The Power of Sharing Student Stories with Donors: An Interview with Jennifer Mora & Marcie Holmes of UC Berkeley

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Creating innovative events that honor and engage both donors and students has always been challenging, even more so in the age of Zoom. Recently, I had the chance to speak with Jennifer Mora and Marcie Holmes from the University of California, Berkeley. Jennifer is the Director of Development for Student Experience and Diversity (SED) and Marcie is the Stewardship and Scholarship Program Analyst. 

As described on the SED section of the Berkeley website, “the Student Experience and Diversity (SED) philanthropy program is focused on Berkeley’s role as an engine of social mobility, recognizing that supporting the quality and diversity of the student experience is crucial to the university’s unique brilliance.” One example of Berkeley serving as an engine of social mobility is the Fiat Lux Scholarship program, which “creates opportunities for resilient students with unique life experiences to make a profound impact at the University of California, Berkeley. Established for high-achieving students from partner high schools in California, the scholarship provides monetary, community, and academic support to underrepresented and first-generation college students.”

I interviewed Jennifer and Marcie to learn about a recent virtual event they hosted which honored and brought together the Fiat Lux scholarship students and donors, as well as raised awareness and support for the program. While we started out discussing the nuts and bolts of the event, our conversation evolved into one about the power and importance of sharing student stories with donors and how advancement practitioners can do this successfully while honoring the privacy and dignity of students. 

Below is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Caitlin Scarano (interviewer): Can you start by just telling me a bit about yourselves and your professional journeys?

Jennifer Mora:  I started a part-time job at the Cal Alumni Association at UC Berkeley after taking time off from the corporate sector. I was looking for an opportunity to transfer my skills and experience in public relations and marketing while pursuing my passion for making a difference. I’ve spent my higher education advancement career at UC Berkeley holding various roles from a Development Coordinator to a Senior Director. Today, my focus is individual major gift fundraising.

Marcie Holmes: I’ve been in the nonprofit sector since college, where I studied health science. Back then, I worked with local nonprofits doing nutrition education and I found that any nonprofit work you do relates to fundraising. So, when I was in graduate school, I pursued fundraising as a focus because I knew that skill set would be important in any nonprofit leadership role. I’ve been working in a development role ever since. 

CS: Can you tell me about the Student Experience and Diversity philanthropy program and how that led to this specific event?

JM: The program started in early 2018, and it was a collaboration between three divisions at UC Berkeley: Student Affairs, Equity and Inclusion, and Undergraduate Education. The SED program is about supporting students to ensure not only do they survive Berkeley, but they also thrive. The Fiat Lux scholarship program is within Student Affairs. As our inaugural event, this was our opportunity to bring together donors who’ve been supporting the program and celebrate the first graduating cohort of the Fiat Lux scholarship program. 

CS: Can you go over the nuts and bolts of the virtual event, including the goals and the planning process? Also, if you faced any challenges, how did you navigate those?

MH: There were two main philanthropic goals for the event: 1) stewardship—steward the donors who had contributed to the Fiat Lux scholarship program; and 2) cultivate new donors. The planning was a partnership with the SED fundraising staff, the external relations and marketing communications team within University Development & Alumni Relations, and the Division of Student Affairs’ Financial Aid and Scholarships Office, which manages the Fiat Lux Scholarship program. 

The planning process was collaborative; our external relations and marketing communications team was the lead on the nuts and bolts. Jennifer and I were the leads on the donor lists and tackled logistics such as: Who are we going to invite? How are we going to reach out to the students? Which students do we invite? Which students do we want to feature and invite to share their stories? What do we want the chancellor and the vice chancellor to say? We put a lot of thought into the flow of the event, who was speaking and when. I think the biggest challenge was that this was one of our first major virtual events. 

JM: As we planned the event and continued to add stakeholders to the planning process, it expanded in size and purpose and became multifaceted. This challenge provided us with an opportunity to creatively and collaboratively expand the event scope in real time. 

CS: Did the event lead to any new gifts or any new donors?

JM: Yes, a couple of gifts were closed as a result of the event. One of the success factors was the direct call to action to make a gift by the Vice Chancellor. Bob and Colleen Haas made a $24 million campaign gift to support undergraduate students at Berkeley, including $10 million in matching funds for the Haas Family Fiat Lux Scholarship. The matching gift challenges other Berkeley alumni and donors to make a scholarship endowment gift, which the Haas family will match.

MH: It’s a pivotal moment in the growth of the program, in terms of philanthropy.

JM: Another strength of the event is it was very curated—every detail was mapped out. Marcie did an excellent job partnering with the Fiat Lux program manager to meet with the scholarship students to prepare them to go into the Zoom breakout room discussions with donors during the event. We were very intentional about which students and donors were in each room. We took some best practices of in-person events and applied them to a virtual setting; for example, we framed the breakout rooms as conversation rooms and envisioned them as actual cocktail rounds in a physical space. 

We tried to envision—what would be the energy based on who we assigned to each room? What did we want to create from that experience? We considered details like matching an alumni’s major to a student’s majors, making sure alumni in the same room were in the same generation, etc. We prepared the students for the conversation rooms ahead of time. We had a staff person in each room. We made sure that there was a fundraiser in each of the rooms to take notes. 

CS: Are you going to hold the event again? And do you think you would have the event or the conversation rooms last longer?

MH: Yes, we will hold the event again; it’ll be an annual event for us. We will have the conversation rooms run longer.

CS: Can you talk about the students’ stories? How did you select which students or which stories you wanted to have occur when? And, more generally, what is the role of students’ stories in your fundraising work? How do you maintain that balance between promoting their stories/successes and respecting the students’ privacy?

JM:  This is where having strong partnerships with the campus programs that do this work comes into play. Because of our structure as a fundraising team, we have the opportunity to partner with programs, learn about their work, and build rapport with them. For example, we looked to the Financial Aid and Scholarship Office to select the scholarship students for the events based on their history of working with Fiat Lux Scholars. 

We also had the foresight to see that we were quite busy on the donor side and the implementation side, so we hired a speechwriter to help prepare the two student scholars who spoke during the event. Our speechwriter had experience working with students whose stories may not be that of a traditional college student. She knew how to work with them in a way that made them feel safe and comfortable sharing their story, in ways that were informative, not performative. It was an investment of time from the students and it was an investment of money on our end to curate those speeches. We also had a Zoom training session for the students who hosted breakout, or conversation, rooms.

MC: A big takeaway was the importance of preparing the students to share what it means to be a Fiat Lux Scholar, what it means to receive that scholarship, and how and why to share the impact of the gift with the donors. We provided them with the training and the tools to help them speak from that angle.

CS: Watching the video recording of the event and listening to the two students’ stories, as a writer, I was struck by those speeches. They seemed very organic and read like powerful personal essays. So, the fact that you hired that speech consultant makes a lot of sense to me, and I think that that was a powerful investment.

JM: I’ve been doing scholarship work since the start of my advancement career. Student stories are the most powerful thing that we can share with prospects and donors. When I work with donors, a scholarship gift often feels more personal to the donor than any other kind of gift I’ve worked on. They’re very invested from the beginning. Some donors are completely satisfied knowing that their gift is going to someone deserving of it, while other donors want to understand the impact that their gift is having by hearing from or meeting a student. Student stories keep donors engaged; it’s natural stewardship.

MH: There’s often a fine line that fundraisers have to tread regarding privacy issues or donors getting too involved in the scholarship process. With the breakout rooms of this event, the pairings weren’t a direct match, as in this donor didn’t fund this student’s scholarship specifically. It was more of a demonstration of the impact the prospect could have, or the donor did have, by contributing to the program generally.

At the end of the day, regardless of which specific student receives which donor’s scholarship, by sharing a student’s story, you’re helping the donor connect with the heart of a gift. Donors generally want to help students who just need some support to complete their degree, and that’s exactly what they want to see happening. Sharing the students’ stories is the best way to do that. We did this through the live event, but there are other ways we integrate storytelling with donor cultivation and stewardship, through articles, videos, etc.

JM: Best practices include having student permission, having program buy-in, and being transparent about what you’re going to do with the story and how you’re going to use it. Also, engaging with the student on why it’s important, and of value, to share their experience. Regarding privacy, we only want the student to share what they feel comfortable sharing. We’d never ask them to divulge anything that doesn’t feel comfortable or safe.

CS: Yes, not just asking the students for this kind of content, but explaining why it matters. I think that can also inspire them to also give or work as fundraisers in the future. Philanthropy can be very cyclical. […] Shifting gears a bit, if another institution wants to host a similar event, what advice or lessons or resources would you share with them?

JM: The first step in the process is figuring out who you’re collaborating with, such as student affairs or a marketing team, and getting early buy-in. Also, I recommend being nimble and curating each detail, especially when it comes to students. Students need to feel a sense of preparation; they need to have an understanding of what they can expect from the experience and why the experience is important. The key stakeholder buy-in from the beginning is pivotal; as well as bringing people along in the process, making everyone feel like they’re part of this amazing experience and that it takes all of us to make this event successful.

Also, institutions will want to consider: how can we leverage this event for multiple purposes? We leveraged our event for cultivation and for stewardship. We leveraged it to build and strengthen our relationships with campus colleagues by giving them an opportunity to host rooms that included their prospects. We made sure to have key leadership speaking at the event, including one of the major donors. Think about all your audiences, not just your donors. Our audience was inclusive: students, campus colleagues, central development colleagues, to name a few. We looked at this event from different audience perspectives. You want to bring everyone along.

We also had a very strong post-event strategy that was customized and curated to the point that we sent our thank you emails to key participants immediately after the event. Those kinds of details are important; it was a lot of work on the front end, but I feel confident that when this event comes around again, people will say, “Yes, of course I want to participate in that event.”

In addition, if an institution has a successful template for an event, I encourage them to build on that, especially in this virtual environment. I don’t think we necessarily need to reinvent events every single time. If something resonates with donors, you can have that same event with different donors. My advice is to think about what you can do to enhance an event that you’ve already established and was successful. 

CS: Speaking from your professional perspective, what do you think is the role that philanthropy should play in higher education, especially coming out of the pandemic and considering the divisions and turmoil that our country is currently facing?

MH: The way our education system is set up in this country, there’s often a large gap in funding for education, and underrepresented communities face an even bigger gap. Philanthropy is one of the key ways that we are able to support students in getting to college and then getting through college. This distinction is important—just because a student gets to a university like UC Berkeley, doesn’t mean that they will always succeed, finish, and feel good about their experience. 

JM: Philanthropy is critical in higher education as the cost of attendance continues to soar. Think about what we just witnessed during the pandemic—the gap students are facing got even wider. We’re going to continue to see a great need to help students attend college, to simply be able to be afforded the opportunity. Without philanthropy, there are students who would be left behind, who wouldn’t even have the opportunity. We rely on philanthropy to help us achieve our mission to make sure students get through the University of California, they matriculate, and they’re set up for success beyond graduation.

Now, more than ever, philanthropy needs to be at center stage in advancement because it is an investment in our future. Today’s students are our future leaders, teachers, entrepreneurs, and more. Without philanthropy, we run the risk of not having a generation ready to be innovative and prepared to take the helm of the country or a company. I agree with Marcie in terms of the gap—we’re not going to be able to move forward without philanthropy to help close that gap, because it’s widening annually.

CS: Right. And the major gifts keep getting bigger, while the donor base keeps shrinking, so it seems like there needs to be this “all-hands-on-deck” kind of mentality.

JM: I love that—all-hands-on-deck.

CS: Thank you both so much for speaking with me!

Are you and your team doing exciting work in advancement? We’d love to feature that work on our blog! Contact Caitlin to learn more!

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