I’m guessing this is an all-too-familiar story for academic leaders and their development partners…
I was working with a new potential donor couple. I reached out to them, learned their story, and knew that together we could do great things. Soon after, they were ready to make their first gift. I knew that if it was handled well, it wouldn’t be their last. This was, obviously, their “test gift”—a gift donors make to determine whether their philanthropy will have impact. I proposed support for an annual $5,000 student scholarship. The scholarship was named in their honor and awarded to a fantastic student who perfectly matched their personal story and expectations. They were given her bio and picture, along with an invitation to the awards ceremony.
At the ceremony, the donors presented their award and spent the evening getting to know “their scholar.” She shared both her sincere gratitude and the impact their gift would have on her education and future. The dean stopped by to personally thank them. They left the event with their program in hand, which listed their names among the many other well-known scholarship donors recognized that night.
The following week, they received a hand-written note from their scholar, a picture from the event, and a copy of the newsletter that thanked them for their gift. The student later sent them pictures from her international experience that their scholarship helped fund. She invited them to her graduation and couldn’t wait to let them know that she had a job offer. She attributed a big part of her success to them.
That is exactly what we all hope happens with a test gift. Everyone wins. Your new donor loves you, the college, the academic leadership, and of course, the student. Nailed it!
This donor couple was excited to make their next gift. They loved the idea of providing support for the overall needs of the department for which they had a personal affinity. They committed $5,000 a year for five years to an unrestricted fund. They got a call and a thank you card from the department head. They continued getting the college newsletter. I sent my regular birthday and holiday cards and stopped by to see them when I was in their area.
However, the department head knew there was a huge capital project on the horizon. She chose to not spend the donors’ precious funds, so they would be available for the hidden costs that always come with a capital project. Three, four, then five years went by with very little happening. By then, the donors had lost interest and enthusiasm. Failed it!
So, what really happened? We are good at managing the gifts intended to support specific and established programs such as scholarships. By doing so, we set donor expectations high for the next gift—sometimes so high that it’s nearly impossible to meet those expectations.
Unrestricted or endowment gifts can be the most challenging when it comes to providing the same level of engagement donors find through funding a specific priority. Those gifts often have a number of other elements that take time, such as a bidding process to purchase equipment, hiring, oversight of a campus planning committee, or simply time for the fund to mature to a level where distribution funds will be available for use. It is also tempting to just let the money sit, waiting for “the perfect use.” Waiting can be grueling for donors.
How do we overcome the “test gift” success that creates the “next gift” fail?
One of the most important things a development professional can do is partner with their academic leader to create a system that rewards donors for making those meaningful unrestricted or endowment gifts by providing the same level of engagement that they find through a scholarship gift. Here are a few ways to do that:
- Be strategic.
Make sure your academic partner spends at least a portion of those unrestricted funds on something share-worthy each year.
Find fun ways to share how funds were used with ALL the donors who contributed to that fund.
- Picture this.
Pictures speak a thousand words—with a lot less space. Donors enjoy receiving photos that demonstrate the impact of the gift, especially when students are in the picture.
- Story time.
A story can evoke true emotion. Paint a lasting picture through the small details of the story you tell.
- But wait, there’s more!
Follow up on the story even years later. Come back and share how funds donated years before are still doing great things. Be careful, however, that it doesn’t become an annual laundry list of how funds were used.
What other ways can you and your development partner work together to share the same level of engagement as the grateful scholarship recipient did for the gifts that support your institution? Set the expectations high and strive to meet them no matter when or how your donor gives their next gift.
With more than 15 years of experience as an advancement professional in non-profit management, alumni relations, higher education, and health sciences, Kelley has extensive expertise in principal and major gift strategies, board relations, strategic planning, alumni relations, planned giving, and management.
Explore ways academic leaders and development professionals can effectively partner to build a culture of philanthropy at your institution by attending Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders.