Holding a major event takes a lot of work. It means coordinating across multiple offices and organizing alumni, volunteers, students, and faculty.
But that didn't stop King's College from taking on an ambitious project to combine fundraising, mentorship, and volunteering into a single event that has been so successful that it's become an annual tradition.
We spoke with Frederick Pettit, King's College's vice president for institutional advancement, ahead of his team's CASE D2 conference panel, "Honors, Dollars, and Role Models," to learn more about the event and how they pulled it off. (If you're in Philadelphia for CASE D2, you can attend the panel on Monday, February 8 at 8:30 AM.)
Could you briefly describe the event you held for students and alumni? How does it fit into your broader engagement strategy?
As we contemplate strategic engagement opportunities—for students, alumni, and other members of the King’s community—we always consider whether an opportunity is meaningful (it can speak to them), impactful (there is a positive outcome), and fun (we want it to be enjoyable). This event hit all of these notes, and then some:
Tasked with creating a signature fundraising event that was unique, attractive, and productive, King’s College brought together academic leaders, advancement professionals, and committed alumni volunteers to build an already successful student mentoring program into a vibrant engagement and fundraising initiative.
In October 2014, King’s celebrated the tenth anniversary of a highly successful student mentoring event, the McGowan School of Business Forum (the “Forum”). The Forum brings together current business students with successful alumni and friends for a mentorship program that is held in high-end venues and rotates annually among New York (Princeton Club, NY Athletic Club), Philadelphia (Union League), and Wilkes-Barre (Westmoreland Club). Dressed in professional attire (and trained in etiquette in advance), the students learn to communicate and develop relationships with successful professionals, navigate a networking reception, and experience a formal dinner.
As part of the ten-year milestone celebration, the College incorporated an award and fundraising component into the dinner program. The Rev. James Lackenmier, C.S.C., Award for Achievement and Leadership recognizes a former King’s president, who served the College in that capacity for 18 years, and honors an alumnus who has achieved excellence in his/her field, demonstrates exceptional philanthropy and high ethical standards, and who embodies the spirit of King’s College.
This award component allowed the College to recognize a deserving institutional leader and profile an alumni success story—and role model—for our students to experience. Funds raised through the event supported a new King’s initiative, The Presidential Hope Fund, which is a critical retention tool that provides deserving, but financially at-risk, students with the support needed to continue and complete their undergraduate studies.
This transition worked wonderfully, but only because of the committed partnership of professors, staff members, administrators, and alumni who believed in the concept, recognized the benefits to students, alumni, and the institution, and who worked tirelessly to make it happen. It was a true team effort.
Going into the second year to include the award and fundraising component, we made a number of improvements that resulted in greater student attendance (about 110 students participated in the event, including 11 Presidential Hope Fund recipients), greater overall attendance, and significantly better fundraising results. Bringing together students, alumni, and friends in such a way created an incredibly special community celebration that will have a lasting impact on all involved.
Why are alumni success stories important? How are they useful?
Alumni success stories are important for many reasons. Chief among them are four:
1. They are empowering for our students. For a young man or woman to see that someone who once sat in their seat, and came from circumstances like theirs, has ventured out to find success in the world is a powerful thing. 40% of King’s students will be the first in their families to graduate from college. Many do not have strong role models in their lives. Being part of this community where others—before them, but like them—have earned their degree and gone on to build a meaningful and satisfying life can provide them with a great sense of hope.
2. They help to re-engage alumni with the College. It is a challenge to engage alumni in the life of the institution. People have ever increasing demands on their time. When an institution asks an alumnus to share their story, that is flattering. For one’s alma mater to take an interest in their life, to hold them out as an example of success, to identify theirs as a life worth living…that can create a significant relationship-building opportunity. It also brings the institution top of mind for the alumnus, which is important.
3. They are examples of the King’s College outcomes for prospective students. Today’s prospective college students and their families are savvy consumers. They are looking for outcomes: "What opportunities will I have when I graduate from King’s?" They want evidence that our students do what we say they can do. Alumni success stories provide that evidence.
4. They reinforce a sense of accomplishment and meaning of work in our faculty and staff. When an alumnus succeeds (however one might define “success”), some of the reasons for that success can be attributed to faculty and staff who made a positive impact on that young person’s life. It could be helping a student to overcome uncertainty to find a calling. Or to help them overcome obstacles to find success. Perhaps it was to challenge and push them harder to be better. Learning of evidence that their efforts played a role in making someone else’s life better can be a great motivator.
How do the connections between students and alumni that your event forged benefit King’s College?
First, those connections bring the alumni closer to the institution. It’s a key engagement tool. It also brings back to mind the alumni's student experience. That sense of nostalgia can be meaningful and motivating. Plus, the College helps the alumnus to do something good. Recognizing the opportunity provided often makes the alumni appreciative for what the institution and its people continue to do to help improve their lives…even many years after they have graduated.
Second, it reinforces for students that their relationship with the institution—as evidenced by alumni commitment—is a lifelong one. We preach to our students during the recruiting phase, into first-year orientation, and throughout their time at King’s that it’s not about four years, it’s about the rest of your life. This engagement between student and alumnus proves the message true. It then gives us a terrific hook to reach out to these men and women when they become alumni and ask them to help our current students. If managed well, that can be a very productive cycle.
What did you learn from your event that you will apply to your programs moving forward?
We learned a lot from each of the first two events. A few top lessons follow:
1. Selection of the honoree is a significant decision
a. Not just about honoring a worthy alumni
b. Honoree will drive support for and participation in the event
2. Think creatively
a. Move outside of the thinking about the “same old event”
b. Make it different
c. Don’t accept “but that’s how we always do it...”
d. Expose certain constituencies to others
3.Be willing to partner and collaborate
a. Identify groups that can benefit
b. Look for good partners
c. Be flexible
4. Look for efficiencies and multiple-benefit scenarios
a. Killing four birds...
b. Use this as part of the pitch
c. Brings different groups together
5. Demonstrate the benefit to your students
a. Mentorship experience
b. Role modeling opportunity
c. Enhanced networking opportunity
d. Tell the students’ stories
e. Get them excited about what it’s like to be part of King’s after graduation