Attendance was sparse at Lord Fairfax Community College’s Alumni Homecoming Family Fun Day last Saturday. But perhaps that’s to be expected: It was, after all, the Virginia college’s first attempt at staging the event.
“The majority of community colleges have been very, very weak with our involvement with alumni only because we never really understood the need for it until fund raising became important. We need to connect with our alums because some who go on to four-year colleges really have nothing to do with their two-year colleges. They forget about us,” says President John J. (Ski) Sygielski.
“It’s still a novel concept to raise money for community colleges.”
Novel, but no longer unknown: Sygielski estimates that he devotes nearly 50 percent of his time to fund raising for a college that has had many firsts when it comes to development in the four years since he arrived. The first faculty, staff and administrative members appointed to the college foundation to help raise money from other faculty, staff and administrators. The first Homecoming Alumni Reunion and Dance (the dance, now in its third year, also happened Saturday). The first regular communications with alumni, some of whom, says Linnie S. Carter, the vice president of college advancement, “had not heard from us in a long while.”
The college also has regenerated a defunct Alumni Association, starting, Carter explains, not with a full association, but with a smaller Alumni Advisory Council made up of about 20 members who responded to a recent college mailing -- the mailing itself only possible after the college contracted a company to clean up and update the alumni database.
"It's slow," Sygielski says of building up alumni affairs. “I may have 100 or 200 people that attend events. We have 10,000 graduates over the 38 years of our existence.”
“The fastest growing area in community college development right now is in the alumni affairs area,” says Steven Budd, president of New Hampshire Community Technical College at Claremont and also the board president for the Council for Research Development, an affiliate organization of the American Association of Community Colleges focused on fund raising. “Alumni programs all over the country are really being beefed up.”
And as such, the role of the community college president is changing, in terms of how presidents spend their time, why they’re hired and even how long they spend in the job. Budd, for instance, came to his current college by way of an assistant vice president for advancement position at Massachusetts' Springfield Technical Community College. More and more, he says, institutional development is becoming a pathway to the two-year-college presidency.
“One of the reasons why in my opinion we’ll never see another 40-year run for another president is fund raising,” says J. Mark Estepp, who in July took over as president of Southwest Virginia Community College after Charles King, the president since the college’s inception in 1967, retired. Estepp, who formerly was a dean at North Carolina’s Appalachian State University, believes his fund raising expertise played a key role in his hiring – although only a few years ago, that probably wouldn’t have been the case.
“Five or six years ago, I got a bite, got an interview and I talked about fund raising,” Estepp says. “The search board looked at me like I was crazy and one person even said ‘You can’t fund raise at a community college.' Well, look how far we’ve come so quickly.”
Life at Lord Fairfax
“I’ve got two people running the foundation besides myself. There’s a lot to do if we want to raise a million dollars a year or whatever it is,” says Lord Fairfax’s Sygielski, a former vice chancellor for workforce development for the Virginia Community College System, and before that a vice president at Illinois’s College of DuPage and before that a corporate trainer (And “before that I was a monk, but that’s a long story,” he says while giving a tour of the largest of the college's three locations in tiny Middletown. A monk? Oh, yes, he says, still walking a pace ahead -- he left in 1985, he explains, after 10 years of training to be a Roman Catholic monk).
Sygielski exudes positive energy, having recently completed a four-day “summer vacation” bicycle tour of the college’s seven-county, one-city (Winchester) service area, a mostly rural, agricultural expanse in the Blue Ridge Mountains just west of suburban Washington's sprawl. Lord Fairfax, which has three locations and about 3,800 degree-seeking students, has already surpassed its $600,000 target fund raising goal this year, raking in $750,384.53 for the foundation by early September. But Sygielski’s not shy to say that his personal fund raising goal this year is $1 million -- four times the official goal two years ago. (The foundation boasts more than $9 million in total assets).
“I spend a lot of time on the phone, fund raising, following up with major donors. It’s cultivating, for people who aren’t familiar with one, community colleges, second, their own community college, Lord Fairfax, and third, who wonder, ‘You’re a state institution, why should I give you money?’ ”
“As I tell them, we were state supported, then state-assisted, now located in the state of Virginia.” Lord Fairfax, like many community colleges, began focusing on fund raising in response to declining state appropriations.
So in working with alumni and donors, Sygielski emphasizes the need to find innovative strategies that require few resources. For instance, he slashed some staff-intensive fund raising events that were in place before he came to Lord Fairfax -- a shrimp feast and a truck party (where everyone donates $100 for the chance to win a donated truck) -- because of low rates of return. The former event raised about $3,000 to $5,000 annually, and the latter $7,000.
Sygielski instead began a birthday party initiative about a year ago, in which interested donors host birthday parties for themselves at their own houses, at their own expense, with guests asked to write a check for a Lord Fairfax scholarship. At the last party, the college raised $11,000 for a scholarship in the host’s name. “It was absolutely a 100 percent return on the college’s investment,” says Sygielski, who always volunteers to help clean up afterwards (though inevitably, he says, hosts have hired a caterer).
However, he cites a downside to canceling the on-campus, community-oriented events: “I struggle with trying to find venues to bring people from our service area onto campus.”
Hence a kid-friendly "Fairfax Follies" event each May and this past weekend’s Family Fun Day and Homecoming Dance. While officials didn't take a head-count, they estimated that fewer than 200 people attended the dance. They plan to survey alumni to figure out future events the college should sponsor, and hope for a bigger turn-out at what would be the second annual Family Fun Day next year.
“The big thing is that alumni work within community colleges is brand new,” Sygielski says at the Alumni Homecoming Family Fun Day, a grill with sizzling hot dogs and a MoonBounce as his backdrop. “That’s what we are just starting to tap into.”