|Jody Harrison’s cheerful voice reached out to alumni in the Diocese of Texas.
Gifts from alumni make up almost a third of the annual giving to North America’s colleges and universities, but in the world of theological education, the story is very different. According to the 1999-2000 Association of Theological Schools’ Fact Book on Theological Education, alumni giving to the 228 reporting institutions totaled just 6.6 percent of unrestricted gifts and about 12 percent of gifts received for capital purposes. And while huge gifts from grateful graduates are business as usual across much of higher education, the average seminary alumnus contributes approximately $80 annually to the annual fund of his or her theological alma mater. Alums average about another $90 a year for capital projects. As Mark Dillon, vice president for advancement at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, noted in his 1991 study of seminary fund-raising, “Alumni are generally considered to be an asset to the institution, but, because of the vocational realities of the seminary graduates, a limited asset in terms of gift potential.”
It’s not surprising, then, that some board members question the worth of pursuing gifts from alumni. From a short-term, bottom-line perspective, they may be right to do so. With alumni relations, however, it’s not just the money that matters. Staff and boards at theological schools with strong alumni programs recognize the far-reaching benefits of cultivating good relations with former students. As the following examples illustrate, with a little tender loving care, alumni will outperform the averages and lead the way in promoting the institution to important constituencies beyond the campus.
Good Will Counting
When Jay Dargan, vice president for advancement at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, talked about alumni giving, he quickly listed differing ways former students contribute to the institution. He reported that fully 60 percent of current students gave Asbury a look at the recommendation of a former student. Additionally, each year gifts are received in appreciation of the ministry of an Asbury-educated pastor.
“If we were to focus simply on dollars given, we’d miss much of what alumni contribute to the seminary,” Dargan said. In short, the lesson of Asbury’s experience is that the goodwill of alumni counts for a lot.
The positive feelings that Asbury alumni harbor for their alma mater is the result of the seminary’s careful attention to relationship building. The development team relies on a combination of personal visits and the annual phonathon (“a call from home” in Dargan’s words) as the way to keep close to graduates.
“We work hard at keeping alumni in the loop,” Dargan stated. “We’re constantly asking if we’re making the best use of the contacts and influence of our alumni—if we’re reaching the full potential of alumni giving. We’re also making an effort to highlight the importance of referrals,” he said. For example, the seminary recently honored an alumnus who has influenced some thirty students to choose Asbury. “You can’t put a price tag on that kind of loyalty,” Dargan said.
If trustees at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, sound like doting parents when describing the giving record of alumni, they have good reason to brag. The generous loyalty of the seminary’s sons and daughters has earned the institution a perennial spot among the top ten theological schools for percent of alumni donors. Southwest’s board is grateful for the kudos that comes with a 56 percent participation rate, but trustees are even prouder of what alumni giving says about the seminary’s relationship with its graduates.
“Trustees understand that a strong giving program is evidence of a healthy, supportive relationship—and ongoing connection—between the seminary and its graduates,” director of development Nancy Springer-Baldwin said. “Gifts from alumni speak volumes about the school.”
The alumni program at ETSSW centers around an annual phonathon. Student volunteers dressed in matching T-shirts work the phones, while development staff do their part to maintain a festive mood. Light-hearted paraphrases of well-known hymns add spirit to lunchtime pep rallies, and a six-foot high Empire State Building complete with its own King Kong substitutes for the traditional thermometer in keeping track of gift totals. It seems that when spirits are high on the campus, alumni respond in kind.
“Giving goes up every year. We meet our goal every year,” Joseph Liro, annual fund director, stated. “Best of all, when student callers graduate, they become givers.”
“Seminary alumni are stewardship leaders in their communities. Their giving is a strong example to others who care about the school,” said Kathy Hansen, vice president for advancement at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. And that’s why the development team at Luther doesn’t just ask alumni for their gifts, the seminary’s fund-raising staff ask former students to consider how God is working in their lives and to give accordingly. “Our goal is to match the seminary’s mission with donor calling. If we’re successful as ‘matchmakers,’ our work should contribute to the ongoing stewardship education of graduates,” Hansen explained.
At Luther, the educating work of the development program begins well before graduation day. “Students who staff the annual phonathon tell us how important the experience is to their own understanding of stewardship,” Hansen said. She spoke with pride about the student leader of last year’s phonathon who, because of his conversations with donors, organized a stewardship emphasis program within the student body. “Boards should want to know about the stewardship education of students,” Hansen added.
Luther’s commitment to educating stewardship educators received a boost this past summer when recent graduates (one to five years out) had the opportunity to participate in a learning experience titled Stewardship 2000. The weekend-long event was underwritten by a couple whose pastor was instrumental to their understanding of Christian giving and who, in Hansen’s words, “want to raise up good stewardship pastors.” The seminar’s design encouraged discussion of topics such as living a stewardship lifestyle, handling personal finances, preaching on stewardship, and asking for leadership gifts. The goal of both Stewardship 2000 and the seminary’s development program was summed up in the parting words to participants by a member of the planning committee. “We anticipate that thousands will have lives renewed through your leadership. May the flame burn brightly in the churches through you.”
An Alumni “To Do” List for Boards
Although trustees are not responsible for the day-to-day details of a seminary’s outreach to its alumni, they can encourage the administrative team in their work with the sons and daughters of the institution. Here are some suggestions:
1. Get the facts about alumni giving.
Unless a board is armed with the facts, trustees are not likely to encourage attention to alumni relations. At a minimum, the staff should regularly run the numbers on alumni giving, identifying patterns and trends in the gifts received. It’s a good idea as well if boards are able to compare performance of the seminary’s fund-raising program with national data sources like the ATS Fact Book on Theological Education and the Council for Aid to Education’s annual Voluntary Support of Education report.
2. Set appropriately great expectations for alumni giving.
More often than not, theological schools have rather low expectations for alumni as donors. Yet as Thomas Skinner, executive vice president of Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, said, “Not every graduate could be described as a ‘poor pastor.’ Don’t underestimate your alumni.” This past year, 43 percent of Biblical’s alums made a gift to the seminary, including $100,000 to the alumni phonathon.
3. Listen to alumni donors.
Pay attention to and work with alumni who are committed to the school and who already are giving. Trustees can learn a lot about the seminary, the appropriateness of its programs, and the success of its ‘product’ by volunteering to make thank you calls to alumni donors.
Strong programs become even stronger when time is taken to involve happy grads in planning alumni programs and in shaping fund-raising appeals. United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, has hired twelve alumni as part-time fund-raisers. “There’s no one better to lead an alumnus back into ‘the fold’ than someone who loves the seminary enough to give and work its behalf,” suggested Tom Melzoni, vice president for advancement,
4. Celebrate alumni gifts.
When alumni step up to the plate with their gifts, a word of appreciation from the board can go a long way toward reinforcing the good behavior. That’s what trustees at Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest were about when they passed a resolution of appreciation for alumni support. The development staff had the resolution printed on parchment-like paper and distributed in a mailing to former students—a great pat on the back for a very loyal alumni base.