Encouraging Student Philanthropy Through Class-Based Competition
When is the best time to begin teaching students about philanthropy? Not surprisingly, this is a debated question. Some advancement professionals feel that it’s important to give students a chance to get acclimated for a few years first—holding off on talking about the subject until senior year. Others address the topic the minute students set foot on campus—pointing out buildings bearing the names of donors during campus tours or espousing the tradition of alumni support during matriculation speeches.
Agnes Scott College in Georgia doesn’t wait long to involve students in philanthropy—they get them started in their freshman year. Agnes Scott is a women’s college; so, in lieu of a fall football homecoming event, they celebrate Black Cat Week. Throughout the week, various competitions take place among all four classes. Points are awarded for winning field events, creating campus decorations, and giving to the annual fund.
The Black Cat Week tradition began in 1915 as a “contest of wits” between first-year students and sophomores, as a substitute for freshman hazing and named in honor of a favorite professor’s pet. Annual fund participation was added to the competition in 2007. For seniors, this week also forms the “nucleus fund” for the senior gift campaign, which ramps up its fundraising efforts later in the fall and into the spring.
The effectiveness of each class’ fundraising effort often depends on two things: leadership and competitive spirit. Each class elects a service chair to head up the effort. Successful classes often have service chairs who are proactive about generating lists and soliciting their peers. Many volunteers get the attention of their classmates by setting up tables in prominent campus locations like the dining hall. Class fundraising results are announced at the end of the week as part of Junior Production, a satiric variety show written and performed by the junior class.
Class participation in the Black Cat campaign averages 16% for freshmen, 19% for sophomores, 25% for juniors, and 36% for seniors—not a bad way to start off a senior class gift campaign that has ended up averaging 83%. The increase in participation from one class year to the next is evidence that starting early can create momentum that can continue once the students become alumni.
Whether your institution begins talking with students about philanthropy right away, or waits a few years until the students are more acclimated, is often a matter of institutional culture. Even though the advancement team might see value in getting started early, it’s also important that everyone be on the same page. Getting buy-in beforehand from institutional leaders, campus partners and student influencers (e.g., faculty, the office of student affairs) can be just as important as beginning the conversation with students themselves.
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