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Alumni Giving Starts with Students

Nelson BowmanNelson Bowman

Like many college administrators across the country, I am never quite sure what to expect with the beginning of each academic year.  I wonder if the new students will enjoy their first college experience, if the sophomores will come back to campus, if the juniors will get housing, and if the seniors are on schedule to graduate. In addition to these typical concerns, at Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU), we had one more concern this year as our Institutional Advancement division was launching a new program – a student giving campaign.

During the previous semester, students at PVAMU approved a referendum to increase their fees by $10 per semester in order to establish a permanent endowed scholarship. However, voting to add an additional fee to one’s account (a fee that is rarely paid much attention by most students) is somewhat different from asking students to give directly. In PV’s case, many students assume that the institution is completely state funded. While the university does receive some state funding, this state support only accounts for roughly 16 percent of the annual budget, leaving a significant difference to be generated. Our goal with the student giving initiative is to help students understand the need to give back while on campus such that their grasp of the concept of philanthropy will become second nature, especially following graduation.

When we introduced the idea of a student giving campaign to those on campus, some administrators questioned, asking “Is it proper to solicit students while they are in school, especially given that 95 percent of them are on some type of financial aid? Not to mention, they don’t have money, so shouldn’t we wait until they graduate?” From my perspective, it is imperative to involve students in the giving process while on campus, shaping their mindset around the importance of giving back. Research suggests that colleges and universities that consistently garner double-digit alumni giving rates are those that educate and involve students in various types of philanthropic exercises.

Just recently, during our Faculty and Staff Giving Campaign, we hosted a lunchtime kick-off party in the center of campus – complete with a mariachi band, popcorn, and ice cream. As the celebration was underway, I noticed a group of students huddled off to the right, sort of looking and listening to the grownups having a great time. After a few minutes, they walked over and asked, “Hey what’s going on here?” I explained that this was the launch party for the faculty and staff giving campaign and welcomed them to join in the celebration.

At that point, the students collectively said, “Can we help out and can we give?” I mentioned that maybe a better use of their support might be toward the student giving campaign as it is geared toward supporting their needs. They replied, “We’ve already done that and are in the process of encouraging our fellow classmates and friends to do so as well. In fact, we think the 15 percent participation goal the university set is somewhat low as we feel many more students will engage now that they are being asked.”

As we rolled out the student campaign, we did so in phases starting with the incoming Class of 2016. The idea of starting with freshmen is based on using this year and the next three years to educate and engage students in a variety of philanthropic practices. To date, 60 percent of the freshmen have made gifts ranging in amounts of fifty-cents to five dollars. We feel the early success is based in part on the competition we created among the freshman residence halls. With the promise of a private pizza party and customized tee shirts for each member of the winning residence hall, the battle was on. We also involved the Community Advisors (CAs) of each unit as they typically have the most interaction with the freshmen especially during non-class time.

The next phase, which started before the semester ended, is the organizational competition in which fraternities, sororities and other cultural and social organizations battled for the number one spot. Just like with the freshman, we discovered that competition is a great way of galvanizing young people toward a particular cause. In the words of a Psychology Club member, “there’s no way we’re going to let the Engineering Club beat us.”  Once the spring semester begins, we will launch the sophomore, junior and senior phase of the campaign as each class has indicated an eagerness to claim bragging rights in 2013.

In addition to the direct and obvious impact of introducing philanthropy to students, there are additional side effects that have manifested. For instance, just this past week, as the semester was winding down, one of our student phon-a-thon callers brought the entire development staff fresh baked cinnamon rolls. In her words, “I’ve learned so much about giving from you all, that I can’t wait to graduate and give back. In the mean time, I hope you enjoy these treats as my way of giving back for now.”

Initially, I wondered if these giving examples represented some new strand of student. However, I soon realized that the potential has probably always been there but we’ve only viewed them as students, overlooking their innate passion and willingness to engage. There is an old saying: Give a person a fish and feed them for a day. Teach that person to fish and feed them for a lifetime. Our teaching students to give now will hopefully create alumni givers for life…giving really does begins at home or in this case, on campus.

Nelson Bowman is the Executive Director of Development for Prairie View A&M University.

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