When Marty Baum hosted a send-off event for incoming freshman this summer, he told them stories about meeting his wife during his sophomore year and seeing Secret Service agents in his residence hall after President Ronald Reagan was shot.
Over the last several years, as the 1982 graduate has thought about sending his children to GW, Baum says he’s gotten more “nostalgic” about those GW experiences. Now he represents GW at college fairs, is active in the Alumni Association and makes regular donations to the University.
“Not surprisingly, as I’ve gotten more involved, I’ve given more,” Baum said.
Baum said he can’t join the thousands of other alumni gathering this week for Alumni Weekend, but the University will use the annual event to energize other alumni – in the hopes that they’ll become just as reengaged as he did. Over the weekend, alumni will take a campus tour highlighting major construction projects, which officials hope will give alumni reasons to donate toward GW’s $1 billion fundraising campaign.
The University won’t pull in most of the $475 million it has left to raise over Alumni Weekend. But it can reconnect old alumni and remind them why their GW experience matters – and why they should donate in the future.
Most of that remaining money will come from alumni who return to their hometowns, spread the news about GW and encourage their friends to donate, all key steps in GW’s plan to boost its comparatively low 10 percent alumni giving rate and meet its eye-popping goal.
Rallying the Alumni Association
Since the campaign officially launched in June, members of the Alumni Association say they have felt more pressure to donate and encourage their friends to do the same.
“The general gist of the conversation has been challenging ourselves as to how we can step up and do more from our own personal commitments, better spread the word and do what we can to help identify others,” said Buddy Lesavoy, a triple alumnus on the Alumni Association. “Historically, there has been somewhat of a separation – the development office [was] more involved asking for financial support.”
Steve Frenkil, the group’s president, said he is forming a committee of Alumni Association members and administrators to steer the fundraising blitz, marking the first time GW has made a separate group within the organization to specifically court alumni.
“There’s already been a real interest, and I think that interest will grow,” he said.
Momentum for the campaign is already building. GW received $191.3 million in gifts last year from the largest number of donors ever, and grew its donor pool by about 15 percent.
Engaging with those alumni is “critical for the success of the campaign,” said Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger. Alumni donations made up about one-third of the total fundraising haul at 125 other colleges nationwide, according to a report by the Center for Advancement and Support in Education.
Morseberger said his office will look to target specific groups and direct them toward donation opportunities that remind them of their college experiences.
“We are working to engage alumni – learning more about their affinities, interests and their passions as they relate to GW,” Morsberger said.
University President Steven Knapp and Provost Steven Lerman have both recently met with the Alumni Association, presenting details about the campaign and encouraging them to contribute, members said.
Michael La Place, who earned his master’s degree from GW in 1989, now serves on the Alumni Association’s board of directors and donates to the University each year. A double alumnus, he’s stayed in touch with GW through basketball games and by volunteering at college fairs.
He said the group has started to talk about ways to build “a culture of philanthropy.”
“[The message has] mainly been to get the word out to people we graduated with and other friends of the University, get them to reengage and show them that investing in the University at this time will have a maximum benefit of putting them on track for the future,” La Place said.
To make the connection to the campaign clear, alumni can take a “Making History” tour this weekend, where they’ll see the University’s latest construction projects – like the GW Museum, Science and Engineering Hall and Milken Institute School of Public Health – which will be financed in part by the campaign.
The tour will focus on how donations can help the University stay innovative, Frenkil said.
“Alumni recognize GW is continuing to grow and becoming stronger and stronger. They see it could become an academic leader in the country, and people want to be a part of that,” Frenkil said.
The weekend event will also offer classes on topics like the 1960s and highway engineering, a visit to Thurston Hall, and a Hall and Oates concert. Groups on campus like the Honors Program, Greek life and GW Hillel will host events throughout the weekend, reconnecting with alumni in those niches.
Focusing on specific interests will help visiting alumni remember their time in college, perhaps inspiring them to give to that area, Frenkil said.
“There are plenty of opportunities for the alum who hasn’t stayed connected or is 20 or 30 years out, but it takes a little more to reach out and get their attention,” Frenkil said. “I think if they start reading about their areas of interest, I think they’ll want to get connected because [they’ll see there’s] something in it for them.”
The rest of the money comes later
Alumni Weekend is like “one piece of the puzzle” fitting into a large campaign, said Michael Nilsen, vice president of public affairs at the Association of Fundraising Professionals.
He said “finding ways to keep alumni connected” through local events like happy hours or sports games is key to successful fundraising at universities. He said schools now use social media to help connect alumni, setting up opportunities for past and current students to network. For example, in addition to Alumni Weekend, the Alumni Association will host events like a breakfast in New York City and a trip to a D.C. United soccer game this month.
“Pretty much the No. 1 rule in fundraising is people ultimately give to people,” Nilsen said. “Even if I don’t know much about your cause, if you as a friend ask me for money then I am far more likely to give – regardless of what the cause is.”
Baum said as a member of the Alumni Association’s finance committee, he sees himself as a bridge between alumni and the University.
“It’s old-fashioned word of mouth,” Baum said.
But encouraging people to donate, he said, is a process that takes time.
“If I haven’t spoken to you in five years, I want to first involve you in the school rather than being like ‘Hey, do you have your checkbook here?’ People need to have a relationship – that’s an important first step as opposed to ‘Hey, give me money,’” he said.
GW has set participation goals for nearly a dozen classes, from the Class of 1964 to the Class of 2013. An anonymous donor will give $25,000 in honor of the class that beats its goal by the highest percentage.
Challenges are one way to motivate more people to give gifts, said Arthur Criscillis, a higher education fundraising expert at the fundraising consulting firm Alexander-Haas.
“It can be a great tool,” he said. “It is a frequently utilized tactic to get people to support their alma mater.”
This article appeared in the September 15, 2014 issue of the Hatchet.