How do colleges hit record-level fundraising? It’s all about the alumni

Two universities stand out among the crowd for their continuous ability to receive record levels of donations and charitable gifts, no matter the storm: Temple University and The University of Alabama.

Say what you want about the state of the economy and how it’s creating headaches for higher education institutions, but that doesn’t stop those who have mastered the art of fundraising.

Two universities stand out amongst the crowd for their continuous ability to receive record levels of donations and charitable gifts, no matter the storm: Temple University and The University of Alabama. What makes them so successful? Two things: persistence and alumni.

Temple University

In the fiscal year 2022, the university received $115 million in donations, which set a school record for the most gifts raised during a single fiscal year. Additionally, it marked the institution’s third straight year of surpassing $100 million in charitable donations. Most of the funds go toward student support through scholarships at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as student prizes, awards and internship support.

According to Mary Burke, vice president for institutional advancement at TU who has long stood on the frontlines of fundraising for much of her career, this achievement speaks true to Temple’s mission and the passion of its alumni.

“People I meet feel very passionately about Temple’s mission, and that has never changed,” she says. “As we do a better job of reaching out to people and communicating that mission and engaging with them, they’re more receptive to supporting that mission. Even in times like we’re in right now, our alumni want to give students the same opportunity they had. They recognize that Temple serves a different kind of student than many other universities, and they feel passionate about supporting them so that they can succeed.”

While it may come as no surprise that alumni rest at the heart of college fundraising, fostering long-lasting connections with those people is essential for advancing any higher education institution.

“Things in fundraising have changed, but one thing remains the same, especially in terms of gifts at a somewhat higher level,” Burke explains. “We really try to focus on engaging people individually so that they might consider creating a legacy here at Temple. The fundamentals haven’t changed in that area—people want to personally connect and understand the need and the impact they can have.”

Even during the course of the pandemic, she adds, they found even more ways to connect with donors through virtual one-on-one meetings to continue their mission of developing relationships and having meaningful conversations with their alumni.

As for Burke, she enjoys digging deep into the data to find where opportunities for advancement lie. For example, she says data can help to reveal patterns associated with people’s tendency to donate. “Most people who make a large gift have made a gift before,” she says. “You can run all kinds of data analytics and see things like, for example, someone who makes a gift seven years in a row at any level is more likely to consider making a large gift the next time.”

Despite the university’s success in exceeding its fundraising goals year to year, its work isn’t done, according to Burke. Many donations come as a result of the strong support of the Philadelphia community, corporations to a certain extent, friends of the university and the health system. Yet the potential to connect with alumni continues to grow.

‘We see a great opportunity in engaging with our alumni as donors,” she says. “From our perspective, I think maybe compared to other universities we’ve perhaps underperformed in terms of the achievement of giving, particularly at the higher level from alumni, but that’s where the opportunity is and that’s where we’re going to try and focus our efforts. Alumni are passionate about Temple, so we want to make sure that we can leverage that.”

Above all, Burke attributes two factors contributing to the university’s repeated success: persistence and keeping it simple. “As somebody who has been a fundraiser and a frontline fundraiser for much of my career as opposed to a manager, perseverance is the most important thing,” she says. “Alumni are alumni for their entire lives, so we need to make sure that we don’t give up on people in terms of their willingness to consider giving back and creating a legacy at a place that had an important role in their lives. And I think focusing on the basics, which is trying to make those personal connections.”

The University of Alabama

“Our fundraising success has not come by accident,” says Bob Pierce, vice president for advancement at UA. The university is known for its ability to produce substantial fundraising numbers, making its most recent achievement even more impressive.

In the fiscal year 2022, UA raised nearly $226 million in charitable gifts and pledges, setting a fundraising record for the university. Similar to Temple’s perspective, the accomplishment is accredited to those whose heart forever belongs to The Capstone.

“The new fundraising record is an incredible testament to the passion and dedication of University of Alabama alumni and friends,” says Pierce. “The record fundraising year was accomplished following the public announcement of The Rising Tide Capital Campaign in September 2021. I believe this added a level of focus and enthusiasm to our efforts and prompted our donors to be even more philanthropic and heighten their impact on the University through their charitable contributions.”

The campaign, Pierce adds, has measurable goals in four areas that are critical to the university’s success: scholarships, endowed faculty positions, enhanced facilities and athletics. “We are seeing tremendous progress in reaching every one of these goals with almost four full years remaining in the campaign,” he says.

Since the arrival of the university’s president, Dr. Stuart Bell, in 2015, the college has doubled its five-year average in fundraising numbers. In FY 2022, the university had an impressive total of 60,000 committed donors. While that number is crucial to their success, Pierce also speaks to their ability to create an infrastructure and environment that promotes philanthropy.

“You cannot reach this level without everything being in place,” he explains. “We have a clear vision provided by Dr. Bell, a motivated team of volunteer campaign leaders and fundraising staff, projects and initiatives worthy of charitable investment, and success stories to demonstrate the impact of giving. It all comes together to provide a formula for fundraising success. When Dr. Bell arrived at UA in 2015, the infrastructure was not in place to launch a $1.5 billion capital campaign. He provided the resources necessary to grow the fundraising staff, implement the processes and procedures required to properly solicit and manage gifts as well as the tools to grow the fundraising enterprise. These investments are obviously paying dividends.”

Similarly, UA’s largest gifts come from those who have an existing relationship with the university. According to Pierce, very rarely is a substantial donation made from someone out of the blue. This year, the largest gift of $20 million to support the newly proposed performing arts center came from a family who were previous donors to the university.

“The family’s charitable commitment of $20 million will help make this critical need for our campus a reality, and we could not be more grateful to them,” says Pierce. “They are wonderful people, and their connection to the performing arts was clear and obvious. We simply provided the opportunity for them to make an impact on the arts in the state of Alabama.”

If the overarching theme wasn’t made clear, know this: fundraising is all about establishing relationships with those who love your college. Be persistent, and never give up on those who want to make a legacy at their beloved institution.

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Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a University Business staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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