VSE Data Drives Addition of Advancement Staff, Resources
It is the myth that will not die. Some still believe that community college alumni cannot, will not, or do not give back to their alma maters in the form of financial support.
This flies in the face of the evidence, as Lisa Skari discovered years ago when she centered her doctoral work on alumni giving at the two-year level. In researching the subject for her 2011 dissertation, she explored the Voluntary Support of Education annual survey, which quantifies fundraising outcomes for higher education institutions in the U.S. Skari found that the VSE data proved the myths are false.
“It was useful, but there weren’t a lot of community colleges participating,” says Skari, who was then the vice president for institutional advancement at Highline College in the Seattle area. “I went to the executive director of the foundation, asking, ‘Do we do this? Can we do this?’”
Highline began to take part in the VSE, not only because of the information it offered, but because participation fostered better habits in tracking data, benchmarking, and setting goals.
“It made us far more informed about where our money was coming from, and I was able to use that effectively with our board,” she says. “It allowed us to speak more accurately about what we were doing and where we were having success.”
Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, began participating in the VSE at the same time as Highline College—about seven years ago. Scholarship and Alumni Officer Jody Donaldson says that she and her colleagues at Kirkwood wanted to help lead the way in terms of community college involvement in the survey and understood the value of the information.
“From a general perspective, it’s nice to look at yourself and see where you land amongst the others,” she says. “We all kind of have the colleges that we watch, just to compare, just to see where they’re at and what they’re doing—and if that’s what we want to achieve or shoot for.”
Donaldson praised not just the peer comparisons, but the aspirational aspects of the VSE. Kirkwood can look at community colleges that are having the greatest success with alumni fundraising and then identify ways that the college can improve.
“If other institutions are increasing their alumni giving by 60% and we’re not, what do we need to be doing? Where do we need to be putting our time and energy?” Donaldson asks. “It doesn’t have to be rocket science. But it gives us all something that is relatable.”
Both Donaldson and Skari spoke to the multiple benefits of VSE participation in communicating data to their boards of trustees, showing value to potential donors, and having a better sense of their own methods. Perhaps the most tangible result has come in the form of additional advancement staff members. Skari said that, due to the VSE data, Highline added another position. Kirkwood is seeking to do the same this year.
“Because of the VSE, we are looking to add a staff person. Because we know we can do more,” Donaldson says. “Without [the survey], we may sit idle and just keep doing what we’re doing. This shows us, ‘Yeah, we can do a lot more.’”
Although Skari and Donaldson sing the praises of the VSE, they recognize the reasons that community college participation hasn’t been as robust as involvement at the four-year level. For instance, the survey once was more labor-intensive—which can be a challenge for small departments handling a huge workload—although it’s since become more streamlined and user-friendly.
“I think that’s a big part of why people don’t participate,” Donaldson says, “because they look at it and go, ‘Oh my gosh. I don’t have time.’”
Community colleges can now take part by using the short form and relying on guidance from Ann E. Kaplan, the VSE’s senior director. Still, folks at some institutions might feel that their college isn’t the right fit for the survey. Both Donaldson and Skari acknowledge having similar thoughts about the uniqueness of their institutions in the past.
Skari recalls thinking, “‘Well nobody’s like me. We’re small, we’re this, we’re that.’ In looking at the VSE, it was, ‘Well these guys kind of look like us’ and it gave me a clue of who to talk to more.”
Skari has since moved on from Highline to Oregon’s Mt. Hood Community College, where she became the college president in July 2018. Although Mt. Hood has not been participating in the VSE, she expects the college to be involved with the survey in the future. In her opinion, there are too many positive aspects to taking part in the VSE not to do it.
“Some common things that I hear from community college professionals in advancement is that desire to be given recognition for the work we do,” Skari says. “The VSE can be a great tool for us to talk about our value. It is a way to highlight the profession and what it brings. And by participating, we are all collectively raising that bar.”
Want to Get Involved?
To get started with the Voluntary Support of Education survey, contact CASE’s AMAtlas research team at VSE@case.org. The deadline for participation is October 1, but institutions can reply later in the calendar year via email.
A session on alumni engagement, community colleges, and the VSE will take place at the Conference for Community College Advancement, October 2-4 in San Diego, California. Presenters include Tyler Junior College’s Mitch Andrews and Susan Farrington along with CASE’s Marc Westenburg and Jenny Cooke Smith.
About the author(s)
Bryan Wawzenek is a content creator at CASE