How one community college is trying to win at fundraising: A NYT case study

Two-year institutions face a range of unique challenges

In a profile of LaGuardia Community College (LCC) in the New York Times, Gina Bellafante explores the unique challenges community colleges face in fundraising compared with their four-year cousins.

Two-thirds of LCC students come from families that earn $25,000 a year or less. Many of the college's 50,000 students are mothers, recent immigrants, or products of struggling school systems. In that way, LCC is similar to other community colleges, which educate 45% of the country's undergraduate students.

Yet, despite their core function in America's higher education system, community colleges bring home a paltry sum in fundraising compared with many of the nation's four-year institutions. Last winter, LCC received its largest donation from a single donor ever at the time—$100,000—from the wife of an alumnus.

For comparison, Bellafante looks at Duke University. According to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, Duke currently enrolls 15,467 students, and 6,646 of those at the undergraduate level. That's roughly three-quarters of LCC's population—less if comparing only at the undergraduate level.

However, since last winter, Duke has received pledges for a $1 million donation approximately every six weeks. Yet, even Duke's endowment of close to $6 billion in 2012 is too small to place it in the top-10 largest endowments nationally.

A unique challenge

LCC president Gail Mellow is realistic about the fundraising challenges facing community colleges. "Because of who we are and who we serve, the likelihood of one of our students becoming Bill Gates or the CEO of G.E. is, I’m not going to say zero, but much, much smaller than if you were at Williams [College]" she says.

That is not to say LCC hasn't made strides to gain more donor support. While its graduates are not capable of providing the type of financial support more prestigious institutions receive, the school has worked hard to find ways to connect with donors that had not considered supporting a community college.

Part of that process is clearly communicating the college's mission, says Lisa Selz, one of the school's major donors. "When I talk about community college to my friends, I see a blank look on their faces," she says. "It is so removed from the experience of so many people who don’t see that success can mean becoming a physician’s assistant."

Community colleges typically do not have the resources to provide donor recognition through things like naming new facilities. So, Selz argues, it is crucial for donors to understand what the school does—simply giving has "no social cachet."

Gifts are usually spent quickly to meet student's immediate needs, so LCC has an endowment of $3.37 million.

Foundation fundraising strategies at two-year institutions

Tuition is often covered through financial aid from the federal government and other sources, but students must also contend with the $7,000 to $12,000 annually it takes to live in New York City. Susan Lyddon, LCC’s development and marketing director, says "It is very typical for kids to walk in and say that they’re going to drop out of school because they can’t afford a MetroCard."

Connecting with donors

Part of LCC's challenge is logistical. With so many students often attending for a short time, or transferring to other programs, building a database of potential donors is extremely difficult.

Even so, Mellow directed her small staff to try to connect with well-positioned alumni and has enjoyed some success. One such contact was Mark Healy, chairman of the American Stock Transfer & Trust Company, who left LCC in 1983 for a four-year school.

He was shocked the school was only asking for $10,000 for the highest level of sponsorship at its annual gala. "I thought, ‘What? We really have to put some gas on this thing,'" he says. He has since joined the school's board and helped ramp up the school's fundraising efforts.

Other fundraising progress has been made almost by accident. Selz was introduced to the college when she received a non-fundraising email from Mellow in error. Selz and her husband, who run a philanthropic foundation, took an interest in the students at LCC. This year the couple gave $1 million to the school, contingent on $500,000 in additional fundraising by the school—which it was able to do.

Selz has also helped connect LCC with a broader network of wealthy local donors who have been enlisted to support the school in other ways.  One program is called the "Pushy Moms Club," which connects older, wealthy parents—whose adult children now require less attention—and young students at LCC in need of guidance. One so-called "pushy mom" is Joyce Siegel, who met with an LCC student looking to join a pre-med program after her associate's degree.

It is an unconventional approach, but the school says it gets more people engaged with the school's mission and provides valuable resources to students.

What would Mellow do if she had more resources? Hire great teachers for one, and focus on what works. But the list of unmet needs is long. "I’d want to stabilize the students’ home lives. I’d want to make sure they had child care, that they knew how to pay the rent, that they weren’t working 80 hours a week and going to school," she says (Bellafante, New York Times, 11/14).

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