Monday, February 20, 2012

Mattering Matters to Philanthropy

I interviewed a young alumnus of Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC), who had graduated at the very top of his class after having dropped out of a community college years earlier, so I could understand what had turned his life around. He – let’s call him Brad -- explained that he started GGC with good intentions but soon lapsed into an old pathology – he skipped a class. But at GGC, it was only a few minutes into that first skipped class that Brad received a call from the professor in the classroom.

“Where are you?” asked the professor.

Brad stammered out something lame and largely incoherent.

“I’d like you to come back,” said the professor.

“Now?” asked Brad.

“That would be great.”

Brad made his way to the classroom and opened the door with sheepish apprehension fearing he might be subjected to ridicule or shame. But the professor greeted him warmly and as if nothing were out of place, as did his classmates. That moment, he said, turned his life around.

“Why ?” I asked.

“In the past, I didn’t care because I didn’t think anyone else cared,” said Brad. “But at GGC, I realized my being there mattered. After that, I never again wanted to let down my professor. It went from there to not wanting to let down my classmates, and then to not wanting to let down my school.”

Note the progression of thought. Because one person told Brad that his presence mattered, he came to see himself as having a responsibility to his classmates and to his school.

Georgia Gwinnett is a new public, open-admission college, the first established in Georgia since Reconstruction. The new president, a Vietnam war hero and graduate of West Point, was given a mandate to innovate. He stipulated that all professors share their cell phone numbers with all students, and vice versa, and that all calls were to be returned in 24 hours. That policy engendered a feeling of close connection and mutual obligation between teacher and student. It ensured that students couldn’t skip class or drop out unnoticed. Their being there mattered.

So what’s the applicability of this to advancement and fund raising? Well, what happens when our donors “skips” giving? If they have given for one or more years, then cease, do we let them walk away unnoticed? Do we let them know that we noted their absence, that we wish them to come back, that their presence in our organization matters? If we do contact them, does the call or letter come from someone who represents the heart of the enterprise or just the fundraising arm? And if it is the latter, what does that say about why they matter to us? Do we miss the person or the contribution? Do we stress the importance of what we can achieve together in the years to come or just what our institution wants to accomplish now?

In higher education, we have witnessed a 20-year decline in annual alumni participation. Because we were able to raise larger amounts of money from fewer and fewer donors, some argued that alumni participation didn’t matter that much. Then the economy shrank, and the feds and state governments cut back funding to higher education. The leaders of some of some institutions of higher learning then announced they would have to turn to their alumni to make up the difference. That’s hard to do when you’ve left them feeling that their leaving a long time ago didn’t matter. Now, alumni say, (according to research done by Engagement Strategies Group), the major obstacles to their future giving include the lack of a “strong emotional connection” and the widespread belief that their alma maters “haven’t done enough to connect with me beyond asking for money.”

Institutions that enjoy the highest levels of participation, and therefore the highest rates of long-term support through major, principal and estate giving, have created a sense of community, of personal connection. If you asked their donors why they give, you would receive a variety of reasons and motivations. And while none of them may say it, the real reason, at the end of the day, might be a strong sense that they matter to that organization.

Distance learning is not the key to a greater achievement in education; closing the distance between teacher and learner is. And the key to more productive models of philanthropy is making donors feel as if they matter to the mission and to those most responsible for advancing it.

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