Smith College is a liberal arts women’s college in Northampton, MA with a strong focus on creating an experience where academic pursuits lead their students and alumnae to be engaged global citizens and leaders addressing society’s challenges.
The Tzedakah Lab worked with Smith’s development officers to understand current philanthropy research and help translate that to updating and transforming the way the Advancement Team approaches fundraising and philanthropy to consider equity as the core element.
The data around Smith alumnae giving history shows that there are significantly fewer donors of color than of White donors. This is true across the board, from participation in the Smith Fund—the main unrestricted fund that sustains the College—to those making leadership, major, and principal gifts to the institution.
This data tracks with how the philanthropic landscape in colleges is changing. As the nation becomes more diverse, Smith and other institutions of higher education have seen their student base and alumni populations change as well. With that change also comes the need to transform ways our institutions function, including in fundraising and alumnae engagement.
Because of that, The Office of Development and Alumnae Relations raised questions about the effectiveness of their identification, cultivation and solicitation of all alumnae. Not only because being inclusive is the right thing to do, but because failure to change can adversely impact an institution’s ability to transform through the power of philanthropy and to meet institutional goals.
The Tzedakah Lab worked with The Smith College on a three-part interactive workshop series for all Development staff including mandatory participation for front-line fundraisers. Participation also included staff from the Office of Alumnae Relations and the offices of Student Engagement and Residence Life staff. Together we explored the philanthropic attributes of diversity (race, ethnicity, religion, gender, ability, and sexuality), and developed an action plan for more effective engagement and solicitation of diverse alumnae, stemming from their level of engagement as undergraduates. These workshops helped create strategies promoting greater levels of interaction with diverse alumnae and engaging more effectively with them as potential donors whose investment in Smith will help shape its future.
Attendees took the following away from the workshop series
The interactive components are essential to creating an experience that is both engaging and fruitful for participants and the institutions with whom we work. At the Smith, these exercises allowed participants to engage more deeply with the content.
We often refer to things discussed and learned at that series of workshops The Tzedakah Lab did. It's not unusual for Noah’s name to come up in other conversations across the division as part of a shared "language" we all have around inclusive philanthropy. Your work with us took root in many ways you probably don't even know, at Smith and undoubtedly with other institutions you've worked with.
Diving into discussions about race: One of the more immediate impacts of the workshop are the conversations The Office of Development and Alumnae Relations are having with students and alumnae about race. They have started using conversations from the workshop series to speak about the topic to their White donors and alumnae much more. The role play exercises have proven particularly valuable for having difficult conversations with White alumnae from an older generation asking questions about why the College is engaging with issues of race which have led to valuable discussions. Additionally, the offices are more actively engaging alumnae of color and showcasing the Institutions commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice as core to fulfilling their mission.
Centering of values: While the value of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice were always an undercurrent to the work, operationalizing it in philanthropy can be hard. This is especially true when a donor doesn’t agree with the College’s support of a particular cause (e.g., Black Lives Matter). The workshop gave the participants the opportunity to root themselves in the values and find strategies to stick to them despite potential alumnae opposition.
Future action steps: Real change to an institution and its culture can take time. There were many immediate takeaways that came from the workshop (e.g., having difficult conversations), but also the participants created action steps to be more strategic about who to engage to diversify alumnae engagement, create more nuanced and unique ways to engage them, and identify a variety of messaging strategies that increased the scope of their engagement efforts.