Commentary: Synchronized for success

Laurie Clowers

Laurie Clowers

Communications and marketing professionals in community colleges are responsible for all kinds of communications: internal and external, digital and traditional, curriculum and continuing education, and more. They must be both creative and strategic, integrating the many facets of their work to tell their institution’s story in a compelling way to build brand awareness and increase enrollment.

While great emphasis is understandably placed on enrollment, these professionals serve another important role in supporting the college’s foundation in its fundraising efforts. College foundations are crucial to raising additional funds to fill financial gaps, particularly in times of shrinking budgets. The funds are necessary to buy badly needed equipment and technology, and for establishing scholarships that are vital for student recruitment, retention and completion.

Communications staff help make it possible for the foundation to raise those funds, to build the financial and in-kind support from public and private donors that keeps the institution running.

Myriad supports

Communications and marketing professionals support foundations in many ways. They publicize the acquisition of new board members, and highlight donors and major contributions. They communicate with donors and potential donors through newsletters, brochures and social media. Above all, says Matt Smith, executive director of the Wake Tech Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, they build brand awareness for the college: “Foundations are much more successful if the potential donors they reach out to are aware of all the great things the college is doing.”

Most foundations run an annual campaign targeting employees, alumni, corporate partners and current donors. The hope is to raise more than in the previous year. But every now and then the timing is right to embark on a capital campaign or major gifts campaign. These special campaigns usually start with the goal of meeting a specific need at the college – new buildings, technology upgrades or more scholarships. That’s how Wake Technical Community College got started on a major gifts campaign that succeeded beyond all expectations.

A unique opportunity

In 2011, when enrollment at some colleges was going flat, Wake Tech enrollment continued to climb. It jumped 50 percent in the five years prior, and with 63 new residents moving into the county each day, its growth was expected to continue.

Yet despite that growth, state funding for the college declined, and there was not enough money for much-needed equipment, for upgrades to outdated technology, for scholarships to help students whose financial aid fell short, or for professional development for faculty and staff.

At the same time, Wake Tech was preparing to commemorate its 50th anniversary, which would be celebrated in 2013. The timing was right, it was decided, for a major gifts campaign.

“We knew we could not ignore that opportunity,” says Mort Congleton, executive vice president of college development at Wake Tech. “The college had a great story to tell, and we were presented with the perfect occasion for telling it. We were ready to leap forward, and we knew the community would be behind that if our message could reach them in the right way.”

A consultant helped to guide the foundation through the process, and a feasibility study recommended setting a goal of $6 million for the campaign. Foundation staff secured the area’s top business leaders to form a “campaign cabinet” that could reach out to the business community for large-scale donations.

The foundation also worked with the communications division to draft its case for support – a compelling, mission-driven platform that could inspire campaign leaders, college employees and volunteers as they asked others to give.

A campaign strategy

Wake Tech partnered with a marketing firm to develop branding for the campaign. It was named “The Ripple Effect” to focus on the far-reaching impact of a gift to the college. The firm helped campaign leaders develop key messages, a logo and a tagline, which were then used as the basis for a website, a video, brochures, presentations, speeches and articles. Messaging let donors know that their contributions would go to three easily understood, easily remembered areas: student success, faculty and staff innovation, and technology upgrades.

The campaign started with a “Silent Phase” in 2012, when the campaign cabinet reached out to industry leaders through private meetings and events. Communications supported these efforts with collateral materials, newsworthy announcements and a rebranding of the college itself. As confidence in the campaign grew, the starting goal of $6 million was raised to $10 million.

A year later, as the college kicked off its 50th anniversary celebrations, the “Public Phase” of the campaign began. The goal was again raised – this time to $12.5 million. The college held a “birthday bash” to thank the campaign cabinet and major donors, and to entice others to contribute. Communications unveiled Wake Tech’s new logo and brand, and the year of anniversary events provided extensive publicity as the campaign expanded to include the general public.

The communications staff mobilized as the campaign went public, promoting it via the website, email and social media. It produced a direct mail piece targeting alumni and asking “$50 for the 50th.” The most successful promotional strategy, however, turned out to be the college’s new brand awareness campaign, and significant media coverage of the 50th anniversary. The goals were to inspire pride in Wake Tech alumni while increasing awareness of the breadth of the college’s programs and services.

The campaign not only succeeded, but exceeded all expectations – ending with a total of $17.5 million. Congleton attributes that directly to the fact that the campaign was “congruent” with the communications division and says it would not have been possible without that collaborative, synchronized effort.

“A college foundation’s ultimate goal, after all, is the same as that of the college,” he says. “I urge foundations to look carefully at their efforts alongside those of marketing and public relations. The more closely they align, the more successful fundraising will be. Whatever their circumstances and whatever their goals, college foundations can have a greater impact by working in sync with marketing and PR.”

About the Author

Laurie Clowers
is vice president of communications and marketing at Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina.