Donor Engagement During Difficult Times

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Tuesday, August 16, 2022
By Gert-Jan de Vreede
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
To achieve our initiatives, even in a volatile economic environment, we must redouble our efforts to involve donors in our students’ successes.
  • Donors give for two reasons—because they believe in the college’s mission and because they want to make a difference for students and their communities.
  • To sustain the new Fintech Center at the University of South Florida, administrators will create opportunities for donors to interact with students and faculty in ways that allow them to see the impact of their gifts firsthand.
  • By envisioning the new center as a community hub, USF hopes to promote greater donor engagement and build stronger ties to the community.

As the world closes in on nearly three years of coping with the impact of COVID-19, many people have grown weary of the physical and emotional struggles, academic burnout, and economic worries that are natural byproducts of a prolonged public health crisis. While the pandemic is not yet in the rearview mirror, its adverse effects continue to pop up like the pandemic’s latest variant, upending our tuition models, straining our budgets, and scuttling many in-person donor engagements.

But donors can be the lifeblood of a business school. That means, as business school administrators re-envision their financial strategies in an uncertain economic environment, they must redouble their efforts to deepen relationships between their schools and both longtime and potential donors.

Most donors—especially those who make large, transformational gifts—give to higher education institutions for two main reasons. First, they give because they believe in, and are excited by, the college’s mission and vision; and second, they do so because they feel their contributions make a positive difference for students, the region, and society at large.

That’s why the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business in Tampa works to create clear alignment between donors’ values and the business school’s mission-based initiatives. We have learned that when schools can make such alignment happen, their success and ability to innovate will bloom.

Building Foundations of Trust

Even amid the lingering financial worries born of the pandemic, we have been fortunate to have donors, at all levels, interested in furthering their impact on our school. But to attract their gifts, we have had to engage them in our vision for education.

The latest major gifts to the University of South Florida are a good example. Longtime supporters Kate Tiedemann and Ellen Cotton recently made gifts to USF amounting to 14 million USD to support research and innovation. Tiedemann has donated millions to the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance over the years. The couple also provided seed money for the St. Petersburg campus’ Student Managed Investment Fund and the naming gift for the Ellen Cotton Atrium within Lynn Pippenger Hall.

In addition, their latest donation will be used, along with seed funding from the university, to create the new Fintech Center at the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance on USF’s St. Petersburg campus. Building on the strong financial industry presence in the greater Tampa Bay region, the center will focus on activities such as preparing the fintech workforce; making sense of different cryptocurrencies; and creating paths for new protocols, ecosystems, and payment networks.

The Tiedemann-Cotton gift will ensure that students take fintech-infused courses on emerging topics such as machine learning in money laundering, robotic process automation in fintech, digital payment technologies, and algorithmic trading.

But we do not take for granted our longtime donors’ interest in such initiatives. We know we must regularly seek opportunities to make all of our donors integral parts of our community. For this, we plan to integrate approaches that we have used over the years to promote donor engagement.

For example, in the past, we have asked Pam and Les Muma, namesakes of the Muma College, to participate as judges in competitive events where they can see our students’ talents in action. Both of them also have come to speak to our classes to share their perspectives as alumni. Creating such opportunities for donors is a regular practice for us, but doing so on a frequent and ongoing basis is now more critical than ever.

We do not take for granted our longtime donors’ interest in our college. We know we must regularly seek opportunities to make all of our donors integral parts of our community.

The extent to which donors want to be involved and see the impact of their gifts became especially clear to us at the start of the pandemic. At that time, we had just begun working with a donor who was providing a naming gift for an internship initiative. Pre-pandemic, we might have accepted his donation gratefully, before moving forward quickly with the initiative. But the pandemic forced us to slow the process down considerably.

As it turned out, there was a kind of beauty in that outcome. Because of the slower pace, we were able to renovate the necessary spaces and create programming in ways that allowed the donor to be more closely involved. The donor was very pleased to be made a part of the initiative that his gift made possible.

This experience reinforced to us that there is more to attracting and receiving financial gifts than simply showing gratitude. Donors also appreciate when they can take part in our initiatives and see the impact of their gifts firsthand.

Sharing the Impact of Learning

When we can bring donors “closer to the action” of our activities, we create and maintain strong relationships with our longtime partners. But as we do so, we must maintain transparency, keep lines of communication open, and deliver on our promises. Most important, we must keep the momentum of our funded initiatives going, so that donors can see how the impact of their contributions grow each year.

At the Muma College of Business, we already do this in big and small ways. One small but significant example is our annual scholarship luncheon, attended by students who are receiving scholarships and by donors who have made those scholarships possible. The luncheon always features a speaker, but we are sure to give donors and scholarship recipients at least 20 minutes to talk uninterrupted. We want donors to leave impressed by our students and proud of their association with our business school.

Long before they had made their naming gift, Les and Pam Muma provided funding to start the Bulls Business Community, our living-learning center for business students. We made sure to invite them to several BBC events during its first year. Although that pilot involved just 24 students, the experience strengthened our relationship with the Mumas. It was one of many such touchpoints that eventually led to their generous naming gift to our school.

We plan to promote similar interactions through our new Fintech Center, where we hope donors will interact with our students and faculty in a range of activities. We want them to see just how much their contributions matter and feel as if they are a critical part of our success.

We will also accomplish this objective by involving donors, whether as speakers or advisors, in the expanded number of experiential learning opportunities available to students through the Fintech Center. These include internships, co-ops, remote learning opportunities with our alumni, and capstone courses provided in partnership with client organizations. Small teams of students also complete semesterlong projects for sponsoring organizations—which we call “practice centers”—under the supervision of a faculty member.

We know that most donors give because they love interacting with students, because they want to see students succeed, and because they want to improve their communities. When we provide opportunities for them to interact with the students who benefit from their generosity, that’s when we make the greatest connections.

Engaging Donors, Building Community Ties

The Fintech Center will act as an incubator for collaboration and exploration—a place where our students and industry partners alike can learn about the current state of fintech through the innovations of participating startups. USF leaders envision the center as a community hub where local entrepreneurs come for education and mentoring, where startups come for resources, and where major fintech firms come to recruit student talent.

One of our most notable community-focused initiatives is our FinTech|X Accelerator, a multiyear partnership between the Muma College and Tampa Bay Wave, a hub for area startups. The accelerator offers a three-month program to help high-potential startups in the fintech industry. Entrepreneurs receive mentoring, coaching, and investor introductions from industry partners with specialized expertise, on everything from networking to obtaining startup funding to developing long-term strategies.

Donor engagement translates to community engagement. The stronger we can make our relationships with donors, the more we create unparalleled opportunities for our school.

By highlighting such experiences, we show our recent donors how their gifts are helping to provide students with the best possible education and employment prospects. In addition, we share examples of these opportunities with potential donors to show the impact that previous gifts have had. We also will rely on faculty who are leaders in the fintech research space to engage with donors regularly in their teaching and research.

We want to ensure that donors see the value of their generosity and concrete returns on their investment in terms of student success and workforce development. Such donor engagement, we realize, translates to community engagement. The stronger we can make our relationships with donors, the more we create unparalleled opportunities for our school.

Making Donors Part of Our Success

Through the Fintech Center, we will continue to support student success by weaving the fintech curriculum throughout the finance degree programs. We not only will offer new undergraduate courses and revamp our master’s program, but also will update our curricula to reflect the emerging technology.

But all the while, we will continue to make our donors a direct part of this evolution and growth. We will view our courses, capstones, conferences, executive education programs, and workplace certificate programs as ways to reach out to donors and strengthen our ties to the community.

It is essential to make these interactions as personal as possible. For example, in 2019, the university awarded Pam Muma an honorary doctorate at a ceremony attended by many graduates who had been her scholarship recipients. That ceremony was incredibly meaningful for everyone present. The graduates were able to express their thanks directly to the person who made their educations possible. And Pam Muma was able to see the impact of her contributions in very human terms. 

As we work to raise the necessary funding for our schools’ most ambitious initiatives, we must never lose sight of how important it is to make our donors a part of our successes. The more they can see how their gifts make a difference in students’ lives, the more likely they are to maintain their support for and connection to our school communities—even during difficult economic times.

Gert-Jan de Vreede
Interim Dean, Muma College of Business, University of South Florida
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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