Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC), in Kalispell, Montana, discovered something extraordinary when conducting a 2012 study: Private donor money impacts student success more than Pell Grants alone. This was the first time the college had reached into the institutional research that revealed this important insight, ultimately leading to even more scholarship funding, according to Colleen Unterreiner, executive director of Institutional Advancement at FVCC.
An interest from leadership regarding a possible correlation between scholarship dollars and student success prompted the data request. And then it was confirmed: Financial aid leads to higher completion rates, and money that comes from an individual — someone who cared enough to dig into their own pockets for a student’s education — means even more. Students who received private-donor scholarships were 50 percent more likely to complete degree programs or continue their education compared with students who hadn’t received these scholarship dollars.
With numbers to support its cause, the college shifted its strategies to emphasize how private dollars make a difference in student lives. Previously, fundraising letters included news about new buildings and other projects. But now, they showed donors that their dollars make the difference.
The community has increased its support to the tune of more than $3 million in legacy donations and a 300-percent increase in endowment donations over the past few years.
Because of the use of data in its fundraising efforts, the college recently received the 2015 Community College Bellwether Award for its innovative program, “Using Financial Aid Data and Fundraising Strategies to Improve Access, Persistence, and Completion Through Scholarships.”
Market the data on scholarships
Previous donor marketing materials didn’t emphasize scholarships. In 2012–2013, the word “scholarship” was added to websites, newsletters, invitations, event logos, annual reports from the president, speeches by leadership, scholarship brochures, social media and news releases. The college’s annual wine-tasting event last year was called “Savor It with Scholarships.”
Unterreiner enlisted the help of every department on campus, too. The efforts for scholarship funding are discussed at her weekly meetings with the college president, monthly meetings with the foundation and year-round departmental meetings.
But marketing isn’t just about adding the word “scholarship” to the conversation. It’s also about sharing student testimonials, in print and in person. One powerful student story is that of single mom Sam Rosalie, who has two kids and received a $10,000 scholarship. Here is her positive experience, as told to the foundation:
“With this scholarship gift, I can work part time, allowing me to focus on my studies, and more importantly, spend time with my kids. The shift has gone from ‘single’ to ‘mother.’ When people ask me, ‘What difference does a scholarship make?’ I can say with first-hand conviction, ‘All the difference in the world!’”
Learn from experience
The number of total scholarships awarded at FVCC has increased tenfold because of this successful program, which can serve as a model to other colleges. Unterreiner offers these tips:
Collect student testimonials. Donors respond to the faces of scholarships. FVCC collects its testimonials from scholarship essays and asks students for permission to use them.
Work with institutional research. Data tells a story as much as testimonials do. Support human stories with the facts.
Be on campus. To understand the needs of the college, fundraisers need to interact with students, faculty and administrators on a regular basis.
Help underserved groups. FVCC redistributed its scholarships to help students studying for trade professions, such as welding, increasing the allotment by 8 percent from 2012 to 2014.