The Student Alumni Association is also very involved: they’re in touch with hosts prior to the dinners and provide icebreaker ideas and other engagement games, they coordinate rides to get students to and from the dinners, and they give the students ideas for topics to discuss and a gift to present to each host. 

Why is it so successful? Along with their marketing efforts, Alyson said, “Word of mouth has been very successful, half of the hosts are returners and half are new.” Also: “Free food is a huge draw for students. Mainly, what’s nice is that these dinners don’t have to be formal, you can just be who you are.” 

Any challenges? Alyson said attrition (ensuring students attend a dinner after they’ve signed up) has been a challenge. Therefore, her office tries to promote and model accountability. Once students and hosts have been matched, they connect them to each other, so then the student would have to explain to the host directly why they’re not able to attend. 

2. LUVMyClub Crowdfunding Campaign

Image from the UVM Foundation. 

What is it? LUVMyClub is a fundraising challenge for student clubs and organizations at UVM. Through the crowdfunding site GiveCampus.com, students raise money from their clubs and compete for different categories of recognition for their efforts. 

Why do we love it? This initiative empowers students, engages donors, and promotes a bit of healthy competition. Perhaps most importantly, the LUVMy Club campaign helps current students understand what philanthropy is and what it can do for them and the school. “Ideally,” Kevin Morgenstein Fuerst explained, “students who raise money for their club will donate to that club when they’re alumni.”

How can you replicate it? Kevin pointed out that advancement workshops and foundations should be flexible and welcoming to students who have ideas for how to engage donors, even if it is something that hasn’t been done before or you’re afraid you can’t have full control over the program. “If a student wants to raise money, let’s empower them to do it.” 

Another lesson I took from this interview is that if programs aren’t bringing in engagement, interest, or many donors, don’t be afraid to let them go, even if they’ve been around for a long time. 

Download the LUVMyClub Tips for Success presentation for student clubs—thanks for sharing with other practitioners, Kevin!

How did this program start? Kevin explained, “Five years ago when I started here, I inherited a dying senior class gift program, the only student-based fundraising program we had. It was very traditional—not many donors, lack of infrastructure. Class-based councils had been dissolved and replaced by Student Alumni Association.”

Kevin had been reading an EAB report (“Creating a Culture of Giving Among Current Students,” access for EAB members only) on student philanthropy. He said, “We tried several different things, like fun runs, but we needed a new idea. About three and a half years ago, I told the students, ‘Let’s wipe the slate clean.’” His team and students in the Student Alumni Association came up with the LUVMyClub crowdfunding campaign. 

University of Vermont campus.

Who is it for? The University of Vermont has 180 student organizations. Kevin and his team wanted to give them all a chance to earn funding with this campaign. This way, they’re harnessing the spirit of friendly competition already in play among student groups on campus. 

How do they do it? Kevin: “The first year, my department took a hands-off approach. We didn’t do any solicitation on behalf of the clubs, we just let the students go for it. We weren’t sure how it would go or how to pitch it yet. It did pretty well, we raised about $10,000-12,000 from 650 donors. In the second year, we started to professionalize the campaign, promote access for all clubs, and moved to the GiveCampus platform. We also gamified the advocacy part, as in, we added more prizes clubs could win (like most student or alumni donors) and incentivized individual outreach. In the third year, we raised more money and offered fundraising training for the students in the form of workshops and opportunity to come to our office and reach out to their alumni (phone calls or emails).”

Screenshot from campaign page

Why is it so successful? 90% of students at the University of Vermont are in a club. The fundraising is self-motivated because its driven by student-passion with professional support from the Foundation. 

Any challenges? Kevin said this program took three years to see the success it has now, so patience was important. 

3. Save a Seat Campaign

What is it? Save a Seat is Portland Community College’s faculty, staff, and retirees fundraising campaign. The campaign—which raises money for student scholarships, emergency grants, and for the campus food pantry—is guided by the metaphor of saving a seat for students in the classroom, in the cafeteria, and on the bus, to support them where and when they need it most.

Why do we love it? What’s not to love? Portland Community College is serving their nontraditional student population in direct, significant ways. Also, the simple, consistent approach to marketing (originally inspired by the Campbell’s Soup aesthetic) is visually appealing and unique. 

Marketing materials provided by PCC.

How can you replicate it? Christina Kline suggests:

➜Design a campaign that celebrates how philanthropy can help students succeed inside and outside of the classroom. 

➜Create a campaign that is meaningful to the constituents you’re targeting. Investigate what truly touches the lives of potential donors. This may be different from what you thought was most important. Christina believes this campaign was relevant because she knows faculty and staff have seen hungry students and students struggling in the classroom.  

➜Tie into relevant events, programs, or holidays. Portland Community College integrated #GivingTuesday into some of their holiday-time marketing efforts and tapped into the crowdfunding momentum. 

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How did this program start? “About two years ago, we broke the mold for our faculty, staff, and retiree fundraising,” Christina explained. “Our messaging was centered around giving, so we decided instead to focus in on an important issue: student hunger.” The next year, they started with the “Save the Seat” theme and expanded the campaign to address three issues in specific ways: 

➜Improve student learning by raising money for scholarships.

➜Fight student hunger by contributing to the Panther Pantries, which provides healthy, fresh, and non-perishable food items and hygiene supplies. 

➜Support students during emergencies by providing emergency grants to students for unexpected expenses.

PCC Sylvania campus.

Who is it for? This campaign is targeted at Portland Community College faculty, staff, and retirees to directly support students. Christina noted that faculty, staff, and retirees are the school’s most generous group of constituents.

How do they do it? Christina walked me through how they marketed the campaign: 

➜First, her department sent out a series of direct mailings (see a sample of the marketing materials here. Thank you for sharing, Christina!). 

➜From October through December, PCC sent out a targeted email per month, each addressing one of the three issues. They coupled these initiatives with outreach on social media. 

➜Finally, PCC has four campuses. They set up a crowdfunding page for each and the student president and solicited gifts from each campus. This created healthy competition, and helped them raise $15,000, 70% of which came from staff and retirees.  

Why is it so successful? Christina credits the success of the campaign to a variety of factors, including involving students and approaching marketing around these issues with creativity and sensitivity. 

Any challenges? Since storytelling and fundraising is one of our passions at ALUMinate, I asked Christina if they shared any student stories during this campaign. She pointed out that when raising money for hunger and emergency grants, her department had to walk a fine line because they did not want to be exploitative. Of PCC’s 70,000 learners, their average age is 29, many are first generation college students, and 13% are homeless.

Instead of sharing individual student stories, her department used quotes and testimonials from people explaining why they support donating to these issues. Two student leaders wrote letters (used in direct mailings) about how those students witness a need among their peers. “Allowing those students to serve as a voice,” Christina said, “was empowering.”

We hope you found these donor engagement programs and initiatives inspiring. Be sure to check back in on Tuesday, December 3rd for Part 2!

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