Why Diversity Matters: Fundraising

At a time when funding for higher education in most states remains at pre-recession levels, colleges are enhancing fundraising efforts in order to elicit larger gifts from more donors.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the average state currently spends 20 percent less per student than it did before the 2007-2008 academic year. At the same time, charitable donations to colleges and universities reached an all-time high in 2014, with nearly $38 billion gifted, based on the annual survey by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE).

While the nation’s private Ivy elite tend to amass the majority of this wealth — 28.6 percent of the total amount donated in 2014 went to fewer than 2 percent of the roughly 1,000 schools that participated in CAE’s survey — public institutions are beginning to see the value in expanding their own fundraising efforts.

Jaye Lopez Van Soest, development director at Public Justice and former director of development for the University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law, a historically black law school in D.C., says that one way schools can enhance their fundraising, and set themselves apart, is by leveraging diversity and inclusion.

Jaye Lopez Van Soest
Jaye Lopez Van Soest

“You have a situation where schools absolutely have to raise additional funds, private support funds, and I think that diversity and inclusion can play a role,” says Lopez Van Soest, who is also chair of the Association of Fundraising Professional’s (AFP) Diversity and Inclusion Committee and serves on the board of directors for AFP International. “I think focusing on [those] and being mindful of the ways that you’re communicating with every single person you reach out to is only going to help.”

The caveat, she says, is that schools need to be doing good work in the areas of diversity and inclusion. Colleges and universities that do well supporting, including, and ensuring a positive college experience for all students, including underrepresented students, may have better luck when asking alumni for donations down the road, says Una Osili, director of research for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

“The bottom line, and I think the big takeaway, is that a lot of the work around building and cultivating donors has to start with individuals on campus,” she says. “And building that relationship with the university is something that should be done while they are students.”

When communicating with university faculty and staff in her previous position at Clarke School of Law, Lopez Van Soest says she emphasized that every interaction students have affects the school’s ability “to secure their support when they are alums,” which is why she believes focusing on the student experience is so critical.

“The better supported, particularly minority, students are from the second they get here — even before they get here, the second they are recruited, the second they even contemplate coming to the school — every interaction and how they’re supported … is absolutely going to impact whether or not they give to you 10 years down the road, or however many years,” she says.

As the nation’s demographics continue to shift toward a new minority-majority, colleges and universities are also experiencing a transformation, with larger numbers of minorities enrolling and graduating. Specifically, between 1984 and 2009, the Latino student population increased by 546 percent, the African American student population by 240 percent, the Asian American and Pacific Islander student population by 314 percent, and the Native American student population by 219 percent.

“… For most colleges and universities, their alumni in the past were predominantly white,” Osili says. “I think the challenge for many [of these institutions] is how to reach alumni of these diverse backgrounds.”

At Clarke School of Law, Lopez Van Soest was in charge of raising money from alumni, who she says are mainly African American and Jewish. This, she says, like any alumni fundraising, requires knowledge and understanding.

“Those are not [populations] that I am a part of, so it was a function of me learning as much as I could about the cultures and being extraordinarily respectful and mindful of the cultural nuances involved with fundraising within those [populations],” she says.

According to Osili, a more culturally sensitive approach to communicating and engaging with diverse alumni is becoming the norm.

“In the past, the standard approach was maybe a tailgate party for alumni at football games, but now what [schools] are trying to do is build engagement of opportunities that are perhaps more specific,” she says, “because let’s say a group, for religious reasons, doesn’t drink; then a tailgate party wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Instead, she recommends engaging alumni by determining their background and interests and aligning communications with those. “So if somebody was a science and engineering major, inviting them back to attend a lecture on campus, or if they were involved with classical music while they were an undergraduate [student], maybe inviting them to a big concert,” says Osili.

“It’s about tailoring those messages so that folks are going to be most responsive,” adds Lopez Van Soest, who emphasizes the need for schools to engage with alumni on a regular basis.

She believes keeping alumni up to date on diversity and inclusion efforts — as well as other positive work being done across campus — and informing them of the role they will play in the institution’s success as donors can affect whether and how much they donate.

Specifically, marketing diversity and inclusion initiatives in fundraising materials may also help colleges and universities reach new audiences, says Lopez Van Soest.

“When you highlight your diversity and inclusion programs, or your focus is on bringing as many people to the table as possible, you may have people [reaching out] to you who may not have talked to you before, and that’s always a good thing,” she says.

Further influencing a school’s ability to fundraise is the makeup of its advancement team. Lopez Van Soest says that having a diverse mix of professionals on a fundraising team will help schools better connect with their diverse alumni.

While touting diversity and inclusion efforts in fundraising materials may resonate with some potential donors, it may not have the same effect on others. However, as the diversity of the nation, as well as the student population, continues to increase, so will the need for colleges and universities to support and connect with individuals — both as students and alumni — in ways that lead to future support for their institutions.

“I certainly think that in today’s world it is very important to demonstrate best practices around diversity and inclusivity for the general donor population,” Osili says. “Organizations that are not serving students well are going to have a hard time telling their story to potential donors and funders.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.