Holy Alliance

Most colleges save CEO visits for courting big donors on the verge of giving big gifts. But the president of College of the Holy Cross cultivates relationships with the youngest alumni.
November 12, 2009

WASHINGTON -- On any given night, the Dubliner Irish Pub bustles with customers who’ve come to knock back a pint of Guinness or tap their feet to a live band. But on this crisp fall morning the pub is mostly empty, save for a small group of recent College of the Holy Cross graduates sharing a quiet breakfast with the Rev. Michael McFarland, the college’s president.

With a stack of small wooden tables pushed together, the 10 young alumni -- graduates from 2008 and 2009 -- chat with Father McFarland about what they’ve done since completing their degrees at the liberal arts college in Worcester, Mass. Their stories span the globe: One is a U.S.O. employee, helping to plan events in Iraq and Afghanistan; another just finished up a master’s degree at the London School of Economics; and another does press work for Sen. Paul Kirk Jr., the Massachusetts Democrat who succeeded the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

Photo: Jack Stripling/Inside Higher Ed

Alicia Molt, a 2009 graduate of Holy Cross, speaks with the Rev. Michael McFarland during a breakfast at a Washington, D.C., pub.

While the graduates show promise, they’re unlikely to boast big salaries at this stage in their careers. Consequently, they’re not the kind of people university presidents often make special trips to visit for fund-raising events. And yet, these are exactly the kind of people Father McFarland meets with in several major cities a few times a year.

In recent years, courting young alumni has become part of Holy Cross’s long-term fund-raising strategy. The reasons are twofold. On one hand, the college’s development office believes -- and has anecdotal evidence to support -- that donors who start giving even small amounts at a relatively young age are more likely to make larger pledges later in life.

There is also a goal of reaching what the Jesuit-affiliated institution calls “the Holy Grail” -- an alumni giving rate of at least 50 percent. While Holy Cross doesn’t have a mammoth endowment like the Ivies, its giving rate places the college among the most elite fund-raising institutions in the nation. Harvard University’s rate is around 40 percent, compared with Princeton University at 60 percent, according to U.S. News & World Report.

“We don’t pound them with the message give back, give back, give back,” says Father McFarland. “But we do emphasize service.”

When it comes time for an overt pitch with the young alums, Father McFarland is humble, and even a bit sheepish. Think about giving just $25, he says. Could you maybe talk to a few of your friends, too? That’s about all he has to say -- and it’s enough, according to some students. Indeed, some say they’d prefer to hear from Holy Cross now, rather than 15 years later when they’re likely to have accumulated more wealth.

“You know that pitch is coming,” says Alex Spanos, a 2009 graduate attending the breakfast. “But it’s important that they care enough to talk to me now.”

Spanos, who works with a D.C.-based law firm and hopes to attend law school, says his co-workers thought he had hidden sources of income when he told them he was breakfasting with the president of his alma mater.

“[They said] ‘What do your parents do? What do you do? Do you have like a side job?' ” Spanos recalls.

It’s not uncommon for colleges with strong fund-raising offices to reach out to young alumni, but it’s less common for presidents to take meetings with donors who are unlikely to make key gifts in the near term, says Donald Summers, who consults colleges about development strategies.

“The idea is save the biggest gun for the biggest donors,” says Summers, director of Altruist Partners LLC.

“I think many presidents are short-term, and are under pressure to deliver a lot of fund-raising results immediately, and probably would not be inclined to invest time in early stage donors,” he adds. “It sounds like Holy Cross has a great president that’s taking the long view.”

It doesn’t hurt that Holy Cross graduates only about 700 students every year, making it possible for Father McFarland to connect with a fair percentage of young alums with just a few trips a year. But even major research universities should be engaging with young alumni by sending out deans and department chairs to forge early connections, Summers says.

“Of course a big university president can’t meet all the young alumni, but somebody’s got to do it, and the president sure can be driving the activity [at lower levels],” he says.

If the assembled graduates were open to a not-so-hard sell, it may be because of the sense of community they say they feel with Holy Cross. A college of just about 2,700 students, graduates say it’s a place where having dinner at a professor’s house is not uncommon.

“We were talking [at breakfast] about how nice it is to reestablish that Holy Cross connection,” says Laura Walsh, who is now in a graduate program in social psychology at George Washington University. “I want to contribute because of that [connection]. Now that I’m out I appreciate it even more.”

"Objective Test" of Student Satisfaction

Holy Cross finished up a successful capital campaign in 2006, exceeding an initial $175 million goal by $41 million. As the campaign wrapped up, however, development officers noticed the college’s alumni giving rate had fallen slightly below 50 percent for four straight years -- on the heels of 22 consecutive years of 50 percent participation or better.

Fund raisers saw young alumni as the key to moving the needle on alumni giving, and with an extra push toward that demographic, the giving percentage went up to 55 percent in 2008. That’s “rarefied air” in the fund-raising world, says Gary Carskaddan, director of the Holy Cross Fund, which runs annual giving programs.

“The trend line on this is that you want them to give consistently, and your biggest donors tend to be people who were regular donors the first 13 years out,” Carskaddan says.

Indeed, Holy Cross received the lead gift of its last campaign from a donor who started giving small amounts of money just after graduation. Park B. Smith, a 1954 Holy Cross graduate, provided his initial donation in 1955, giving only $30 in his first several years as a donor. Smith now runs Park B. Smith, Ltd., a leading importer and wholesaler of home fashion products, and he contributed $29.9 million to the college's last campaign.

Like those of most colleges, Holy Cross’s endowment has taken a hit. In June 2009, it had fallen to $500.4 million, a 20 percent decline from the previous year. While the endowment is important, the college relies heavily on annual gifts to sustain basic operational functions like providing financial aid and paying faculty. Apart from keeping the college running, Holy Cross officials say the alumni gifts provide tangible evidence that graduates are satisfied with the experience they had at the college. It’s no surprise, therefore, that prospective students often hear about the alumni giving rate when they’re considering Holy Cross.

“We like being in that group [with a 50 percent giving rate],” Carskaddan says. “We like showing our alumni are committed. It helps us when parents and students are looking at Holy Cross, and they say ‘Hey, this is an engaged alumni base.’ ”

In an increasingly competitive environment for private colleges -- particularly in Massachusetts where they sprout up like mushrooms -- a high rate of alumni giving is a distinguishing selling point, according to Father McFarland.

"Everybody says they give a great experience," he says, "but this is an objective test."


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