By Maegan Clearwood
Involvement in the Washington College community should not stop after graduation. Recent, increased efforts to encourage philanthropy among alumni are starting to make a difference.
The Washington Fund, WC’s official annual giving fund, is a way for alumni to give back to the WC community through monetary donations. It is primarily used toward financial aid packages and scholarships, making it an integral part of the movement to increase alumni giving.
As of last year, the alumni participation rate was 19 percent. According to Director of Development Mark Gadson, this is a respectable figure compared to the average rate of around 20 to 22 percent.
“While people see that number and they’re alarmed, it’s not that far off the national average,” Gadson said. “We’re improving. The bottom line that we’re happy to say is we’re all working together to make sure we touch people, because it’s not about asking for money. It’s about having relationships with people.”
There are many factors that go into consideration when measuring alumni philanthropy. According to Gadson, over 50 percent of WC’s solicitable donors have graduated since 1990, so the alumni committee is especially focusing on educating younger alumni and students about the importance of philanthropy.
“Over the years, as they become more successful, you’ll hope that [alumni will] still feel good about the college, engagement, staying in touch, and reunions, all those kinds of activities, so you’re hoping that you’re upgrading numbers,” Gadson said. “What our whole mission in life is, is we’ve got to fully bring student up to speed on the importance of philanthropy when they’re students here. We’ve got to work really hard, so that once they leave on graduation day, it becomes a habit.”
The Washington Fund is a major step in the right direction for the alumni committee, but it is only one of many recent developments. The new alumni board, creation of 10 alumni committees, and recent renovation of the alumni house, are all working toward increased alumni participation.
“The work we’ve been doing the last three years is going to start paying off this year, next year, and in future years,” said Assistant Vice President for Alumni Relations Lorraine Polvinale.“We feel very confident with the new alumni board. We’ve got 10 committees and over 230 volunteers which we’ve never had before, so these people are feeling engaged, they care for the college, and they’re going to network.”
The alumni board is certainly confident in how enthused WC graduates are about the campus. According to Polvinale, a consultant came to WC in 2006 to determine why giving rates are at their current point. He surveyed alumni, and found that “the alumni are extremely loyal to this college. They love the college…So it’s ‘why aren’t they necessarily supporting us?’”
Polvinale thinks that a lack of awareness about the importance of philanthropy is at the heart of this problem.
“[The alumni have] kind of lost touch with what’s going on at the college,” Polvinale said. The recent efforts to reach out to alumni are, however, starting to make a difference.
“They’re going ‘wow, look at the school. Campus looks gorgeous, we’ve got this young, dynamic president who wants to take the college to new heights,’ and they’re going to want to give, so we feel confident that the numbers will go up. We’ve got the alumni reengaged, educated about the college, and educated about philanthropy,” she said.
The alumni board is not only reaching out to WC graduates; educating current students about philanthropy is a major priority as well.
Last year was the first year that we jumped in to help the seniors in a big way,” Gadson said. “It was tremendous. The participation rate was high. That participation is important. What we’re doing is we’re right now putting a strategic plan together where we will be soliciting students in a very segmented fashion, so you’ll see this year that there will be messaging coming out to students.”
There are plans to inform students about philanthropy as early as freshmen orientation, and the newly formed parents’ council will also educate current students. This strategy to inform the younger WC population is not, however, without its challenges.
“It’s hard, because you guys are spending a lot of money to come here,” Polvinale said. “It’s almost a mixed message to say, ‘ it costs so much, now you want me to give?’ You just have to take that emotional factor out of it and say, but tuition doesn’t cover everything, so you need the support of alumni, and even a five dollar gift makes a difference.”
Although increasing alumni participation has its challenges, the numbers are rising, and Gadson is confident that the next few years will show the result of the committee’s efforts.
“Our big strategy is to increase our participation, and it’s going to take time,” he said. “We can’t just concentrate on the high dollar. We’ve got to make sure we’re instilling philanthropy in our students while they’re still students. And it doesn’t matter how much they give, just that