One Saturday last June I asked a class of graduate students what their experiences were with ‘fundraising’, professionally or personally. It was quite a revelation to see their reactions. These were students who all hold down full-time jobs as middle school, high school, community college, or university administrators or teachers, yet almost without exception their experiences with fundraising were limited to their children’s annual candy or magazine sales, their own similar experiences in their youth, or the calls they receive from professional solicitation firms on behalf of one charitable cause or another. And they were negative.
First, the negative perceptions people often have of professional fundraisers are due in large part to their own negative experiences. They recall those harassing phone calls at dinner time from some phone bank in a faraway place asking for support for a cause that ultimately will receive only pennies from each dollar donated due to the extremely high overhead these firms charge. They think of the sales quotas their children have been given for the annual ‘fundraiser’ to pay for a class trip or school supplies. They don’t necessarily think of philanthropy in the sense of contributing to the public good.
Second, it’s far too common that educational institutions engaged in fundraising efforts don’t involve the leaders of the institution – those who interact with students and with the public on a daily basis. Instead the fundraising effort is too often reserved for the development office to the exclusion of others on campus who could and should be great assets in the effort.
It’s incumbent upon those of us in the industry who have responsibility for raising funds to communicate with and educate not just our prospective donors, but also our colleagues at education institutions, about philanthropy. Enabling someone to make a difference through philanthropy, either by making a meaningful gift or by facilitating such a gift from a donor, is a very powerful thing. The impact lasts well beyond the act, and it in no way resembles candy bar sales or cold calls from telemarketers.
Never before has it been more important to educate our peers in the workplace about the true meaning of philanthropy. Today, in these difficult times, there are so many people in need and so many worthy causes seeking support, but increased private support of education is an imperative, not a luxury. Our education institutions must have the ability and the motivation to make their case for support, and to enlist the active involvement of everyone connected to the institution to enable that support to happen. Few things are more rewarding than seeing the impact of a gift that helps a student get an education.
We had quite a discussion that Saturday in June, and in subsequent class meetings as they worked on papers and presentations challenging their prior assumptions about fundraising and philanthropy. Several students remarked later how their entire mindset had changed about what ‘fundraising’ is. That class of graduate students went back to their respective campuses with a new perception of what fundraising can be and how it impacts their professions and their lives. They also left with a newfound motivation to get involved and do more to support their alma maters as well as the institutions that now employ them. My guess is they’ll contribute to the public good in ways that for-profit telemarketers only pretend to.