grant program

Reaching $20M in 18 months

By Tabitha Whissemore

Boldly leading a large fundraising campaign that engages the community

Running a $20 million fundraising campaign wasn’t in Leigh Goodson’s plans when she became president of Tulsa Community College (TCC) in 2014. But over the last six years, Oklahoma has cut its higher education budget allocation by about 30%, and colleges are increasingly looking for revenue streams.

That started Goodson and TCC on a fundraising journey that resulted in $20 million in 18 months.

Goodson talked about the fundraising campaign with Bethany Reid, a principal with eAdvancement Consulting, in a session during AACC Digital conference on Thursday.

Going big

TCC’s early goal was to raise money for a few pet projects that would make up about $13 million. Before developing a campaign, the college conducted a feasibility study. The community…well, it wasn’t very excited about those projects.

“There was not much appetite for it,” Goodson said.

The fundraising plan got an overhaul: Rather than supporting a few boutique projects, the campaign was only going to support items tied to TCC’s strategic plan, such as scholarships, support for advising and some capital needs. Because the college was focused on guided pathways, which had already proven to have good outcomes, fundraising also had to support guided pathways.

Goodson said the fundraising goal was “conservative” at $10 million.

Developing the campaign involved the college foundation’s board. Goodson advised that a foundation board needs “enough heavy-hitters to pull you along” when attempting a big campaign.

A campaign cabinet also was pulled together. The college was fortunate enough to get the head of one of Tulsa’s largest family foundations to chair the campaign and make the lead gift. Right away, the cabinet said the $10 million ask was too small.

“They said we have something to present to the community,” Goodson recalled. By the end of a 90-minute meeting, the goal doubled to $20 million.

With that large of a goal, Goodson asked for a longer-than-average silent phase. It was her first campaign as president, and the first big campaign in the college’s history.

“I wasn’t prepared to ask for $20 million and then get $16 million,” she said.

Engaging donors and the community

Once the campaign started, everything moved quickly.

“When we changed the message…it was not a hard sell,” Goodson said.

For the 18 months of the campaign, Goodson basically cleared her calendar.

“When we had a prospect, I had to make myself available,” she said.

Her campaign cabinet was good at identifying prospective donors and their giving potential, so Goodson’s purpose was to tell TCC’s story.

“I can tell our story 10 times a day and never get tired of it,” she said.

Though she admitted to having a “fear of rejection” at the start of the campaign, Goodson learned that even if prospective donors didn’t give a gift, “we ended up making a friend.”

By engaging the community, the “marriage between the community college and community is much stronger,” Goodson said.

Now that the campaign is over and the goal has been reached, Goodson’s preparing the foundation board for the next campaign.

“My confidence in that skyrocketed once we started and completed the campaign,” she said.

The next campaign may not be as “attractive,” as TCC has a lot of deferred maintenance, but she’s ready to start planning – and she’s confident the community is ready to support the college again.

Some advice

Because it was Goodson’s first fundraising campaign, she learned many things – and passed some of that knowledge on to AACC Digital session attendees.

When choosing a chair for a campaign committee or searching for someone to make a lead gift for a campaign, look at who the top five big hitters are in the community. Of course, those people may be easier to identify in an urban area. If in a rural community, find who in state or county service area can make lead gift.

“It doesn’t have to be someone who can write largest check; it can be someone who is champion for the school,” Goodson said. “You don’t have to be the lead donor to be the lead cheerleader.”

She also learned a “secret” about foundations. Many foundations have a policy to only give a certain percentage of any given campaign goal. That meant upping TCC’s campaign goal to $20 million would net the college a larger gift.

As for the campaign cycle, the preferred steps are, “You have a campaign, finish it, refresh the strategic plan and then look at next campaign.”

And for those holding back on fundraising because of the pandemic, she said now is exactly the time to ask. Those that have the resources are thinking about where to invest.

“The time for community colleges is now,” Goodson said. TCC has seen enrollment struggles, but graduation rates are up. “That’s what the community’s looking for: outcomes.”

This article originally appeared in CC Daily.

Tabitha Whissemore

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.