Last Look: Lisa Christensen, Marlboro College
Marlboro College is a small — there are currently 330 undergrads and approximately 35 grad students — academically rigorous liberal arts school nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Its fundraising model is profoundly donor-centric — and therefore completely relevant to nonprofits trying to keep current in today’s rapidly changing philanthropic climate.
We spoke with Lisa Christensen, Marlboro’s chief advancement officer, about the unique college’s equally unique development mission, as well as some of its fundraising highs and lows.
FundRaising Success: Can you give me a brief history of Marlboro College?
Lisa Christensen: Marlboro’s story begins at the end of World War II in Biarritz, France, where Walter Hendricks, a former Amherst scholar teaching English at Illinois [Institute of Technology], was recruited to teach at a makeshift university for U.S. soldiers waiting to be sent back to the states. Hendricks was impressed by the GIs’ can-do attitude and spirit of personal investment in what they were learning. He envisioned a community of learners, living and working together democratically under the rules of the New England town meeting, unhindered by titles or academic rank.
His vision kindled excitement among intellectual and artistic luminaries in southern Vermont at the time, including his mentor, poet Robert Frost, who became an honorary trustee.
Marlboro opened in 1946 in a cluster of farmhouses, barns and out buildings that made up three old Vermont hill farms on 360 acres of woods and fields. The 50 pioneering students, including 35 GIs, spent much of their first year adapting the buildings to use as classrooms and dormitories. The eight remaining historic buildings comprise the heart of the campus.
Today Marlboro’s mission remains true to its founding vision. The undergraduate program is distinguished by its small size, self-governing philosophy and rigorous liberal arts curriculum taught in very small classes and one-on-one tutorials in the junior and senior year. Marlboro’s program emphasizes creative inquiry and synthesis by mature, self-motivated students. The college’s small size and eight-to-one student/faculty ratio foster a close-knit community in which academic work is respected and ideas are appreciated. Sixty-eight percent of Marlboro’s graduates pursue further study at some of the nation’s finest graduate institutions. Marlboro’s Graduate Center, founded 10 years ago in downtown Brattleboro, Vt., offers a variety of degree and certificate programs for working adults with faculty who are experts in their fields.
FS: What fundraising avenues do you use to fund your mission?
LC: We use the traditional avenues of alumni and parent fundraising programs, but because we still have only 2,400 graduates (50 percent graduated after 1990) we rely on “friends” — donors who are true believers in Marlboro — for most major gifts.
FS: What are your fundraising strengths? Weaknesses?
LC: Our strengths are our unique mission and model, which allow us to run a highly personalized development program. We focus much more on long-range relationships leading to major gifts than acquisition. But our small size is also our weakness, since we have limited numbers of donor prospects.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
LC: We are engaged in a major effort to broaden our base of support by holding more events and building our board of trustees.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
LC: At Marlboro, we practice a donor-centered fundraising philosophy. The focus is on building relationships for the long term, not mere acquisition. We consider our prospects as individuals, not just constituencies. We do hardly any blank direct mail; our solicitations are personalized and appropriate. For our higher-level donors, it’s a handwritten letter, phone call or visit.
We spend a lot of time thanking people and making sure they are aware of campus issues particularly important to them. Prospects are introduced to our unusual model of education in many contexts: as students, parents, visiting professors or neighbors. The overall experience is one that can be shared because Marlboro is really about learning through conversation and everyone is welcome to participate. The solicitation then becomes a comfortable exchange of ideas and solutions.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with the new social media sites — MySpace, Facebook, etc. — and online social networking?
LC: Yes, and we are exploring ways to make better use of e-communication tools for fundraising, but especially for admissions recruitment, academic reputation building and general marketing.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
LC: Gifts totaling $15 million have been received by Marlboro College over the last 14 months as part of a special fundraising initiative to fund a faculty compensation and benefits plan, enhanced professional development opportunities for Marlboro’s faculty and for campus renewal projects.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
LC: No major setbacks. Having a small staff and limited resources sometimes has let opportunities get away.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours in size and annual operating budget?
LC: Get a really committed group of trustees who are able and willing to network and be financially supportive; hire a leader who is really behind your mission; be sure that donors can experience for themselves why their support is so important.
FS: How many employees do you have?
FS: Do you have any employees strictly devoted to fundraising?
LC: Yes, four.
FS: Can you tell us whether or not your success with the U.S. News & World Report America’s Best Colleges rankings has affected your development efforts, or your being named one of the 40 colleges in the book Colleges That Change Lives?
LC: We have stopped participating in the U.S. News & World Report survey, because we feel the quality of the experience our students receive and bring to the college is impossible to present solely in a numbers-based system. We’re not opposed to using rankings to describe the strength of Marlboro’s program, but a strictly numeric system does not accurately reflect the academic achievements and success of Marlboro students.
Our alumni and supporters are delighted with the CTCL and Princeton Review rankings because they reflect the opinions of students actually engaged in the Marlboro experience. I would say these comments help to make Marlboro worthy of philanthropic support. In fact, we have, on several occasions, received gifts with a note saying, “Marlboro needs this $1,000 more than Yale …”
2582 South Road
Marlboro, VT 05344
Annual Operating Budget: $13.1 Million