Anyone even tangentially involved in fundraising is familiar with this equation:
Donations = Total Population × Giving Rate
Lower giving rates and smaller populations beget smaller yields.
Small schools, be they colleges or independent schools, have to face the challenge of having a small total population every year. They learn to make the most out of what they have and develop strategies that prioritize depth over breadth.
Noble and Greenough School, familiarly known as Nobles, is one of those institutions. They've created a culture of philanthropy that allows them to be aggressive about asking for support, and they've devoted resources to nurturing individual relationships with their alumni. Their Graduate Affairs Office has also made alumni career services and networking a priority. By building a network on top of an already tightly knit community, Nobles is making its smallness work to its advantage.
We interviewed Greg Croak, Nobles' Director of Graduate Affairs, about Nobles' success.
What challenges does the Nobles Graduate Affairs office face that are specific to independent schools? What advantages does Nobles have as an indy school?
I believe independent schools have to constantly wrestle with the double-edged sword that is their smallness. When you only have a few thousand living graduates, it’s difficult to carry a large annual fund or build crowdfunding momentum around one-day giving challenges. Many advancement offices respond to this by limiting their office size to a few people that have to do a little bit of everything. At Nobles, we’ve taken a risk by fielding a much bigger office than our peer schools, but we believe that having a 14-17 person office for a $4.5M annual fund makes sense. It allows us to hold more individual relationships over time while taking creative risks in our marketing or events. 3-5 person offices can’t take the same sort of creative risks.
From an engagement standpoint, what small schools lose in volume they make back in community. When 700 Nobles graduates come back to campus from graduating classes that range from 1966-2011 this May, I think we have an advantage over the average university Reunion setup because we can put everyone together in the same physical space. They can all see the inductees into the Hall of Fame or watch a baseball game on the sideline. The fact that all grads can share the experience together helps us build the extended community.
Many independent school grads don't consider giving to their schools until after they've graduated from college. How do you keep Nobles alumni engaged through their college years in the meantime?
If our first ask to a graduate occurs after they’ve left Nobles then we’re too late. We talk about giving with current seniors pretty openly during our one-day giving challenge and have collected 100% participation for the Senior Class Gift each of the last four years. I want our kids to know that not only are we going to ask them for a gift every single year for the rest of their lives, but we are also not going to apologize for it. That kind of aggressiveness, over time, has created a strong culture of giving that keeps our graduate participation in the annual fund around 50% every year.
During their college years, the main point of contact for our grads comes through our College Dinner Series. This was an idea hatched by a trustee a number of years ago when we talked about the ways our office can directly serve a grad’s needs. Clearly number one is professional networking (also known as the “Nobles, Hook Me Up With A Job, Bro!” program), but I truly believe the next best way to engage a college student is by buying them dinner. The premise is simple: Take every Nobles grad at a given university out to dinner with a few current faculty members. The tone of these dinners is perfect for that age group. We know they don’t have enough money to make substantive gifts, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love them any more!
The Nobles Graduate Affairs office is spending more time thinking about grads’ careers. What is your team doing now in that area, and what are you hoping to be able to do in the future? Why are you focusing on careers in this way?
Career networking is the number one value-add our office can provide to our graduates. In the magic moments when we can get a graduate's career started, or help them pivot to a new path, we have just created one of the strongest bonds the school can possible build. While we often joke that grads sometimes think we have a “Drawer-O-Jobs,” the reality is that our true value is in community-building. We hold several large networking events throughout the year (50-80 people attend) with panelists from a range of different disciplines that can talk generally about a unifying topic. In addition, we are hosting more industry-specific events with lawyers, startup-types, etc.
This year, we’ve also added a lecture series on Innovation and invited graduates to come back to talk about everything from self-driving cars to gender inequality in venture capital. This has the added benefit of cultivation for top donors who are leaders in their particular industry. As always, it’s nice to be able to ask loyal donors to contribute something other than money to the school from time to time.
What can colleges and universities learn from the work that independent schools like Nobles do with their alumni?
What always strikes me about university advancement offices is the effect of silo-ed departments. I’ve seen Alumni Offices that are literally located on the opposite side of campus as the annual fund team. I’ve met truly innovative social media marketers that couldn’t tell you what their school’s endowment is. I realize a lot of that comes from necessity, but independent school advancement offices have the benefit of knowing about every corner of the business, and all of that informs your interactions with the donors themselves. I might not find myself in a meeting with a multi-million dollar ask on the table, but since I work closely with the Major Gifts team, I can still speak credibly to grads of every giving level about the financial model of the school and why unrestricted endowment gifts will secure Nobles’ future.