Development office sets fundraising goals to build donor base

Media Credit: Shane Bahn | Hatchet Photographer

Donna Arbide, the vice president for development and alumni relations, said the development office set a series of new donation goals this semester to build up GW’s donor base and prepare for a large-scale fundraising campaign.

Updated: Nov. 13, 2018 at 12:21 p.m.

Top development officials are laying the groundwork for the University’s next fundraising push nearly two years after GW completed its largest-ever fundraising campaign.

Donna Arbide, the vice president for development and alumni relations, said the development office set a series of new donation goals this semester to build up GW’s donor base and prepare for a large-scale fundraising campaign. Officials and fundraising experts said the new goals, which focus on building relationships with prospective donors, will encourage more alumni, faculty and staff to donate to GW regularly.

The office’s new goals include hitting 16,000 alumni donors this fiscal year, retaining 64 percent of all donors annually and requiring each staff member in the office to visit 150 donors each year.

“I believe, frankly, that alumni should give back to their institutions, that we should worry about the base of giving, that we should worry about annual giving,” Arbide said. “The $10, $20, really matter a lot, and we should be making sure the people understand that.”

She said the goals will help create a base of donors to tap if the Board of Trustees decides to launch another extensive fundraising campaign. She said at a Faculty Senate meeting Friday that fundraising did not improve during the three years of the University’s $1 billion campaign, saying that GW raised almost the same amount annually during the campaign as it did during other fundraising years – even though the campaign finished a year ahead of schedule.

She added that the goals are part of a three-part plan to revamp GW’s philanthropic reach, which begins with solidifying a leadership team and evaluating positions in the development office. The second phase will entail identifying the development office’s priorities and funneling money into these areas, which may include marketing and outreach.

“I want to make sure I do this carefully and very mindfully about how we spend GW’s money, and we’ll take a look back and then we’ll go forward again,” she said.

The final phase is dependent on the Board of Trustees’ decision whether to launch another capital campaign – but if they do, Arbide said, the office will help trustees develop fundraising strategies.

The future of fundraising
GW has historically struggled with alumni giving, which has hovered around 8 percent for years, and Arbide said that, for the first time, the office is aiming to reach 16,000 alumni donors this fiscal year and retain 64 percent of all donors annually, up from last year’s 63 percent.

“We have lost donors as quickly as we are acquiring donors,” she said. “If we want to raise the level of base, we actually need to create a loyal donor base.”

She said the development office has a relatively small staff of 140 compared to its alumni base of 290,000, which makes it challenging to ensure that each individual donor stays engaged. To help build up the “loyal” base, Arbide said all fundraising staff who don’t manage other employees are now required to talk to at least 150 potential donors, like alumni, each year.

The visits could include talking to alumni at events or meeting with them during business trips, she said.

“We are well below our peer schools in terms of getting out there to visit our parents, alumni and friends of GW,” Arbide said.

Arbide said she expects to see immediate results from the new goals this year, but a substantial increase in fundraising could take about five years.

Upping philanthropic donations and improving relationships with alumni have been key parts of University President Thomas LeBlanc’s priorities during his tenure. The Board of Trustees launched a new task force on volunteer engagement last year, and the University created its own alumni association in September.

John Lofthus, the associate director of alumni affairs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said requiring 150 visits a year is higher than requirements at many other universities, which require a minimum of 50 to 60 visits. But schools that are trying to increase their donor base often employ this strategy, he said.

“If one of the things is driving alumni giving, then the thought is, ‘Hey, we just need more development officers just meeting with alumni and getting them to make a gift,’” he said.

He said some development staff at other universities try to cut down on their visit requirements as much as possible because staff cannot focus on securing major gifts if they are too busy trying to connect with alumni.

Showing the impact
Arbide said that during the University’s $1 billion campaign, faculty, staff, students and alumni were not aware of exactly how donated funds were used, which is “a major issue.” She said the community often only points to major gifts, like an $80 million donation to the public health school or the acquisition of the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.

Arbide said she will meet with deans, the provost and members of the Faculty Senate by the end of the academic year to find out what kinds of initiatives they want to fund, like endowed professorships or scholarships. She said the information gathered from the meetings will be compiled into a report for officials to review.

“When we fundraise, we first need to understand what we are fundraising for, what is GW building,” she said. “Fundraising for fundraising’s sake does not help an institution.”

Anne Gore, a senior development officer for the community and technical college at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said donors want to know where their money goes because it shows that their gift has a tangible impact.

“I’m basically making an investment,” she said. “I want my money to be used in a way that I would like it to be used.”

It ‘takes a village’
Arbide said at the Faculty Senate meeting that faculty should be more involved in the fundraising process. Faculty, staff and alumni can be “brand ambassadors” for the University to advertise what makes GW special because they know the University best, she said.

“Fundraising takes a village,” she said. “It is not just the office of development, and if you feel that way, we will not be successful.”

Arbide added that engagement starts with a positive student experience, an area that LeBlanc, the University president, has highlighted since he started working at GW.

“We want to make sure that everything we’ve promised the GW experience would be is more than that, and people leave with so much pride and loyalty to this institution, they want to stay engaged,” she said.

Wendy Kobler, the vice president of institutional advancement at Kentucky State University, said faculty are more in tune with ongoing research and projects that GW is working on, and the University can use them to highlight the University’s work.

“They want to hear about those big, bold ideas from the faculty and other stakeholders to be able to share the story of what it’s going to mean for their department and how it is they’re going to have that impact,” she said.

Alec Rich, Madeleine Deisen and Jessica Baskerville contributed reporting.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Wendy Kobler is the vice president of institutional advancement at the University of Kentucky. She works at Kentucky State University. We regret this error.

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