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The 2008 CASE Circle of Excellence Awards showcase the best in advancement

By Mary Ellen Collins


What’s happening in the world of advancement?

Every year CASE’s Circle of Excellence Awards Program provides a revealing snapshot of the field as a whole. In 2008, some 766 institutions completed 3,512 entries in 41 categories covering all aspects of advancement: fundraising, alumni relations, communications and marketing, and advancement services. Judged by peer volunteers in each field, CASE presented 363 prizes to 204 institutions, including 15 grand golds and 106 golds.

Here are profiles of eight of the top award winners, across disciplines and types of institutions. For a complete list of winners, click here.



University of North Dakota Grand Gold—Photographer of the Year

Some people simply snap pictures, and others capture the essence of a subject in a way that makes a lasting impression.

Chuck Kimmerle, the University of North Dakota’s only full-time photographer, belongs to the second group. He translates the spirit of the Grand Forks university into striking images for recruiting materials, magazines, and other publications.

“What sets Chuck apart from other photographers is the amount of time and care he puts into pre-thinking his shot,” says Peter Johnson, interim executive associate vice president for university relations. “He thinks about it in context of the message the university wants to deliver; and if it’s an individual, in the context of what message the person wants to communicate.”

CASE judges noted his “great use of light and color, with images that were well-crafted and conceived,” and his President’s Report cover portrait of professor Joe Hartman is a perfect example.

“Joe goes around the world studying snail fossils, and he was telling me about the absolutely most perfect fossil he had,” says Kimmerle. “I got there expecting to see an amazing specimen, but it was a clunker. It was encased in a stone, so only a quarter of it was showing.” Kimmerle attacked the problem.

“We looked through drawers for half an hour and found one that worked for him and worked for me. … I wanted to juxtapose the size of the snail against him and to get a feel for the texture of the fossil, so I used a fish-eye lens. The lab was somewhat disorganized, so I decided to throw in a color gel to camouflage some of the room that was less photogenic. And it also helped when I lit the fossil and [Hartman’s] finger with another light.” The result is the antithesis of a cookie-cutter head shot.

Instead of putting the camera down when he goes home, Kimmerle adjusts his focus and shoots black-and-white landscape photographs. “I think it’s important that working photographers have personal photos that they work on during personal time. Without that sideline, I would be less effective at my job as a university photographer.”

Judging from his work, he’s found the perfect creative balance.

Credits: Chuck Kimmerle


University of Miami Grand Gold for Fundraising Program

Sometimes passion trumps timing when it comes to launching an institution’s biggest and most comprehensive campaign in history.

Despite the economic downturn in 2003, the University of Miami’s visionary new president and the board of trustees decided the moment had come to position the institution as one of the country’s elite teaching and research institutions. It was time for the $1 billion “Momentum” campaign.

“There was a great belief in President [Donna] Shalala’s leadership when she arrived,” says Sergio Gonzalez, senior vice president for university advancement and external relations. “People felt the university was on the cusp of another level of excellence.”

Campaign strategies included an unprecedented focus on engaging the local Hispanic community. University leaders and development officers learned about cultural and generational differences within the community as well as about what motivated Hispanic donors to give. High-level cultivation resulted in 23 Hispanic donors making campaign gifts of $1 million or more.

Increased alumni cultivation resulted in an impressive upswing in alumni giving, with graduates contributing $376 million, or 26.8 percent of the campaign total, up from the 9.9 percent they had given to the previous campaign.

“They became proud of the institution because of the quality of the education and not just sports,” says Gonzalez.

After meeting its billion-dollar goal 18 months early, the university set a new goal of $1.25 billion, and surpassed that by raising $1.4 billion. At the same time, its ranking in US News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” rose from 66th to 52nd—a change of 14 spots in five years. “This campaign really signaled a new day, a new platform, and a whole different level,” says Gonzalez. “We focused on how giving to the institution enhances the quality of life for the entire community, [and] folks that had never been involved with the university gave so much and so swiftly. We hope we elevated the bar for giving in the state of Florida.”

Credits: Donna Shalala, president; Dean Colson, campaign chair; Sergio Gonzalez, senior vice president for university advancement and external relations



Alumni Association of the University of Michigan Grand Gold for Marketing and Branding Initiatives

What’s the best way to get students’ attention? Offer free food.

The Alumni Association of the University of Michigan started with coffee and bagels, and added couches, TVs, and computers, and a fire in the fireplace. The result: the perfect venue for attracting students to the alumni center and raising awareness of its activities.

“We had a decent turnout at our events for students, but a majority of them still didn’t know what the alumni center was, what the alumni association was, or that we had programming for them,” says Matt Darby, student services coordinator.

The weekly Welcome Wednesday event invites students to relax from 8:00 a.m. to noon at the Alumni Center. Every week, AAUM staff members transform the Founders Room, bringing in comfortable furniture and serving bagels, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, fruit, and candy. Students don’t have to sign in at the welcome table, manned by a staff member, but those who do get a chance to win an iTunes gift card.

Welcome Wednesdays quickly became the association’s most heavily attended student event. One hundred fifty students attended the first gathering, in the fall 2007 semester, and the number hit 812 on a Wednesday in February.

“The Founders Room filled up so there was overflow into our lobby … and there’s not a lot of seating in that lobby. Students were sitting on the floor, just hanging out, eating their breakfast. I was astounded that it got to the numbers it did at the end,” says Darby.

The initial program budget was $10,000 for marketing and $8,000 for food, beanbag chairs, and rugs; but food costs ultimately rose to $11,000.

Individuals who sign in receive e-mail opinion surveys, and feedback indicates that the students not only appreciate the event but are much more aware of the alumni association and how it is relevant to them. And when a student admits that he doesn’t even have class on Wednesdays but gets out of the bed for the free breakfast—you know you have a winning program.

Credits: Matt Darby, student services coordinator; 45 alumni association staff members



University of Waterloo Gold for Programming for Special Constituencies

Planning an anniversary celebration is a labor-intensive undertaking, but try doing it with a group of volunteers who live where the event will take place—15 hours and 7,800 miles away. The University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, pulled it off, thanks to its very motivated Hong Kong Alumni Association.

When members of the association broached the idea of celebrating its 30th anniversary, the 50th anniversary of the university, and the 40th year of the faculty of mathematics (the department from which many of them had graduated), four university staff members joined them in a long-distance event-planning partnership.

They met once in Hong Kong and then relied on conference calls and e-mails to orchestrate an event for 400 guests. The evening included an eight-course Asian dinner, remarks from Canadian and Chinese VIPs, musical entertainment, prizes, and gift bags. The Hong Kong Alumni Association also created a 102-page memoir book that profiled 22 prominent Hong Kong alumni.

The event, which cost $505,594 HKDollars ($64,819 Canadian), sold out quickly and brought in $509,840 HKDollars ($65,364 Canadian) in ticket sales and sponsorships.

The only glitch in the successful evening came after the HKAA presented two breakable thank-you gifts to university representatives.

“They gave us a 3-by-4-foot framed picture of the Hong Kong skyline and a small golden dragon in a glass box,” says alumni officer Alison Boyd. “I thought, ‘Now how am I going to get these home? I’m heading to Taiwan!’ ”

A volunteer kept the dragon temporarily; the picture didn’t survive the FedEx trip to Canada. Luckily, a Toronto alumna who was going to Hong Kong remedied the situation by transporting a new picture and the dragon back with him.

Boyd says that the challenge of working across the time difference was more than offset by having such dedicated volunteers in Hong Kong.

“They lived and breathed and drank and ate this event for the year leading up to it. They really, really, really wanted it to happen, and I couldn’t have pulled it off without them,” says Boyd.

Credits: Alison Boyd, alumni officer, international programs; Linda Kieswetter, member, AW Committee; volunteers, Hong Kong Alumni Association



Savannah College of Art & Design Grand Gold for Individual In-House Publication

Wouldn’t all designers love to have a cutting-edge showcase for their artistry? The top fashionistas at Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia not only get to see their designs on the runway at the annual fashion show, but they also have their work preserved in a slick, high-concept catalog.

The catalog serves as a companion piece to the fashion show, which is the culmination of SCAD Style, an annual month-long slate of fashion-related activities. Graduating seniors and graduate students participate in a juried show, during which faculty members choose the fashion and jewelry designs that will appear in the catalog. The winning students conduct a model casting call and choose the students who will wear their designs on the runway and on the page.

The 2007 catalog features scenes of life from “a perfectly plastic little town,” according to the catalog text. The theme and photography style was determined by staff members and the chair of the fashion department. The glossy pages reveal vibrant vignettes of real people cooking plastic burgers, holding plastic babies, and lifting plastic dumbbells.

“The models posed as if they have joints of Barbie dolls or mannequins. Hours of post-production work included plasticizing the models’ skin and compositing scenes in a miniature ‘Plasticville’ town,” says senior graphic designer Jennifer McCarn. “The inhabitants of this town have materialist values and they live in a ‘perfect’ environment in which everything is controlled (except the weather).”

The 88-page, 9-by-13-inch book “immediately stood out among all entries for its WOW quality,” CASE judges wrote. The college printed 8,000 copies, most of which went to fashion show attendees. But even more than an accompaniment to a show, the catalog has a long life as a stunning addition to the portfolios of winning young designers who are ready to hit the runway and hit it big.

Credits: E. Christina Spitz, senior publications editor; Rebecca Gardner, project creative director; Jennifer McCarn, senior graphic designer; Adam Kuehl, project photography director; Jennifer Long, editor



Indiana University Foundation Gold for Information Systems

The University of Indiana Foundation staff knew that generating 22,000 pages of fundraising reports every month was an inefficient way to disseminate information to colleagues on eight campuses. Their solution? IQ Portal, a new Web site that puts the information at users’ fingertips.

A 14-member steering committee of development and fiscal officers created IQ as a channel in Onestart, the existing university portal for all activities from course scheduling to payroll.

“Because IU is such a large and diverse institution, creating reports was more difficult than we anticipated,” says Jeff Lindauer, associate vice president for development at the IU Foundation. “We have some folks who aren’t comfortable in this kind of environment, and some who want the Ferrari of reporting. It had to be simple enough to use but robust enough to serve more sophisticated users. We were constantly debating how to balance those two issues.”

Foundation staff provided training on each campus and offer ongoing coaching. IQ features include a scorecard graph that summarizes fundraising totals by unit, department, or campus; and two programs that track development officer activity by dollars raised, personal visits, and outstanding proposals. In the first four months, 47 percent of 2,000 potential users logged in at least once; in the subsequent quarter, that figure increased to 63 percent. Users appreciate IQ’s efficiency and convenience, particularly when they’re rushing to a meeting and someone asks for last-minute numbers.

After the foundation’s smooth transition to the new site, Lindauer sees IQ as a continuing work in progress and encourages users to suggest improvements.

“It’s important for us to build buy-in and to reinforce the fact that we are one development team, that IQ provides a common source of information and serves as a resource for everyone.”

Credits: IQ Steering Committee: Sandy Bate, Mary Bonk, Bobbi Bosch, Sheila Decker, Don Grinstead, Susan Hammond, John Keith, Jeff Lindauer, Carolyn Madvig, Blake Pell, Julie Rowlas, Dru Presti-Stringfellow, Eileen Savage, and Duane Schau



Harvard-Westlake School Gold for Annual Giving Program

Harvard-Westlake School went into its capital campaign intending for annual giving to be even stronger coming out than it was going in. The $125 million campaign goal for the Los Angeles independent school included $25 million in annual giving over five years.

“Our approach was one of evolution rather than revolution,” says senior advancement officer Jim Pattison, explaining how he and his staff refined existing strategies.

Seventy percent of the school’s annual gifts came from parents, so Pattison’s team increased the number of parent phonathon callers and transformed the caller information sheet into a more comprehensive guide.

“We had a legal-size sheet of paper that was crammed with information,” says Pattison. “It [used to be] like putting a boiled potato on a plate. Now we have a pamphlet with everything from scripts to information about what annual giving does. Now it’s like potatoes au gratin.”

Harvard-Westlake ramped up outreach to new parent major donor prospects by hosting dinners for approximately 50 parents at a time at a local club. The groups were small enough for advancement staff and trustees to interact with parents directly, and they allowed the president to set the stage for a leadership annual giving solicitation.

An improved acknowledgment process included putting donors’ and phonathon callers’ e-mail addresses on the daily gift reports. Callers receive notification on the day gifts arrive so they can immediately contact and thank the donors they called. And new thematic thank-you cards that feature photos of students engaged in different activities allow callers to express gratitude with cards that reflect the interest of the donor’s son or daughter.

Changes in alumni annual giving strategies included increasing the number of phonathon callers, increasing the focus on people who had given in a previous year, and instituting a new student thank-a-thon for alumni who had already given.

With a budget of $170,000, the 2006–2007 annual giving effort raised $6 million, a 15 percent increase from the previous year’s total of $5.2 million. Already impressive participation rates increased slightly to 89 percent for parents, 17.2 percent for alumni, and 96 percent for faculty and staff.

The Harvard-Westlake School development staff proved that tweaks can work wonders when you have an effective plan in place at the start.

Credits: James Pattison, senior advancement officer; Alan L. Ball, director of annual giving; Casey K. Kim, assistant director of annual giving; Brenda Janowitz, senior advancement administrator; Gregory A. O’Leary, gift processor; Jill C. Shaw, director of alumni relations and communications; Eli J. Goldsmith, assistant director of alumni relations



Dartmouth College Sibley Magazine of the Year

“I try to edit the magazine for Joe and Suzie Alum, who live out in Iowa and aren’t involved with Dartmouth 24/7, 365 days a year,” says Dartmouth Alumni Magazine Editor Sean Plottner.

And that means presenting balanced reporting on touchy issues at the New Hampshire college, like unrest among Native American students or alumni suing over their right to choose trustees.

The magazine is editorially independent of the administration, and Plottner has the final say on content. He takes a journalistic approach to all stories and refuses to shy away from anti-administration points of view. For a complex story about a perceived hostile takeover of the board of trustees, Plottner hired alumnus Matt Mosk, a Washington Post reporter.

“This was an opportunity for us to leverage ourselves as the voice of reason,” says Plottner. “We weren’t weighing in or editorializing. We had an everyman reporter saying, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’”

An unprecedented number of readers responded with impassioned letters representing a wide range of viewpoints. Plottner printed as many of the letters as he could, and that led to a response of “Wow. This really is an independent magazine,” he says.

Plottner balances the hard stories with lighter content such as one of his favorite feature packages, “Uncommon Knowledge from Uncommon Alumni,” a round-up of 25 atypical alumni. “It gets a lot of people into the magazine who wouldn’t be there otherwise. The stories are fun, and the sum effect is, ‘What a dynamic group of people are coming out of that school,’” says Plottner.

The 100-page, bimonthly magazine costs about $84,000 per issue to produce, with a circulation of 50,000 and a unit cost of $1.54. Research reveals that 91 percent of respondents rated the magazine as “excellent” or “good.”

“So many colleges don’t treat their readers as being as smart as they are,” says Plottner. “We don’t want to snow them. We want to speak directly to them. … I have so many things we can cover in this magazine for all alums. It’s the breadth of stories that keeps me jazzed, and a potentially feisty readership that keeps me on my toes.”

Credits: Sean Plottner, editor; Lee Michaelides, managing editor; Lisa Furlong, senior editor; Wendy McMillan, art director; Theresa D’Orsi, alumni news editor; Sue Jenks, production manager

Special Thanks to Sponsors

CASE appreciates the contributions of the following companies that sponsor individual awards: Lipman Hearne sponsors a $1,000 prize for the Institution-Wide Branding Programs Award. Newsweek sponsors a $2,000 prize for the Robert Sibley Magazine of the Year. WealthEngine gave $15,500 in 2008 to sponsor the administrative costs of the Educational Fundraising Awards.


2008 Host Coordinators

­The Circle of Excellence Awards would not be possible without the efforts of our host coordinators. These distinguished volunteers put together judging panels, judged categories, and determined award winners. CASE would like to extend a special thanks to the following individuals: Dalene Abner, University of Central Missouri; Rick Adams, Dartmouth College (NH); Margaret Avritt, Santa Clara University (CA); Richard Anderson, Occidental College (CA); Sandra Bate, Indiana University Foundation; Robert Bliwise, Duke University (NC); Margaret Bradley, Cate School (CA); Lisa Brownell, Connecticut College; Victoria Collins, Memorial University of Newfoundland (Canada); Kevin Cool, Stanford Alumni Association (CA); Brian Doyle, University of Portland (OR); Robert Frank, Washington State University; Carole Fuller, Smith College (MA); Andrea Gibson, Ohio University; David Gibson, Dartmouth College (NH); Cindy Gill, University of Pittsburgh; Cheryll Glab, Johns Hopkins University (MD); Matthew Jennings, Middlebury College (VT); Linda Kohl, Minnesota State Universities and Colleges; Jeffrey Lott, Swarthmore College (PA); William McDonald, Boston College; Brian Miller, Biola University (CA); Kimberly McBroom, Bowling Green State University (OH); Joyce Muller, McDaniel College (MD); Robert Mendelson, Carnegie Mellon University (PA); Don Pattison, Pomona College (CA); Shawn Presley, Kenyon College (OH); James Roberts, Cornell University (NY); Laura Roloff, University of Missouri-Columbia; Jennifer Sanner, University of Kansas Alumni Association; Randall Stith, Virginia Tech; Meg Tolbert, University of New Hampshire; John Walls, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas; Mary Ruth Yoe, University of Chicago.


About the Author Mary Ellen Collins

Mary Ellen Collins is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg, Fla. Her work has appeared in Advancing Philanthropy, The Christian Science Monitor, The Arizona Republic, Angie's List Magazine, and Notre Dame Magazine.




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