5-Minute Interview: ‘Don’t Forget to Ask’
Bard College is a four-year liberal arts and sciences institution nestled on two historic riverfront estates in New York’s Hudson Valley. Founded in 1860, the college today experiences the common challenges faced by most higher-education institutions striving to expand programs and raise the bar of support from parents, alumni and its surrounding community.
Here, Debra Pemstein, vice president of development and alumni affairs, discusses Bard’s constituent base and how it keeps in touch with supporters.
FundRaising Success: What are the sources of donations to your institution?
Debra Pemstein: They’re coming from individuals, primarily, and major gifts.
FS: What fundraising methods do you employ?
DP: We use everything. We use face-to-face solicitations; we use direct mail; we use events; we use phone-a-thons; we use proposals to institutional sources … so any way to ask, that’s what we do.
FS: Who do you solicit funds from?
DP: Because of the variety of Bard’s programs, it attracts not only the usual constituents in terms of alumni and parents of current students, but it attracts the community supporters; it attracts national and international foundations and national and international people.
FS: How do you keep in touch with constituents?
DP: We have a very active Web site; we send out e-newsletters; we have a college magazine that comes out three times a year; we have events with the president in various parts of the country at least once a year so [donors] have access to the president.
In terms of the mechanics in the annual fund, any time we get a gift of $1,000 or more, [the donor gets] a phone call — whether it’s from the annual fund director, whether it’s from me, whether it’s from the alumni director. Some institutions may think $1,000 isn’t much, but we think that for somebody to give $1,000, that means that they care about the institution and so they get a phone call.
FS: What are some tips you can share with other colleges?
DP: Well, I’d say one is don’t forget to ask. And be direct in the ask. You can set somebody up and you can cultivate them and steward them, but if you don’t ask, it doesn’t do any good. You have to remember to ask. And also we’ve found that happy students make happy parents, and happy parents and happy grandparents make terrific prospects for us.
I guess the other thing I would say is to capitalize on what you think would not be an event and make it an event. For example, Bard College launched a conservatory last year and the conservatory students, with some outstanding musicians, were performing at the Library of Congress and we turned that into an alumni, parent and grandparent event.
We got a block of tickets. We invited them to the performance. We got alumni to underwrite a reception. So having a pre-performance reception made it into an event where we’re showing off Bard students and Bard programs.
This is a very exciting time to be raising money, and if you believe in your organization and its mission, and you have a good program, then this is the right time to be raising money.