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Fund Raising on Main Street

Local business support of your annual fund can solidify your campus's ties to its community

By Linda Lysakowski , Judith Snyder

A professor buys a sandwich from a nearby deli. A university administrator hires a recycling company to collect used campus newspapers. A student takes an internship at a downtown ad agency. An alumnus becomes partner in a prominent local law firm.

These are just a few examples of the thousands of daily interactions your campus may have with the local business community. When you put them all together, you can measure your impact on the region in millions of dollars.

Despite campuses' undeniable involvement in their communities, local businesses usually play a small role — if any — in the campus annual fund. (Community colleges, which may get the majority of their support from the community, are a notable exception.) Creating a local business component of the annual fund can be one way to affirm — and strengthen — your institution's ties to the community.

Create the case

As with all fund raising, a local business annual fund appeal must start with an explanation of why the campus merits philanthropic support. This is especially important for campuses that receive public funds: Business owners can be quick to note that the institution already benefits from the taxes they pay.

You can counter that objection with the economic-impact case described above or explain that supporting education is an investment in the future work force. Another tactic is to note the many less tangible ways in which the campus supports the community, like by offering cultural events.

Once you've developed a case, create a list of campus projects that connect to it or otherwise might be popular with this constituency. Scholarships, lecture series, library collections, and certain school- or department-based programs are good candidates. For example, a business incubator sponsored by your business school might have a wide appeal. And companies with extensive sales worldwide may take an interest in an international studies program that prepares the future work force to deal with cross-cultural issues.

Next, develop marketing materials that promote your case and the projects for which you're seeking support — but keep them brief. A one- or two-page letter may be all a businessperson will take time to read, so make your points succinctly.

For this audience, fact sheets, graphs, tables, and charts may deliver your message better than a long letter.

Find prospects

Identifying donors in your local business community is relatively simple. Start with your local chamber of commerce or regional development board. Most small- to medium-sized businesses will belong to such organizations, and are the ones likely to give to your annual fund. (Larger corporations are also prospects, but they may require you to submit formal funding proposals. Work with your corporate giving office to coordinate approaches to these companies.)

If your institution is not a member of the business organization, join and get involved. The organization's members are your first prospects, and its meetings are a great place to get to know them and find out which businesses are thriving and which are facing hard times. You'll probably receive a directory when you join, and may even be able to purchase it in electronic form so you can immediately add these prospects to your database. Supplement that with lists from other organizations, such as groups of minority business owners; the Yellow Pages; the Harris Industrial Directory, regional business journals, various books of lists, and more.

Identify about 100 companies from these sources that are good prospects because of an existing connection to your campus, an ability to give, and/or an interest in your institution or programs. Then review this prospect list by industry, making sure you've got a broad range of businesses. Don't forget the service sector: law and accounting firms, doctors' offices, ad agencies, utilities, banks, brokerage houses, and especially real-estate offices, which are usually well-connected in the community.

Recruit and train volunteers

Your next step is to develop from that list of businesses a cadre of at least 15 prospective volunteers, each representing a different sector. Small-business owners often have entrepreneurial and time-management skills that make them excellent candidates. Together these volunteers will form a steering committee to plan and lead your local business annual fund effort.

To find volunteers, look inside the identified companies for previous and current donors, alumni, parents, or people with other connections that give them a vested interest in your institution. From this list, identify individuals who are prominent or well respected in the community. Ask one or two of these campus friends to chair the committee — and then enlist their help in recruiting others.

This group of local executives and business owners has much in common with your other volunteer boards: You should treat it with respect; get the members involved in planning, not just implementation; and build team cohesiveness. They will want clear and detailed volunteer job descriptions and may be especially concerned with using their time productively. Plan meetings at a convenient hour — which may be early morning — and keep each meeting brief.

Give the volunteers the information they need to articulate your case to other prospects. Introduce them to real students so they'll remember "the face behind the case." For example, consider bringing several different scholarship recipients to speak to the volunteers if you're asking for scholarship support.

Also make sure that the volunteers understand the basics of your various pledge options and giving opportunities. Although you're primarily seeking annual support, if a prospect wants to establish a scholarship, say to honor a corporate founder, the volunteers should know what to do.

Screen prospects

After identifying and educating your volunteer steering committee, put it to work screening prospects according to the traditional linkage, ability, and interest criteria. Volunteer input is critical for determining the appropriate ask, and equally important, the appropriate solicitor.

Stress to your volunteers that prospect screening sessions are confidential — nothing that they discuss should leave the room. You may not want to solicit some seemingly good prospects for any number of reasons: a previous relationship with your institution that's gone awry, business troubles that aren't public knowledge, or the fact that the business owner is under consideration for a major gift. Be sure that your volunteers understand that you can't always reveal the reasoning behind your decisions.

At the end of each screening session, ask the volunteers to suggest additional prospects. Provide lists sorted by sector or industry to make it easier to identify those businesses you may be missing.

Cultivate and solicit donors

Once you've culled your prospect list and assigned ask amounts, it's time to start the ask process. You can begin by having the steering committee chair or the team leader for each sector send prospects some of the marketing materials you developed earlier, along with a personal letter of introduction that indicates who will be calling on them and when. The volunteers can use their own stationery, or you can have your designer create a unique graphic identity for the local business appeal. The consistency of using the same logo year after year will engender familiarity and repeat gifts.

An in-person appeal is the best way to reach this constituency for several reasons. Because many businesspeople screen both their mail and their phone calls, the chance of reaching a ceo through either of these methods is slim. It usually takes the peer-to-peer approach of another businessperson to make contact with the decision maker in the company.

There are several possible approaches for the in-person solicitations. You can generate excitement by conducting them all in one day or one week, or spread out the campaign over a period of six to eight weeks. Whatever you decide, try to send solicitors in teams of one volunteer and one staff person or faculty member. Their different roles can be complementary. The volunteer can speak from the heart as to why she believes in the organization's mission. (Volunteering her time on a workday to help your campus is a statement of support in itself.) She can also talk about the big picture — the impact of your organization on the community — while the staff member responds to specific questions about your programs. When possible, try to pair people of different genders, ages, races, and levels of fund-raising experience.

The usual in-person solicitation techniques apply to this audience. For example, volunteers should make their own gifts before soliciting others, ask prospects for a specific gift amount, and try not to leave the pledge form with the prospect. If the prospect is not willing to commit during the first meeting, ask your volunteers to follow up, either with a phone call or another visit.

Whether or not the prospect visit is successful, volunteers should send each person they visit a thank-you note — again, either on their own stationery or on some you develop specifically for this effort. If the prospect makes a gift later, send another thank-you within 48 hours of when you receive it.

Recognize volunteers and donors

Good stewardship is crucial for cultivating repeat givers and moving donors up to major gifts. Have your steering committee think of appropriate ways to recognize local business donors. An event that brings together donors, volunteers, administrators, and students is ideal.

You may want to plan an additional "victory celebration" just for volunteers where you recognize those who made the most solicitation calls, raised the most money, obtained the highest number of new gifts, and so on. Token gifts, like campus jackets, other campus memorabilia, or an attractive plaque for the person's office are thoughtful ways to reward the steering committee chair.

For more long-lasting public recognition of your local business donors, add their names to your donor honor roll or annual report. Consider asking the local newspaper or business journal to make an in-kind donation of a full-page advertisement you can use to thank both donors and volunteers. This publicity will not only generate interest in your institution but also keep the momentum going for next year's appeal — especially if you repeat the ad just before the next campaign.

Remember the donor pyramid: Annual fund donors are the base of your fund-raising efforts. A local business annual fund appeal is the first step in creating lasting relationships with this segment of your community.

About the Authors Linda Lysakowski
Judith Snyder




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