GW taps seniors to grow fundraising base

The Class of 2013 is donating back to GW at a record pace this year, the fundraising office announced Friday, with donations on track to double the class gift from four years ago.

A quarter of this year’s senior class so far has pledged to give back – up 15 percent from the same time last year. The University’s chief fundraiser said the increased donors and funds could be a game changer for GW’s historically low alumni giving rates.

Engaging soon-to-be alumni will be crucial as the school prepares to launch a comprehensive campaign in the next year or two, partly leaning on its base of graduates.

“The senior class gift is really important to me, not because of the amount of money,” Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger said. “Participation is critically important, because that builds a base. Once you get in habit of giving…it’s a part of you.”

The gifts include annual and one-time pledges that can be designated to the general fund or to any program or department.

The University’s alumni giving rates have typically lagged behind similar institutions. About 9.3 percent of alumni donate annually, a figure that has been steady for several years.

Only New York University and Boston University reported lower giving rates out of the 14 colleges that GW considers its peers, according to 2011 figures from U.S. News & World Report.

On the cusp of a big funding drive, Morsberger said he has pegged alumni as a key area of growth. And he said that starts with a successful senior gift.

Last year’s campaign brought in $100,000, about 11 percent more than the Class of 2011 and 33 percent more than 2010.

“Money is secondary to participation,” Morsberger said, comparing class gift participation rates in the last two years to those of elite schools that have spent decades building up donor bases. “We’re right up there with the big boys. That’s big-league stuff.”

For the past two years, trustee Nelson Carbonell has offered to match students’ gifts if they could meet a participation challenge. Last year, Carbonell pledged $50,000 if more than half the graduating class donated, and he upped that challenge this year by asking for a 51 percent participation rate.

University President Steven Knapp has poured dollars into building up the development and alumni office to connect with former students, many of whom did not have a traditional college experience because they commuted or took night classes. That disconnect put a lag on GW’s annual alumni giving percentage, which comprises 5 percent of colleges’ U.S. News & World Report rankings.

The fundraising office has seen five years of increases, reporting a 21 percent growth rate in the 2012 fiscal year as many colleges’ rates nationwide plateaued or plummeted. GW pulled in about $120 million last year, 37 percent of which came from alumni. That is the second-largest group of donors, with foundations and corporations making up 48 percent of gifts.

Nationwide, GW is bucking the trend with graduates giving back to their alma maters. Alumni giving rates declined 1.3 percent this past year after rising nearly 10 percent the previous year, according to a report from the Council on Aid to Education released Feb. 20.

Fundraising staffers are not only reaching into former students’ inboxes, but also flying around the U.S. to host alumni happy hours and build up local alumni associations. This week, the office helped set up 43 events – from San Antonio to Shanghai and St. Louis – to celebrate George Washington’s birthday.

Since Morsberger came to GW in 2011, the number of visits outside the D.C. area development staffers made has also increased by 15 percent. This year, staffers will make more than 4,000 visits by the end of the year, development office spokeswoman Patricia Danver said.

“We have expanded and enhanced every communications tool in our arsenal to reach people,” Morsberger said.

Bruce Matthews, vice president of the fundraising consulting group Campbell and Co., said while alumni play key roles in comprehensive campaigns, he encourages development officers to look beyond the annual alumni giving rate.

He said it is more important to ensure fundraising increases overall, emphasizing large gifts, even if they are not recurring and would not bump up a school’s annual giving rate.

“Dollars in the door and numbers of donors – that’s what we’re focusing on,” Matthews said.

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