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Toast of the Town
Toast of the Town

Volunteer board members take annual giving to the next level at Catholic University

By Cynthia Woolbright , Maria Martin


Pete McArthur

Sometimes, the key to solving an old problem is a fresh perspective. This was certainly the case for the annual fund for The Catholic University of America, which underwent a transformation that nearly doubled the fund between 2004 and 2008.

"I didn't know how it had been done before," says Amy Wilson, former director of annual giving at CUA and now the assistant vice president for development at the Washington, D.C., institution. "There were no preconceived ideas of what to do and what not to do!"

Wilson, whose background was in campaign communications, was hired by Bob Sullivan, vice president for university development, who himself had arrived at CUA in 2004. At that time, the annual giving program was structured around a standard combination of direct mail and phone solicitations. After a review of the numbers, Sullivan saw that a new strategy was necessary to increase giving and alumni participation. The data showed that alumni had capacity, but they were simply not engaged. Sullivan also recognized that there were no volunteers, no "face of philanthropy" at the university.

Alumni, when asked, had little idea of the difference their gifts were making on campus. Sullivan knew that a compelling case for support was critical and that sharing the stories of those who benefited from annual support was essential. He hired Wilson and brought on Cynthia Woolbright of The Woolbright Group as a consultant to revamp the program.

In 2004–05, the annual giving program raised $454,789 in unrestricted gifts from 1,760 donors. By 2009–10, the program generated $901,844 from 3,490 donors. Peak performance occurred in 2007–08, with $952,212 raised, followed by a slight dip in 2008–09, a result of the downturn in the U.S. economy. Today, growth continues despite the economy. Catholic's annual fund has grown by 49.5 percent in both dollars and donors in five years.


To accomplish these gains, Wilson and Woolbright began with a detailed audit of all aspects of the existing program. They found a considerable number of loyal donors, LYBUNTS, and SYBUNTS—those who gave last-year-but-not-this-year or some-years-but-not-this-year—but there was no volunteer leadership structure to organize these devoted alumni and friends. They reviewed the costs of appeal letters and their results, along with all other annual giving materials such as brochures. They analyzed the phone program and assessed the number of alumni e-mail addresses. They reviewed giving data by class year and noted the number of staff visits with alumni.

With hard data informing their decisions, Wilson and Woolbright began reshaping the program. "First, we dropped the brochures and reduced the number of actual appeal letters from four per year to one per year," says Wilson. The other appeal letters were replaced by a series of oversized postcards that featured students and faculty members. The theme of the postcards was "Possibilities," and each told a short, dramatic story of one student or faculty member who had been helped by alumni giving.

The postcards drove donors to the annual giving website to make their contributions, but their main function was to make the case for support. This shift was the beginning of putting "a face to philanthropy at Catholic," says Sullivan.

The year-end appeal was changed from a letter to a holiday card with a business reply envelope, and the actual appeal letter was mailed in the spring, just before the close of the fiscal year.

Finding leaders

Next, Wilson and Woolbright began recruiting volunteers to join the newly created Leadership Council. They identified approximately 20 good annual donors and met with each one individually to assess their capacity, interest, and personality. "Most of them," Wilson notes, "had no experience as fundraisers." Council candidates received a position description and an invitation to join the Leadership Council and make a leadership gift of $5,000 or more annually.

About half of those invited accepted, and once the team of 10 was assembled, participants took part in an annual Leadership Council program that provided an intense three-hour orientation and training session during homecoming weekend. They met with the university president to hear his perspective on the importance of what they were undertaking on behalf of the university. And they met with students to connect them with a source of inspiration as they began to reach out to their peers. They each received a roster of potential donors to contact. In the first year, council members made calls to thank previous donors and to update them on the university's priorities and programs. Letters were mailed to a select group of alumni and parents who had demonstrated support for Catholic, followed by a phone call.

Volunteers were kept informed about pledges and gifts received so that they then could send notes and make thank-you calls, thus establishing a personal connection between donors and the university. The council essentially functioned as a volunteer team of gift officers, and they were happy to take on this new role.

A growing program

Based on the success of the program, Catholic has broadened the Leadership Council model into a Leadership Network, expanding into cities with a concentration of alumni. For example, in Philadelphia, the Leadership Network is making annual leadership gifts and also raising funds to sponsor a "Philadelphia Scholarship" for a worthy student from their city. Other key cities include Boston; New York City; and Washington, D.C., each with an advancement team member assigned to assist the volunteer leaders.

Among the many successful relationships to result from the Leadership Council is the one with alumnus Joe Carlini. For more than 20 years, Carlini, who graduated in 1984, had not maintained contact with his alma mater, nor it with him. However, he had stayed in touch with classmates. In 2006, Joe joined the School of Engineering Development Board and was then invited to participate in the annual giving leadership program. As a volunteer member of the council, he advised the advancement staff of others he knew who were capable of making annual leadership gifts. He then hosted a breakfast with Bishop David O'Connell, the president of CUA at the time. Many of those who attended became leadership donors, while others were identified as potential donors. Today, Carlini is a new member of the board of trustees. He says that he owes who he is today to CUA and refers to his service to the university as "a labor of love."

Other alumni leaders, such as Lee Ann Brady, are also making a mark in raising funds for Catholic. Brady was contacted initially by the athletics department to assist in fundraising. From there, she became a member of the Leadership Council, where she continues to raise critical support for the university. When she contacts alumni, she says, "I listen first and then address their comments." She believes this engagement with her fellow alumni is successful because they feel connected in a personal way. "Most of the time, I get a gift for Catholic," Brady says, "but always I get them connected." Like Carlini, Brady is also a new trustee for the university.

Parents and students

Parents are now more engaged in the university as a result of the Leadership Council. Since 2004–05, parent participation has grown a whopping 95 percent, and the power of the parent-to-parent strategy has been extraordinarily significant. Ed English, whose son was in the Class of 2010, was one of the early members of the Leadership Council and is now part of the New York City Leadership Network. English describes his reason for getting involved as a parent: "I am able to create awareness of the opportunities the school provides that [my son] and others might not otherwise have."

The transformation of the annual giving program was extensive, but there was still a missing constituency: students. "We simply did not want to miss an opportunity to create a culture of giving without them," says Wilson. "It's far easier while they are on campus than when they have graduated."

Wilson adapted an idea from another institution to generate enthusiasm for the annual fund. Each year, the annual fund sells students a T-shirt that has a clever, only-at-Catholic saying. Students submit ideas for the slogans, and the winner gets a cash award. Slogans include: "Hallowed Be Our Game," "It's No Sin to Win," and "The 11th Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Lose." It seemed like a good way to market the annual giving program, involve students in a fundraiser, and drum up school spirit. "Through sheer persistence," Wilson says, "we generated student awareness that first year by visiting every single student event, meeting, club, and team we could get in front of and sold a whole lot of T-shirts." It's now a tradition. Students plan to collect a shirt each year they attend Catholic. Last year, they raised nearly $9,000 for athletics through T-shirt sales.

Today, Catholic University's annual giving program is thriving and has become the cornerstone of philanthropy at Catholic. Sustaining such a program requires the combined commitment of supportive leadership, a skilled advancement staff, and dedicated volunteers. In a model show of solidarity, the university president, advancement staff, students, alumni, and parent leaders have stepped forward to make a difference for the future of the university. Thus the "culture of philanthropy" at Catholic has been transformed and momentum created to continue the support for years to come.

About the Authors Cynthia Woolbright headshot Cynthia Woolbright

Cynthia Woolbright is the founder and principal consultant of The Woolbright Group based in New York.

Maria Martin

Maria Martin is a fundraising consultant and principal of Creative Donor Strategies based in Denver.




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