Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Latest on Student Discovery

As many of you know, one of the innovations of which I am most proud is the Student Discovery Initiative at Georgetown. It is featured in the most recent issue of CASE Currents and has been covered in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

To date:

Over 6,000 alumni in 42 states and 17 countries have been interviewed

20 percent of those alumni made their largest gift ever after the interview was conducted

Giving by those interviewed rose 43 percent in the year after the visit

The interviews yielded 1,000 new career mentors, 500 new alumni-admissions interviewers and 200 Regional Club and Class Committee volunteers

570 new major gift prospects, 63% of whom have a capacity in excess of $100,000, were identified.

Oh, and did I mentioned that before these alumni were interviewed, they received a letter from the President reassuring them that they would not be asked for money? All of the results above came from the asking of opinions, and nothing else. Here’s the rest of the story.

The idea was a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention. I was new to Georgetown and found myself with 25 open positions, most of them in the upper echelons of my operation. For every person who had left, dozens if not hundreds of alumni and donor connections had been broken. Frustrations were piling up and I was trying to figure out how I could let our alumni know that we cared about them and were racing to repair the breaks in communications. I knew it would take more than a year to fill all the open positions so I began thinking about other assets that might be available to me. Then, while someone was reciting impressive statistics about Georgetown, it hit me. I was sitting on a huge resource – one of the most selectively admitted student bodies in the country. Over 18,000 applied, 1600 were admitted. Once a degree was conferred on these students, they were highly sought after by employers in the public and private sectors. I began to wonder how many of them might work for me before they graduated and how I might best use their abilities. Since information is so important to a new leader, it occurred to me that the best thing I could ask students to do was to help me gain more insight into how our former students would like to reconnect with their alma mater.

I learned that only 4,000 out of our 150,000 living alumni had ever had face-to-face contact with a representative of their alma mater and then began to imagine what might happen if we were to hire 100 students and ask them to interview 10,000 alumni over three years. What if we could more than double our interaction with alumni in a few short years? What might we learn about their interests and passions? And, if better armed with those insights, how much more effective might we be in designing our communications and outreach?

And how much would I need to spend? I wasn't exactly rolling in the dough. I thought, “What if we asked students to interview alumni in their hometowns when they returned for Christmas, Easter or summer break?” Since they were already going home, I wouldn’t have to pay transportation only for their time. I did the calculations and concluded I could offer students the handsome sum of $50 for each interview conducted. Such a deal, eh? The question then became, “Would anyone take me up on the offer?

They did indeed. Of course they did. They were (and are) very smart. They saw the value of getting in front of successful alumni and the opportunity to represent the University in a pioneering effort was far more than the $50 dollars we were offering. Some of my colleagues at Georgetown and at other universities warned me that I was taking too much of a risk, that I was asking students to take on responsibility beyond their years and that some would disappoint us by their poor judgment or inappropriate behavior. But none did. There have been no such incidents, not one. The students were carefully selected and put through rigorous training, both in the art of the interview and in steeping themselves in University facts and figures.

Our market research showed that many alumni craved a closer connection to their alma mater but felt the University had only one interest in them – as donors. Further, some of those who had met with development officers felt that they were in the presence of “hired guns,” there for the sole purpose of extracting commitments but were not well-versed on the latest developments or higher aspirations of the University. We knew it would be important to send a far different signal through our students.

When the first group of student discoverers began their work, they found not all of our alumni were willing to meet with them and those that were often met them with initial skepticism. However, after the alumni realized that there was no hidden agenda, they were touched by the fact that the University had deployed someone for the sole purpose of learning more about them. The alumni took to the students immediately, often asking if they could drive them to the next appointment or take them to lunch. Then I began to receive letters from those who had been interviewed. They said, in so many words, “You couldn’t have sent a more impressive representative to meet with me.” It was working. Human bonds were being strengthened when current and former students met. The students said more about the University and its future than any brochure, speech, video, or event ever could.

In Matthew Lambert, I was fortunate to find the right leader to implement my idea. He, in turn, surrounded himself with other strong leaders, including very talented students. One student, Tim Foley, conducted over 500 interviews over one summer. We hired him immediately after graduation. He worked for us for two years and now is in law school.

As I have said on other occasions, the program has been “a win” on every conceivable level. The program has brought forward wonderful students who helped bring many accomplished alumni back into the fold. The process of discovery proved an invaluable educational experience for our students and helped develop their personal and professional skills. As a result, they grew even closer to Georgetown. I expect many, in not most, will be our alumni leaders of the future.

Philanthropy is not produced by fund-raising. It is rooted in the common interests and mutual benefits of a well-developed community. If we are to achieve philanthropy’s highest and best purposes, we must attend to the constant building of the web of human relationships and the defining of the causes that unites us. Our students did more than interview or discover; they furthered the growth of a community, strengthened the sense of common cause, and helped us all better imagine how we might work together to achieve something greater. We continue to learn from their experience.

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