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People Who Like to Build
People Who Like to Build

Tiny staffs, heavy workloads, and limited resources. Why are so many development pros finding happiness at community colleges?

By Eleanor Lee Yates


©Harry Campbell c/o

These are busy times for U.S. community colleges. When the economy dips, enrollment spikes. Laid-off workers seek training for new careers. Traditional students attend two-year institutions before transferring to four-year colleges and universities to save money. Until recently community colleges relied almost exclusively on state and local funding, but deep budget cuts are putting pressure on these institutions' foundations to bridge the gap. As community colleges more aggressively raise funds, some are turning to veteran fundraisers from their four-year counterparts to build or boost development programs.

A community college development office is often a different world for experienced advancement professionals from four-year institutions. They may go from 200 staffers to two. They find a focus on major events rather than major gifts. Some young foundations lack the tools, such as alumni and donor databases, that college and university advancement shops take for granted. Yet where some development officers see warning signs, others find an opportunity to construct a new program from scratch.

CURRENTS profiles five university advancement veterans who are reshaping donor and alumni engagement at community colleges.

What do you mean there's no annual fund?

CUR_SEP13_Yates_Lockhart photoStacey Lockhart
Executive director, Wenatchee Valley College Foundation, Wash.
Arrival at the college: 2011
First big challenge: Complete a capital campaign for the $9.6 million Music and Art Center.

Stacey Lockhart sums up her approach to fundraising this way: "I love a challenge, and I'm not afraid to ask anyone [for a gift]. When it gets easy, I get bored."

Her professional life has been anything but boring since becoming the executive director of the foundation at Washington's Wenatchee Valley College, where she found a significant challenge: "In the 74-year history of the college, there was no annual fund," she says. "There was fundraising for planned and major gifts but not for the kind of gifts people can make every day."

The former executive director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Alumni Association, Lockhart was hired to raise money for projects other than student scholarships. She spent a year organizing and analyzing donor records and discovered a major pipeline problem—most donors were 70 or older.

To cultivate younger donors and alumni, she organized the college's first annual fund, capturing alumni contact information, starting with the class of 2011, and using a mail appeal to draw several hundred first-time contributors.

"We'd never cultivated alumni, just people we knew were affluent. Gifts of $25 to $100 from alumni add up," says Lockhart, who plans to launch a phonathon next year.

She's also made the college a more visible community partner. The foundation recently joined with the student government association to host Wenatchee Valley College night at a local minor league hockey game. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni scooped up more than a quarter of the tickets at the packed 4,200-seat venue. "Our choir sang the national anthem; we gave away a $2,000 scholarship and had a food drive," she says. WVC was the event's largest sponsor, which helped raise the college's profile in the community.

WVC communicates its work with key donors at a twice-a-year women's luncheon. Lockhart brings students, instructors, or other college staff to share success stories. For the average WVC student—a 29-year-old who has a family to support and is looking to learn new, marketable skills—college is a life-changing experience. "Some students worked for years before hitting the salary ceiling," Lockhart says.

Students talk about returning to the classroom and juggling school, homework, family, and jobs. Hearing about the sacrifices students make to further their education inspired four donors to become mentors, Lockhart says.

As the community has learned more about WVC, donors and donations have increased. The college's recent campaign to fund a new music and art building with a recital hall stalled when it reached just two-thirds of its goal. "We asked the community for major gifts and offered naming opportunities, both large and small," Lockhart says. Donors could name one or more of the 150 seats in the recital hall for $250. The center opened in September 2012, and at press time, only six chairs lacked a name. Lockhart expects more supporters to take a seat soon.

Master of many, many, many domains

CUR_SEP13_Yates_McKittrick photoKeith M. McKittrick
Director of development, Holyoke Community College, Mass.
Arrival at the college: 2011
First big challenge: Develop a more consistent major and planned giving program, with an emphasis on alumni and area business leaders.

During Keith McKittrick's 20-year career as a fundraiser, he's traveled the United States raising millions for Framingham State University (his alma mater), the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, among others, before accepting the director of development position at Holyoke Community College in 2011.

"It's a different life now," he says. "Some donors at the University of Massachusetts travel in their own Lear jets. I met fascinating people but it really wasn't who I was. I am in a time in my life that I want to do something for my community. At a two-year school, you wear a lot of hats but you know the students."

In addition to McKittrick, the advancement shop at the Massachusetts community college consists of the vice president for institutional development, an alumni relations director, and an assistant. McKittrick generates support from local businesses, oversees faculty and staff solicitations, and raises gifts from foundation board members—while also managing their volunteer fundraising activities.

Prospect research? He does that.

Stewardship? Him again.

Grant writing? He does a little of that too, recently applying for funds to operate an adult education center and a nursing and health education center.

Campaign manager? You guessed it. He's currently in a campaign to raise $5.3 million for the health care and the life sciences programs.

This type of juggling act is not uncommon at community colleges. McKittrick's advice?

"You must be organized or work with people who are highly organized when you have a small staff," he says. "Your to-do list will change halfway through the morning, and you have to tell yourself that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time."

Volunteers are essential. A retired development professional who is also a faculty member helps edit the alumni e-newsletter and assists in fundraising efforts. Another alumnus—a former vice president of institutional advancement at several colleges and universities—reviews draft campaign materials. Retired faculty and staff members volunteer at the annual golf tournament and a 5-kilometer race.

"Working at the college is emotionally rewarding," McKittrick says. "You know you have impact on the students. When I'm having a bad day, I go out and I'll talk with students who are struggling to balance work, family, and their education. They help me step it up a bit."

Mobilize alumni? Check.

CUR_SEP13_Yates_Ferguson photoDoug Ferguson
Director of alumni programs, Delaware County Community College, Pa.
Arrival at the college: 2010
First big challenge: Reduce more than 1,200 pieces of returned mail to about 300.

When Doug Ferguson was hired as director of alumni programs at Delaware County Community College, the Pennsylvania institution was coping with significant funding cuts from the state, its primary source of funding.

"My vice president [of institutional advancement] was looking for someone to change some of the thinking regarding alumni, fundraising, and overall engagement," says Ferguson, who previously worked in the alumni office at his alma mater, Widener University in Pennsylvania.

Within a month of his fall 2010 hiring, Ferguson was helping mobilize DCCC's 25,000 alumni through his new alumni e-newsletter, which directed graduates to an online petition protesting state budget cuts to community colleges.

There's a lot a one-person alumni affairs office can accomplish by taking full advantage of free social media tools and cultivating campus allies in the work of engaging future alumni. At DCCC, the accomplishments include:

  • Growing circulation for the e-newsletter from 1,400 to 9,500 in part because Ferguson was able to find lost alumni using LinkedIn. "It's in all respects my database," he says. "Some of the biggest successes of my job have come through this site."
  • Building DCCC's alumni LinkedIn group from 130 to 790 members who network for jobs, take part in career discussions, and learn campus news.
  • Partnering with Student Employment Services to create the Career Alumni Mentoring Program, which pairs students with alumni in their desired career fields for short one-on-one meetings.
  • Joining forces with Campus Life to host a yearlong series of leadership workshops, each featuring an alumni panel that discusses workplace issues and answers students' questions.
  • Helping Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society for students at two-year colleges, organize a new alumni chapter for DCCC graduates.

Such efforts keep alumni connected to the campus while teaching students about their future role as supportive alumni. "We want to make a first impression on [students] before they transfer," Ferguson says. "This will hopefully lead to increased alumni participation and donor involvement."

In the meantime, he expects campus partnerships and social media to continue their vital role in that work. "I'm a one-man office," says Ferguson. "I have little to no budget. You have to be creative and resourceful."

Goodbye golf tournaments, hello major gifts

CUR_SEP13_Yates_Silverstein photoMelinda Silverstein
Executive director, Cabrillo College Foundation, Calif.
Arrival at the college: 1998
First big challenge: Hire a professional manager to systematically grow the small, bare-bones foundation.

Car problems, a doctor's bill, child care issues: For community college students with tight budgets, these aren't just annoyances—they're calamities that often force them to quit school. Because the stakes are so high, Melinda Silverstein, executive director of the Cabrillo College Foundation, focuses on big, impactful gifts.

That decision meant saying goodbye to the California community college's longtime golf tournament.

"Development staff should be cultivating, stewarding, and soliciting major gift donors to raise $1 million in private gifts each year. That cannot be done through special events," says Silverstein, who was recruited from the University of California, Santa Cruz development office. Such events are time-consuming, unprofitable, and rarely result in participants making a planned or major gift, she says.

When she was hired, Silverstein focused on "getting the financial house in order," including hiring a skilled money manager for the endowment. She wrote job descriptions, trained staff, and worked with the board and president to move the college away from special events. Silverstein secured a grant to conduct a major gifts feasibility study.

She also developed solicitation plans for major donors, overhauled the college's scholarship application and management processes, and expanded the foundation's board—which then required recruiting more community leaders to serve. Most of the foundation's board members are President's Circle members who give at least $1,000 annually and also raise funds. "As you build a high-performing organization and have a powerful board of directors, it acts like a magnet for other community leaders," she says.

In addition to the unrestricted funds raised through the President's Circle, the foundation nets approximately $4 million each year for the college. Silverstein attributes that success to an energetic board, a strong nominating committee, and dedicated volunteer fundraisers.

Foundation directors need to help their presidents be successful, she says. "They should prepare plans for their presidents that will promote foundation goals but not take a lot of their time." Silverstein suggests writing talking points for college presidents to use during donor visits and community events, as well as scripts for solicitation phone calls and emails.

"Meet regularly with the president with a detailed agenda outlining exactly what needs to be discussed," she adds.

The payoff of a well-oiled fundraising operation is that needy students don't have to see their dreams derailed, such as a 19-year-old student whose mother died, leaving her to care for her younger sisters. A grant from Cabrillo's Women's Educational Success, a committee that has raised and endowed more than $1 million to aid students with emergencies, helped her stay in school. "My mother is looking down on us," the student, who also works for the college, told the committee. "You all are my mothers now," she said before donating $100 to the emergency fund.

Investing in a high-tech fix

CUR_SEP13_Yates_Wells photoTwyla Casey Wells
Executive director, Johnston Community College Foundation, N.C.
Arrival at the college: 2000 (public information officer and grants director); 2008 (foundation's executive director)
First big challenge: Transition the department from focusing solely on scholarships to developing a comprehensive philanthropy program.

"The thing I like most about community college advancement efforts [is] that they are very much about building," says Twyla Casey Wells, executive director of the Johnston Community College Foundation in North Carolina.

But creating a comprehensive development program costs money and, like other community colleges, JCC lacked funds to hire needed staff. Wells' solution: "I've tried to compensate with technology," including investing in a major student and alumni data migration project to locate alumni who graduated before 2010.

"There was little existing alumni data accessible to the development office, so we were beginning from scratch," says Wells, who previously worked in alumni relations at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She reorganized her three-person staff so that a portion of one employee's time is focused strictly on alumni. The data migration project, which Wells estimates cost the college approximately $40,000, has also helped her small staff better reach the institution's alumni.

A vendor imported student records into the college's donor management system and updated records of those who graduated as far back as 1982 (transferring microfilm and paper records of alumni who graduated between 1969 and 1981 proved too costly). "After completing the address updating process, we conducted a wealth prospecting process of all of our donor management data," she says.

With newfound addresses, JCC launched its first major outreach project last summer, mailing graduates postcards with a link to a short survey on alumni programs and services.

This fall the college is rolling out the JCC Alumni Back to Class Scholarship program, which allows alumni to take one free class funded by the foundation. The purpose: to increase registration, bringing the college an estimated $130,000 in enrollment-based state funding, and to offer alumni an immediate benefit before asking them to give back. In July and August, the college held informational sessions about the alumni scholarship program and shared institutional updates, areas of strategic focus, and forthcoming initiatives such as a future bond referendum.

The college enhanced its donor management system to make it easier to send publications and invitations electronically. New online scholarship management software replaced the paper applications, simplifying the process for both students applying for and staff managing scholarships.

"With the accessibility of technology, we are better able to strategically align our appeals, communications, special events, and programs to specific constituents," says Wells, who credits the college president for recognizing the importance of the investment. "Building a great development program requires investments today that pay dividends tomorrow."

About the Author Eleanor Lee Yates

Eleanor Lee Yates is a freelance writer who formerly served as a public information officer and a publications editor for Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina.




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