To Alienate or to Advance?
Colleges' advancement strategies can either connect with an increasingly diverse donor base, or can turn them off, writes Noah D. Drezner.
Recently the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education released a well-produced video celebrating 220 years of alumni associations and the 100 of the Association of Alumni Secretaries, which merged into the American Alumni Council in 1927, and eventually became CASE in 1974.
As a faculty member whose primary line of research looks at philanthropy and fund-raising in American higher education and a former advancement officer, I was excited to watch the video when it hit my Facebook feed. While the photo and archival document montage in the video does a nice job highlighting many of the “firsts” in alumni engagement, I was shocked by what could be viewed as a whitewashing of this history.
The video neglects to look at various groups, individuals, and organizations that were pivotal in the history of alumni engagement that happen to be black or were working at historically black colleges and universities. For example, where is James E. Stamps, who founded the United Negro College Fund's (UNCF) National Alumni Council in 1946, or Walter Washington who founded the National Pre-Alumni Council in 1958 to engage students? We see equivalent people and organizations to Stamp, Washington, and the UNCF throughout the montage, and the absence of their acknowledgement is palpable.
This lack of diversity and recognition of alumni engagement strategies outside of the white majority is very concerning. Even more disconcerting is that CASE, the field’s leading professional organization, committed this glaring oversight. However, I believe that this video is indicative of how most intuitions of higher education still view their engagement and solicitation work — through a white, wealthy, male, heterosexual donor lens.
There are myriad reasons that perpetuate the lack of diversity — and they need to change. Here are just two examples. First, development offices are very white. While no comprehensive census of the field has taken place, the Association for Fundraising Professionals, while looking at nonprofit fund-raisers more broadly, reported this summer that approximately 90 percent of its members identify as white. Similarly, Jeanne Bell and Marla Cornelius (2013) found that 88 percent of development directors were white. Second, most advancement professionals still employ strategies that are successful with the white majority and assume that they will work with other diverse groups. There are cultural differences that dictate different strategies.
Many colleges and universities have taken strides when it comes to diversity and inclusion within its alumni engagement and programming. We have seen the creation of official affinity groups and clubs for black, Latino, Asian, and LGBTQ and ally alumni at many institutions. Some colleges and universities are quicker to adopt this strategy than others. It is important to note, that at some institutions these affinity groups have existed "off-campus" and outside of the university’s alumni association for decades, often without administrators knowing or showing an interest in partnering.
Affinity groups do help engage alumni who might have negative views or past experiences with their alma mater. For example, in my research with Jason C. Garvey on LGBTQ philanthropy, we found that alumni who were members of their alma mater’s LGBTQ affinity group mentioned that because of the group’s existence and attending their events, they felt reconnected to their alma mater. This feeling of reconnection was cited as increasing their interest in donating to their university. Marybeth Gasman and Nelson Bowman (2013) similarly found this when researching alumni of color.
While the move to create affinity groups and clubs is important, an institution’s alumni engagement is falling short if that is the only tactic employed in its diversity and inclusion strategy. There are a number of strategies that institutions should implement to make their engagement and fund-raising more inclusive:
- Colleges and universities should acknowledge their past mistakes. We know that all college campuses have their histories, many of which might include segregation, quota systems, and less than welcoming campus environments. The lack of an affirming campus climate (or even the perception as such) is a reason that some alumni choose not to give — or to give less generously — to their alma mater. When engaging alumni of color, LGBTQ alumni, or others who might have endured a difficult campus climate, it is important to acknowledge the past and indicate how the campus has changed since the alumnus or alumna was a student. Traditions are important in fund-raising for colleges and universities. However, alumni offices should think about how some traditions, like large social events and perhaps fraternities and sororities, might have been sources of exclusion for some alumni. Therefore, their uses and imagery should be used with caution when engaging alumni.
- Institutions need to truly engage their donor’s whole self in their solicitations. Advancement officers often speak about the importance of donor-centric fund-raising strategies, where the donor’s interests and experiences are used to align the donor’s philanthropic goals with the institution's fund-raising priorities. However, the vast majority of colleges and universities have an unwillingness to collect or record LGBTQ demographic data, even when offered by the alumnus or alumna — thereby raising questions about those institutions’ commitment to donor-centric fund-raising. The institutions often mentioned a lack of comfort in collecting this information — even when the question is voluntary, as all demographic (gender and race/ethnicity) typically are. However, in my and Jason C. Garvey’s work on LGBTQ alumni giving, it is important to note that the vast majority of lesbian and gay alumni that we interviewed said that they were willing to share their sexual orientation with their alma mater and wanted the institutions to update them about LGBTQ issues on campus and/or hear about alumni events that connected LGBTQ alumni.
- Advancement officers should use data to their advantage not to their demise. The power of a good database, strong data, and a person who can run analysis is extreme. However, data mining and misinterpretation of analytics can also send development officers down wrong paths. It is common knowledge that the most successful fund-raising strategies involve donor-centric, personal solicitations that take into account the prospective donor’s interests. However, it is impossible to personally ask each prospective donor. Therefore, using data can help fund-raisers understand individuals scheduled for mass solicitation and create dynamic segmentations that can make the annual fund more personal. However, with the power of data, comes responsibility — especially if an institution is committed to diversity and inclusion. The goals of efficiency (minimizing fund-raising costs) and effectiveness (maximizing growth in giving) can lead some to interpret data analysis in a way that suggests that advancement offices no longer solicit and engage a certain segment of their alumni community. Before deciding that those who have not given are not generous and are not interested in supporting the university, take a step back and see if there is something more that the data is suggesting. For example, if data mining suggests that a large segment of alumni of color are no longer engaged, institutions should use this as a reflexive moment to ask: "How are we not serving this population? What can we do to better engage them?" There is a growing body of literature that looks at philanthropic giving within communities of color and other nontraditional donor groups and how these communities’ philanthropic motivations differ from the white majority. Understanding these differences is important so that institutions can engage their alumni in a more culturally sensitive way.
- Fund-raisers should develop culturally sensitive solicitation strategies. Lori Spears (2008), in her research, found that when institutions used the same strategy to increase alumni giving for majority populations as with minority populations, the initiatives that were effective for white alumni were not effective with other populations. Given that we know that minority communities are generous -- in fact the black community gives more as a percentage of disposable income than American whites -- when engagement strategies do not seem to work, it is not because of the donor; rather it is because of the way they were asked. For example, drawing on the work of other scholars we know that many philanthropists of color are not drawn to unrestricted annual funds or endowment gifts — they like to see their gifts used in specific ways and in the present. This stems from a historical distrust between communities of color and mainstream nonprofits and higher education. Therefore, college and university development officers should think about how they frame all solicitations from the annual fund to major gifts.
- Institutions should realize that diversity is not a stand-alone campaign priority; rather it should be part of all fund-raising initiatives. Recently, I was approached by a university asking me for advice about its campaign priorities as officials were preparing for the public launch of their billion-dollar-plus campaign. They had hired campaign consultants who tested their cases for support with potential donors. Their diversity initiative did not resonate in the focus groups. This is because by creating a stand-alone diversity initiative, they marginalized the importance of diversity in the overall campaign priorities. However, had they spoken about the importance of diversity within all of the other campaign priorities (e.g., faculty resources — being able to recruit and retain the strongest and most diverse faculty; student scholarships — being able to support high-performing students regardless of financial need while creating a diverse learning community, etc.) the diversity initiatives would have resonated.
The need for colleges and universities to fundraise is greater than ever and there is no sign that it will lessen. American higher education once saw philanthropy as a means to separate eminence from excellence. Today, voluntary support is needed to simply make budget and provide students with access. As the demographics of the United States change and university alumni bases become more diverse, institutions must move beyond their white-wealthy-heterosexual-male-centric solicitation and engagement strategies and fully embrace and practice culturally sensitive and inclusive fund-raising, in order to ensure the needed fund-raising income for generations to come.
Noah D. Drezner is an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland at College Park, where he is also an affiliate faculty member of the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. Previously, he was a development officer at the University of Rochester.
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