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The MIT 10: Trends in Student Philanthropy

This article was first published December 4, 2013.

Rosheen Kavanagh and Katha Washburn share their strategies for building a donor loyalty pipeline for the future.

Interview Transcript

Cynthia Woolbright: So let’s start with the recent history of these programs: why you started them; how you developed your volunteer base; what sort of outcomes you’ve had and how long the programs have been established.

Katha Brooks Washburn: For MIT, this is a strategy to engage young alumni for the purpose of the future; building a donor loyalty pipeline for the future; we’re trying to basically change a culture that expects and inspires giving annually. And that is what all of these programs are born from. So we’re not unique in having a young alumni program. We’re not unique in having a Senior Gift program. I think what we are unique in is this 14 year strategy to build from freshman through the senior experience, and then pulling them into giving back when they’re not at school; giving back when they’re away from this place; when it’s getting to be further and further from their mind.

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: We’ve had campaigns around young alumni in the past, but our annual volunteer outreach program and our use of challenges with MIT10 started in fiscal year 2007. The year before that we revamped our Senior Gift Campaign: changed up our strategy; changed our approach and our use of volunteers. So 2006 was really the starting point for Senior Gift as it is now. It has a very long history at MIT; much of which was not very strong. And so when we think of Senior Gift as it is now at MIT, we think of it as starting in FY ’06.

And then the Underclassmen Giving Campaign is a campaign that we launched here at MIT in fiscal year ’07 after our success of the Senior Gift in ’06. That’s a campaign targeted at freshmen, sophomores and juniors. All of these campaigns utilize volunteers as our solicitors. Our student campaigns depend on them. They are the source of 90% of the gifts that come in. And the MIT10 effort uses volunteers in terms of, bringing friends in, soliciting at events. They solicit people on their own time via phone and email.

Katha and I have had a strong partnership in that we’ve been able to work together to make sure that the volunteer initiative and the marketing and the messaging are all intertwined so that we are working on a cohesive plan to reach out to our students or our young alumni to encourage participation at all levels and to educate—as Katha said earlier—around the importance of annual giving. And that has led to some strong success in these campaigns over, the last seven years.

Cynthia Woolbright: Well, I would assume that as the more engaged they become, the more they want to continue to do what they’re doing and that fills that commitment for them as well.

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: It is challenging, though. This is very different than the activity in our alumni population. A quarter of the population for student philanthropy leaves every year; a quarter is brand new. So we’re constantly dropping and adding a class…so we’re always in that process of educating and adapting to make sure that they understand.

Cynthia Woolbright: So what would you say, then, Rosheen are some of the challenges and successes that you’ve experienced?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: Well, working with students or young alumni, you find that time is very limited. Being able to catch their attention and get them to focus on this type of work when they have so many directions they’re being pulled in makes the ability to recruit volunteers and to get them actively soliciting a challenge. I think that what we focus on, instead of having huge numbers of volunteers, is getting the right volunteers and that’s been a successful approach for us. So instead of, saying let’s get 100 Senior Gift volunteers, we’ve found students who think that this work is important and who are really genuinely interested in it, we’re going to perform much better for our audience. The same is true for MIT10. You know, we’ll have maybe an average of 10 and sometimes 15 volunteers per class, but those volunteers are people who are really interested in fundraising for MIT and have bought-in to the need for alumni support and the need for annual participation.

We’ve certainly had ups and downs through the years. When we first launched our Underclassmen Giving Campaign we didn’t have a model to look at from other schools so a lot of it was guessing. And we felt that our first year was successful because we had 21% participation from freshmen, sophomores and juniors. But that was not where we expected to be, and luckily we’ve had growth. We’ve been able to change the program and adapt to our population and what they would be interested in.

And with Senior Gift we’ve had challenges with things happening on campus. Students are very sensitive to changes on campus and that affects their giving. We’ve had cutbacks at MIT to our athletic programs. We’ve had controversies on campus around housing issues, and that affects our Senior Gift Campaign. And so what we have to do is change on the spot; we have to prepare messaging to handle those issues. We have to do training that is very selectable to be able to answer concerns around that.

We overcome challenges by being flexible in our approach to these campaigns and knowing that sometimes we’re going to have to change midstream and we always have to communicate with our volunteers to make sure that they’re well informed and that they’re prepared because they’re such an asset to our success.

Cynthia Woolbright: How do you go about identifying the potential of those students being interested?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: Yes, well we actually partner with a couple of different groups. So first of all, our call center is a great source of volunteers. At MIT they’re called the Tech Callers. They tend to be students who are comfortable with asking for money. They also understand the need for giving at MIT. They’re a great source of volunteers for the Underclassmen Giving Campaign in particular because they span class years; freshman, sophomore, junior year. And they understand the case for giving and have benefitted from alumni support since they have to maintain a job while they’re on campus.

We also partner very closely with class councils; class presidents. We’ll coordinate with them before our campaigns launch to try and get some members of the leadership onto our committees and to coordinate events during the year. So we always have email solicitations going out from the class presidents because they’re such an important voice on the campus. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but what I’ve found is that the more buy-in that we have from the class leadership, the more likely we are to have success in our campaigns.

And with the Underclassmen Giving Campaign we partner with the Public Service Center at MIT. This year in particular we’ve been very successful getting their volunteers to be part of the Underclassmen Giving Campaign.

Cynthia Woolbright: Good, so that network is very important. And do you find that many of those who’ve done this as undergraduates continue in their role with MIT10?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: Yes, that’s really one of the biggest benefits. They tend to be the strongest volunteers. So the strongest volunteers tend to want to stay on. We certainly don’t move 100% of our volunteers from the Underclassmen Giving Campaign to Senior Gift, to MIT10, but we have a strong pipeline of core volunteers that move on annually. So we have volunteers who have worked with our classes, at our Senior Gift Campaign since ’06. Those Senior Gift volunteers are co chairs of their ’06 class gift committee for MIT10. So there is a history of being able to move those volunteers on.

Cynthia Woolbright: So Katha, you bring the marketing experience and expertise to the table. How did you develop the image, the brand and what were some of the things that you found challenging in your part of this program?

Katha Brooks Washburn: The challenges with these young audiences are really attitudinal; they can be volatile; they can respond to something that’s happening on campus or they can respond to something that’s happening off campus when they’re in the MIT10 population. There’s nothing I can do to prepare for someone’s sudden negative feelings towards the school.

Rosheen talked about flexibility. There is not the same kind of flexibility in setting expectations in marketing. We have to pick a goal that is a smart goal and stick with it, and you have to keep the messaging simple.

We of course have to work with the class to infuse personality into it. No matter what age stage you’re working with you need to capture the right personality. If you’re going to ask them to see themselves in this, then you need to get it right.

Cynthia Woolbright: Can you give me a quick synopsis of the results of these programs?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: The Underclassmen Giving Campaign is targeted at freshmen, sophomores, juniors. Our first year we started off with 21%. Every year until FY ’12 we actually grew. We got up to 50% in that campaign. We had a slight dip in FY ’12, but we were able to make that back up this year and we got up to 47% participation. We’ve been able to adjust our strategy in order to, improve the campaign.

And for Senior Gift it’s very different in terms of the numbers. So Senior Gift is obviously just focused on the graduating senior class. When we launched the revamped campaign in FY ’06 the prior year was at 27% participation. It had always been very, very low historically from the ‘80s when we have documentation on Senior Gift results. So in ’06 we set a 50% goal. We exceeded that with 51% and every single year since then we’ve been able to increase participation, where this year we got just over 83% participation.

So we’ve been really fortunate. And again, I think a lot of it has to do with adjusting strategy. Every year since ’06 we’ve set a new MIT record for participation. An average gift in there ranges between $20 to $25; depending on the year. This past year it was just over $25.

Katha’s going to talk about MIT10.

Katha Brooks Washburn: So in FY ’07 the first challenge that we issued had very strong success. I believe it was 32%. Our goal was 30 and we succeeded it pretty handsomely and got a little bit too excited about how we might be able to just ratchet this thing up to 100%; a little too excited about that and set a goal too high the following year. But still, even though we didn’t meet the goal that we had set, still the campaign and the strategy brought in participation north of this low bar that we had become accustomed to.

So this year we’ve just successfully done another challenge. It was a challenging year, for sure. But we did achieve 31% participation. And again, looking back at the history, we haven’t had a challenge every single year. Three out of seven years have had a challenge and those are the strongest performers.

Cynthia Woolbright: It sounds like you’ve had enormous success. So what are some of the organizational challenges that you may have faced in undertaking these programs and how did you resolve those?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: Any time you try and grow programs you don’t really know what’s going to happen. Staff time bandwidth has always been a challenge. The first years of Senior Gift revamps and Underclassmen Giving Campaign, I was the only staff member managing those campaigns and I had a whole other portion of my job with the phone program. So we had very limited staff; or I just put in a lot of hours.

So now we have a staff member dedicated to managing the volunteers for student philanthropy 100%. We have a staff member working with just the MIT10 classes on the volunteer effort and event management for the annual fund. And Katha and I overseeing these programs, in terms of the larger planning effort.

So that has been really helpful and that has happened because we’ve had support from MIT; the financial support to have the right staffing. We had support from MIT’s president. Susan Hockfield was a big advocate for Senior Gift and she was really disappointed that MIT used to do so poorly and was really excited when we started doing well and talked about it constantly. And I think that that was really instrumental in being able to place Senior Gift and MIT10 on the map because this is important to MIT. These programs don’t tend to need that big a budget. You can make a little go a long way with these audiences. But you cannot create more time in the day, so staffing has been really important.

Finding strong partners on campus has been really valuable. We have annual challenges with student philanthropy campaigns and now with MIT10 and being able to identify alumni challengers who will be able to put up, you know, either 10, 20, $50,000 for these campaigns is really important. We have a limited number of people that we can ask for these challenges and they happen every single year. So being able to show this is a really valuable campaign has allowed us to be able to get more and more alumni who will volunteer to be a challenger because they want to be associated with the campaign.

Cynthia Woolbright: So for our readers and those who listen, we wanted to ask you, about what you think are the three most important considerations for colleagues who they want to institute such programs?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: From my perspective depending on what your staffing bandwidth is, not doing everything all at once. We didn’t launch the Underclassmen Giving Campaign in the year that we revamped Senior Gift. Find out where your priority is and work with that group first. Because if we failed in either of those zones, it was going to be a lot harder for us to get those staffing resources that we needed or cooperation from colleagues around campus. So, yes, prioritize what you want to focus on and go with that instead of trying to take everything on at once.

Katha Brooks Washburn:I would be wary of your own success. You can’t ratchet up like that every single time. Your audience will respond to something special. Timing, pacing and what the purpose or the goal of the thing is is so important..

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: We have to look at who our audience is and the volunteer training has to change. The volunteer recruitment has to change. The marketing has to change. We have to look at and really understand our audience before we set these goals, expectations; before we talk to them. And so you have to be, where your bandwidth allows, you have to be willing to change and adjust. Now as Katha said earlier, it doesn’t mean you get a new marketing campaign every year. But you may look at a class and know that this class has a mixed history with giving. So we’re going to have to really focus our volunteers in on that participation element. We’re going to have to build up our activity to make sure that we’re reaching out to the diverse audience. We’re going to have to recruit a different crowd. And you just need to know that there’s not a foolproof formula.

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: I think a lot of people want to know what do you do to have success with student philanthropy and with young alumni. And there really isn’t an absolute formula. It is getting at knowing your audience and being flexible in order to respond to what’s going to entice them to donate. And it’s not what’s going on with you. It’s about what’s going on with them.

Katha Brooks Washburn: You have to adjust to where we are; what the attitude of the class is or the attitude of the audience is. So every single year we sit down and think about where are we now, where is this audience with this concept are we going to ask them to show up, you know, to match the year before and things like that? So there’s no formula here. That’s one of the reasons why staff time is so important.

Cynthia Woolbright: The really important thing, then, is that you have to really know your audience.

Katha Brooks Washburn: Um-hum [affirmative].

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: Especially Senior Gift. Senior Gift is going to be a different class every year. Our class of 2012 was dramatically different than our class of 2013. Very different class personalities. Very different volunteer base. You know, we just didn’t have the same group of people to work with so we had to really change our approach. And I think that is important.

Cynthia Woolbright: What are you doing within the undergraduate students who are serving this program to continue them upon graduation?

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: In terms of volunteer engagement specifically there is a very deliberate strategy to recruit the volunteers that we would like to stay engaged after graduation. And as you mentioned, we don’t get all of them, but we have a volunteer structure with MIT10 where each class has a class chair or co-chair. And so finding the right person to serve in that position is going to help us bring on the people who were engaged as seniors or through the underclassmen giving campaign as well. So sometimes we continue the Senior Gift chair over into the chair position for their young alum class. Sometimes we don’t. It really depends on the individual. But we certainly approach our volunteers; ask them to continue on.

We keep very similar expectations around training and participation. Obviously it’s a different program because it’s a lot more face to face with seniors, but what we do is we build a training program so that it makes sense to them. We use a lot of the same tools. We have an online volunteer prospect management tool and we start using that tool freshman year with the Underclassmen Giving Campaign. They start understanding that process freshman year instead of learning it at the first reunion. So we have very similar tools and expectations around training in terms of best practices. We also get the staff member who works with our young alumni audience get to know the senior class volunteers so that that transition is really helpful. That staff member is not going to get to meet every single volunteer in person, but There is a concerted effort to introduce the Senior Gift volunteers to that MIT10 volunteer manager while they’re on campus.

Katha Brooks Washburn: Basically the connectivity between these programs is that they’re all focused on participation around a purpose and the goal will result in something good at MIT. So the arc of that idea is repeated. The underclassmen are galvanizing together and the same is true for the Senior Gift program. They have a purpose.

From the marketing perspective, we’ve identified the first year out in the MIT10 as being the chief bridge for us to build MIT10 challenges as a tradition. That’s a chief hope for marketing in FY ’14 moving forward. Inviting the new kids to the block and establishing this idea as a tradition is my chief challenge moving forward.

Cynthia Woolbright: So as we wrap up today if you could each share briefly some of the key lessons that you’ve learned and what advice you might give as readers and listeners think about establishing a program such as yours.

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh: I think first and foremost it’s getting the right people involved. Whether it’s the right staff or the right volunteers, really think about who is going to be leading these campaigns. That’s really important because as staff members we don’t have that power to connect with people one on one. And your volunteers are really going to help set the tone for these campaigns.

So getting the right people involved and setting smart goals. This year for MIT10 we set a 30% goal. We weren’t trying to break an MIT10 record. We were trying to do really well. And we exceeded that and it was a great feeling. If we had set a 35% goal I’m not sure we would have gotten there. Instead we’re celebrating because we did so well because we set the right goal. So it’s got to be aspirational but also attainable.

Katha Brooks Washburn: Yes. Keeping it simple is really chief. Because marketing ends up having to be brief. It needs to be able to shout out what it is quickly and understandably and move on. And you can have these volunteers talk about things in a richer fashion, but they have more time than marketing does in capturing people’s attention.

Cynthia Woolbright: Well, this has been very, very helpful. I thank you very much for your time.

Rosheen Blythe Kavanagh

Director, Class and Affinity Giving MIT Annual Fund

Rosheen has spent her ten years of higher education fundraising focused on participation efforts working with students and young alumni and annual fund volunteers. Currently overseeing volunteer fundraising initiatives starting freshman year and running beyond the 50th reunion, Rosheen also has experience been responsible for the management of MIT's phonathon program. Rosheen’s primary focus in her time at MIT has been building a culture of giving among all MIT students. Due to her efforts recruiting and managing successful  volunteers and developing an integrated marketing campaign, MIT’s Senior Gift participation has grown steadily from 27% to 80% in her time managing the campaign.

Katha Brooks Washburn

Creative Design Director MIT Annual Fund (position held at time of first publication)

Trained as a creative thinker and with over ten years of non-profit marketing experience, Katha has been solving creative marketing challenges for MIT for the last six years. She is a strategic partner in mapping out successful program structures before ever cracking the creative whip. Katha is skilled at developing integrated marketing campaigns that persuade and deliver results.

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