Foundations of Consequence: Student-Focused Philanthropy

How Advancement Programs are Supporting Equitable Student Success

By David Bass    //    Volume 30,  Number 3   //    May/June 2022

An important strategic question resonated among the representatives of public college and university foundations at the 2022 AGB Foundation Leadership Forum: “How can foundation boards support equitable student success?” Private college and university governing boards might ask a similar question about the degree to which their advancement programs are focused on student well-being, completion, and career outcomes.

For decades the standard answer to the question has been simple: scholarships. Scholarships present a compelling philanthropic proposition for donors and institutions alike. For economically disadvantaged students, a scholarship can be the key that unlocks the door to higher education. For institutional administrators, a bank of scholarship funds can mitigate, to some degree, the exclusionary impact of tuition increases and enable administrators to compose more-diverse classes. Corporate donors use scholarships as part of their efforts to grow the pipeline of employee prospects with needed qualifications. Showcased in stewardship events and communications, the impact of scholarships can be dramatized in stories of doors opened and lives transformed.

The value of scholarships is undeniable, but scholarships alone are not a guarantee of student success. Scholarships open the doors to a college education but enabling students to complete degrees and succeed in their chosen careers requires a diverse mix of services and resources that will vary from campus to campus and student to student. Food and housing insecurity, child and family care, employment demands, mental health issues, and challenges posed by unfamiliar or exclusive campus cultures and communities all can derail students. Even with a degree in hand, students may be ill-equipped to navigate job markets and succeed in professional environments.

Fundamental Challenges

The pervasiveness of challenges associated with fulfillment of basic needs provides daunting evidence of the hurdles students may face after tuition and fees are paid. Since 2005 the #RealCollege Survey has assembled data on food and housing security from more than 550,00 students at 530 colleges and universities. In 2020 three out of 5 students (58 percent) reported experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness in the last year. Community-college students were more likely to struggle to meet basic needs than those at four-year institutions (61 percent compared to 53 percent). Students of color, LGBTQ students, women, first-generation students, Pell Grant recipients, and part-time students were all more likely to experience insecurity in meeting basic needs. Not surprisingly, such circumstances have a significant impact on student persistence. As one example, a study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that students from food-insecure households were 43 percent less likely to graduate from college compared to non-food-insecure students.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated basic-needs insecurity on campuses and compounded it with new mental health challenges: In 2020, 39 percent of students responding to the Healthy Minds Study (a collaborative research initiative collecting data from over half a million students at over 400 colleges and universities) reported experiencing depression, 21 percent experienced major depression, and 34 percent reported anxiety disorders. Sixty percent of undergraduates said they had trouble accessing mental health care. The pandemic also cast light on other impediments to student success, including limited internet access, childcare demands, and the need of some students to provide financial support for their families.

Following are some examples from five very different college and university foundations of ways they have adapted their fundraising and advancement work to help eliminate barriers to student success. While these stories are drawn from public institutions, the models also are applicable for boards and advancement teams at private colleges and universities.

When planning its first day-of-giving campaign in 2019, the Kansas State University Foundation elected to focus on raising funds for a single purpose rather than asking for unrestricted funds or allowing donors to direct them to any department or program of their choosing. The first annual “All in for K-State” day focused on food insecurity on campus. Beyond the initial funds raised, the initiative, described in an AGB Blog post (March 18, 2022), attracted the interest of major donors and resulted in sustained growth in giving to support K State’s food pantry and associated services. Subsequent giving days have addressed other factors undermining student success and well-being and on which philanthropic support could have a meaningful impact. One of the lessons coming out of K State’s giving days is that by taking an inclusive approach to understanding student needs and championing those issues as the focus of broad-based fundraising initiatives, boards and advancement teams can create “new” philanthropic opportunities of interest to both established supporters and new prospective donors.

The Oregon State University Foundation, like many other institutions in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, pivoted its fundraising to focus on serious financial and personal challenges facing students, faculty, and staff. Building upon the organization’s prior successes with giving days and an initiative focused on addressing student food insecurity, the foundation launched the “Beavers Care” campaign, which was an all-hands-on-board initiative that engaged foundation staff of all advancement disciplines in close partnership with the university’s president. and provost. OSU Foundation President and CEO Shawn Scoville said that the campaign, which raised more than $1.3 million from more 3,400 donors in just four months, taught the foundation the “power of cause-focused fundraising initiatives” not just to raise funds and communicate what the university is doing, but also to identify donors’ interests. This initiative also demonstrated the value of volunteer leadership; a foundation trustee served as the volunteer lead for the effort, making calls to current and former trustees, lending her voice to email and direct mail appeals, and making a challenge gift in coordination with several other volunteer leaders.

Since then, the OSU foundation has adapted the cause-based framework in a comprehensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) fundraising campaign. The foundation worked proactively with key university partners, including student-affairs and enrollment-management personnel, the office of institutional diversity, and other university leaders, to create and promote giving opportunities to support DEI efforts. The foundation created a menu of philanthropic opportunities that support DEI-related priorities within colleges and university-wide. These opportunities included student access and success, faculty and staff recruitment and retention, and fostering a university-wide culture of belonging. This campaign in turn provided a model for initiatives to raise support for veterans and military-connected students and has served as a launch pad for major and leadership gifts that advance DEI.

The Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) Foundation was awarded one of AGB’s 2022 John W. Nason Awards for Board Leadership for its work in merging and diversifying the foundation and alumni-association boards, empowering the new board to serve students, and measuring the impact of the board’s work in support of student success. Prior to restructuring, the CCRI Foundation’s board of trustees and the alumni association operated as separated entities that didn’t coordinate and didn’t reflect the diversity of the college’s students, 40 percent of whom are persons of color and half of whom are low income.

The newly constituted foundation board, supported by a new Alumni Association Assembly, began by asking “where do we need to focus to meaningfully improve how we serve our black, indigenous, and/or students of color and low-income students?” They looked to institutional data for the answer. The college’s primary “Promise” scholarship program was effective in creating opportunities for first- time, full-time students, but two-thirds of CCRI’s students are part-time and ineligible for Promise awards. The board focused its efforts on raising money for three new initiatives: 1) create support for prior students who didn’t complete degrees and want tore-enroll; 2) a “Last Mile” scholarship supporting students’ conversion from part-time to full-time attendance; and 3) an emergency relief fund to assist students with basic needs and technology. This recalibration of the foundation’s fundraising is having a significant impact on degree-completion rates.

College leaders believe the new board’s diversity, including student and young alumni representation, has been central to its work, deepening engagement with the student experience and promoting resilience within the CCRI community. In addition to their work raising funds focused on supporting persistence, board members have been actively engaged in the development and work of new mentoring, coaching, internship, and workforce partnerships to help graduates transition to successful careers.

Florida International University (FIU) serves a diverse community of 57,000 students, of whom 64 percent are Hispanic, 12 percent are black, and 5 percent are Asian, Pacific Islander, or other minorities. Howard Lipman, senior vice president for university advancement and CEO of the FIU Foundation observed, “when you work in a large public institution you don’t know what you don’t know” about your students. Advancement leaders, he added, “need to work with the president and provost to make it a priority to really understand the challenges confronting students on the path to graduation.” Florida’s performance-based incentive-funding metrics encouraged the institution’s leaders to ask hard questions about diversity and inclusivity and to become more intentional and data driven in their approaches to understanding the factors underlying differences in student outcomes. Understanding the 57,000 “different stories and challenges” of their students became a priority of the university’s advising program. The foundation now works closely with academic leaders of each college within the university to identify what services and support their students need and how they can best close the success gaps and translate students’ personal stories into 57,000 opportunities for philanthropic investment. For one college, for example, that meant transportation funding rather than scholarship money.

Intentionality regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion is a hallmark of the foundation’s commitment to supporting equitable student success. The foundation created a new Office of Inclusive Philanthropy (FOIP) led by Maia McGill that works to align the foundation’s advancement efforts with the university’s equity and inclusion initiatives. This entails not only identifying and eradicating barriers to success for diverse students, but also working toward systemic change at the institutional level, to support areas of need identified by the university in its Equity Action Initiative and diversifying the university’s donor base by seeking out more philanthropists of color who are interested in investing in the university. McGill poses a question that could usefully be asked by all fundraising and alumni boards: “How do we strive to make sure our programs are equitable and accessible and how do we engage donors in conversations that go beyond scholarships?”

Principles for Student-Focused Fundraising

1. Data are critical in identifying impediments to student success and validating the effectiveness of specific strategies/interventions.

2. Data alone tell only part of the story. Boards and advancement leaders need to engage directly with students, young alumni, faculty, and administrators to fully understand the impediments to student success and to develop solutions.

3. Board composition, priorities, and structure should reflect and advance a commitment to inclusive, equitable student success.

4. Scholarships covering tuition and fees are critical but only part of the solution. Services and financial support closely tailored to the specific needs and challenges of students are also needed to enable degree completion and successful career outcomes.

5. In addition to student-focused development efforts, advancement teams and senior volunteers can enhance student success by engaging volunteers in programs supporting students’ experiential learning opportunities, career readiness, and acquisition of professional capital, networking, and career mentoring.

At first glance, student success does not seem to be a problem at William & Mary (W&M). The “public ivy” is ranked among the top 10 public institutions by both Forbes and U.S. News and boasts a graduation rate of 91 percent. With just over 6,500 undergraduates and high faculty-to-student ratios, the faculty’s advising system can identify and address challenges that might go unnoticed at larger institutions. Equitable student success, however, is still a guiding objective of the William & Mary Foundation Board and advancement team. Career success is one of the cornerstone initiatives of the university’s strategic plan, including the goal of mobilizing “W&M’s worldwide network of alumni, employer and parent partners to broaden learning experiences and career pathways for graduates and support a lifetime of professional success.” To this end, W&M restructured its administration so that the office of career development and professional engagement is now part of the university’s department of advancement. University advancement, led by Matthew Lambert, is working to ensure that scholarships are complemented with support for other student needs, including food, travel, internships, and experiential learning.

Kathleen Powell, chief career officer, stresses that ensuring access to experiential learning, and paid internships in particular, is critical to supporting equitable student success, noting that 80 percent of employers offer qualified interns a full-time position and 65 percent of eligible interns accept those offers. Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers suggests that women, first-generation students, and minorities are less likely to have access to funded internships and networking opportunities. Rather than focusing on placement after graduation, the university now helps students build career paths and professional networks from their first days on campus. This includes enabling experiential learning, providing networking and mentoring platforms, supporting faculty mentoring, and building relationships between student groups representing diverse types of students (military and veterans, LGBTQ, LatinX, Black African, Asian Pacific Islander, Middle Eastern) and alumni affinity and inclusion groups.

At some level, the idea of focusing advancement efforts to support equitable student success and ensure that fundraising and alumni relations work to make institutional cultures more inclusive and reflective of the communities they serve is common sense. The ideal of inclusive student success is, after all, at the core of almost all college and university visions. Traditional approaches to developing fundraising priorities, often a compilation of wish lists from academic leaders and big-ticket naming opportunities, can distract from that core objective. As the examples described above suggest, board leadership, informed by the perspectives of students, alumni, administrators, and faculty with first-hand experience of the challenges faced by students, can help to ensure that advancement programs help to close achievement, as well as budgetary, gaps.

David Bass is the executive director for philanthropic governance at AGB.

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