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Colleges and universities can foster a culture of philanthropy on campus by engaging students in the development efforts.

Development offices on college campuses rarely get all the credit they are due. The work is demanding, and the staff are constantly trying to meet annual goals while also giving donors the proper stewardship and attention that is expected.

When one considers all the moving pieces from direct mail, donor clubs, major gifts, planned gifts, and typically a series of events, it leaves little room for fundraising staff to do much else. Yet, there are tremendous ways that development professionals can instill a culture of philanthropy on their campuses.


First, annual giving staff should consider starting a senior class giving campaign. These campaigns ask college seniors to make their first gift to the college, typically a symbolic number such as $20.22 to honor their graduation year, or $1.00 to honor a college centennial. Most colleges already have these senior giving campaigns in place, but it is worth asking how each one could be improved upon. Are you enlisting students to serve as ambassadors for this initiative? College students are more likely to respond to a fellow student expressing the need to support the college than a development professional or email blast. If you have a team of senior ambassadors striving to hit a goal, why not invite a current major gift donor to speak to the students? Many donors are seeking such opportunities and this would give you a chance to cultivate your donors and instill a culture of philanthropy on campus.


This leads to the next way that development staff can instill philanthropy on campus. Connecting current students to donors is invaluable for a healthy donor base and long-term fundraising goal. Too often, donors feel disconnected from the primary objective that inspires many of them to give to colleges in the first place, which is to provide life changing education to young people. There are simple ways to remedy this. One method is to have current students make phone calls just to say thank you to donors. This is especially thoughtful during the holiday season in November and December. Another way to introduce students to donors is to have plenty of students present at fundraising events. College development offices typically host great scholarship luncheons and dinners where donors are allowed to meet recipients of their annual and endowed scholarship gifts. However, other in-person events are too often lacking a student presence.


Higher education fundraisers should see their local nonprofits as valued partners when it comes to introducing philanthropy to students on campus. It is highly unlikely that college graduates will give all their lifetime philanthropic dollars to their alma maters. Indeed, colleges should strive to produce, not just future donors for the institution, but graduates who are lifelong learners that seek to improve civil society in a broad sense. This means colleges should be proud when their alumni support their churches, local foodbanks, or other organizations that promote the common good. Instead of viewing those organizations as competitors for gifts, fundraising staff should help foster campus partnerships and presence of such organizations by inviting them to campus to share their stories. Creating a campus culture that values philanthropy in general—not solely philanthropy for the college—will lead to motivated and compassionate alumni who will give back.

Imagine an idealistic college student who sincerely wants to help her community. She probably sees volunteering her time and giving her limited philanthropic dollars to a food bank as significant, but likely does not yet see the value in supporting higher education. If you instill the importance of philanthropy in her now, she will likely reflect on that later in life and be grateful to her college for that experience. An event series or forum that brings nonprofit leaders to campus to share their stories and the power of philanthropy demonstrates the importance of giving, and it can help alleviate the “town vs. gown” division that plagues many universities in their respective communities.


Perhaps the most significant way to spark a college student’s passion for philanthropy is by offering internships in the development office. While many college development shops offer standard student worker jobs, only some have managed to create truly special internship programs. For example, the University of Michigan offers a twelve-week paid development internship where interns work alongside top fundraising professionals and attend a three-credit course taught by a U-M faculty member. Such internship opportunities are rare across the spectrum of American colleges and universities. And while creating programs like these admittedly requires patience and hard work, the benefits of development offices offering these opportunities are numerous.


Finally, higher education development professionals should seek to have philanthropy reflected in curriculum. There are multiple ways that this can be done. The simplest way is to work with trusted faculty who would be open to having major donors speak during a scheduled class. Even a half-hour discussion with a donor and current students in a classroom setting, especially in business courses, can help students think about why they seek success, and allow the donor to share their story about why giving back is important. Even more exciting is the recent proliferation of college courses geared towards philanthropy. Some colleges now have experiential learning courses that enable students to make real grants to local nonprofit organizations, while some courses allow students to conduct real-time analysis and deliver reporting for nonprofits in need of help. There is no reason why development professionals cannot encourage and help create such courses on their campuses once they have the trust of partners in the academy.

Ultimately, a student body that interacts with donors, engages nonprofits, and has professional and educational opportunities related to philanthropy will prove to be more generous with their time and money later in life. Fundraising professionals on college campuses should consider this and be willing to explore new ways to celebrate philanthropy of all kinds.

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