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4 Tips to Increase Donor Contributions

By Heather Boerner

Piedmont Community College President Tony Zeiss shares lessons learned from two successful fundraising campaigns.

Tony Zeiss could see the writing on the wall. In 2006, the state and federal governments covered 69 percent of the costs to operate North Carolina’s Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). Today, that number is 40 percent.

“I could tell that we were going to have to be more involved in entrepreneurial enterprises,” Zeiss says. “I could tell we were going to have to help fund ourselves more than ever.”

Many community colleges have attempted to address this issue by reaching out to voters — Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio and Lone Star Community College in Texas recently completed successful bond referendums.

CPCC took a different tack: successive fundraising campaigns. As a recent New York Times article points out, it’s a funding avenue few community colleges have ventured down, particularly compared with four-year institutions.

CPCC’s most recent campaign netted $63 million in cash and in-kind donations from alumni, stakeholders and industry leaders. The cash, about $30 million, will be split between curriculum, advanced manufacturing training and scholarships for veterans, needy students and others. The $32 million in-kind donation comes from Siemens Corp. in the form of proprietary software intended to expand CPCC’s advanced manufacturing training programs.

On the heels of the campaign’s success, Zeiss shares what CPCC did right and what it will do differently next time.

Convene your team

During the college’s first fundraising campaign, the board and administration needed to get on the same page: The government couldn’t be counted on to support the college to the degree the community needed. Direct fundraising for operating costs was the wave of the future.

To make that pitch and then move forward, Zeiss convened a fundraising committee of business people, civic leaders and community members selected for their access to potential donors. Then the team hired outside consultants to ascertain how much the college was likely to raise, setting a low-ball goal to assure success.

It worked. The first campaign’s goal was $15 million, and the college raised $30 million.

“You’ve got to make sure that the people on your fundraising committee have deep roots in the community,” Zeiss says. “They know people you don’t know. They know who’s got money, who’s come into an inheritance, who has a soft spot for the college.”

Be prepared to make the ask — personally

College presidents don’t have to meet with potential donors — but campaigns are more successful when they do.

“It’s an unwritten expectation that the president make the ask,” Zeiss says. “Some people will give to a good cause, but mostly, people give to people they care about.”

Zeiss often approached donors with the help of people, childhood friends and others, who knew the donor and could help make the case for support. Making it personal and making the time for one-on-one meetings made all the difference, he says.

Know your donors

Asking personally is useless if you walk into a donor meeting cold. Zeiss found he had to know his donors inside and out.

“I can tell you the name of their dog, their career, their giving capacity, the things that interest them,” Zeiss says. “You customize the ask to their interests and what’s a hot button to them.”

To gain this knowledge, Zeiss realized another truism: You have to spend money to make money. The college had to beef up its development team so Zeiss could be fully briefed before approaching a donor.

Time the campaigns right

If there’s one thing Zeiss would change about CPCC’s campaigns, it would be the timing. He wishes the campaigns had been spaced out more. Donors were still paying off their previous commitments when the new campaign started, he says. Between that and the onset of the recession, Zeiss says the college lost at least three big donors on whose support he’d been counting.

Despite the hard work that goes into fundraising, which Zeiss regards as a “second full-time job,” he says he would do another campaign.

“Absolutely, it’s worth it,” he says. “It’s something colleges are going to have to do to survive.”

Has your college enjoyed recent fundraising success? Tell us about it in the Comments.


Heather Boerner

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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