Smith College

Smith College Inclusive Philanthropy Project

A photo of Smith College in spring time

Smith College Inclusive Philanthropy Project

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 Challenge

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 Workshop Series

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

  • Appreciation and understanding for why diversity in fundraising is essential and important for Institutions to meet the needs of their students and alumnae today.
  • Strong foundation in current research around inclusive philanthropy, including the importance of identity, the role of bias, and key indicators of philanthropic inclination.
  • Development of key cultural competencies to increase awareness of personal, institutional, and professional biases and gaps around fundraising and to overcome those through critical thinking around diversity.
  • Understanding about the role of the student experience as a predictor of future giving and to connect those dots more effectively in fundraising work.
  • Examination around how fundraisers must engage the whole donor in order to be successful.
  • Strategy identification to develop a diverse pipeline of advancement professionals to better reflect the diverse nature of the student body.
  • Translated researching into specific essential skills and tools to engage, cultivate, and solicit all alumnae by identifying the gaps from previous fundraising strategies and discussing specific ways to fill those gaps.
  • Best practices that can be most effective within the Smith culture through co-creation of strategies about how to operationalize the work: discussing who the fundraising teams would engage, how they were going to engage with them, what messaging would work for different groups, and what kind of strategy would be needed.

Interactive Components

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.

  • Philanthropic Autobiography: This exercise asks each participant to reflect on their first memories of participating in philanthropy. This could be giving away toys or volunteering at an event or helping a neighbor out with yard work. The goal is to personalize the giving experience, to expand the definition of what philanthropy can look like, and to have participants think about what parts of their upbringing and identities impact their volunteerism and giving behaviors. Starting from this place shows that giving and philanthropy is beyond the donation of money and our understanding of it is embedded in our experiences, family, culture, and identities. Participants often learn that philanthropy, broadly defined,  can create a greater sense of belonging. 
  • Diversity milestones: This activity gave participants the opportunity to reflect on Smith College’s successes of being an inclusive and progressive Institution. Through identifying the progress the Institution has made and the successes they’ve had not only approaches the topic from a positive place, but it also actively helps create a list of successes that fundraising staff can share with alumnae to showcase their commitment to equity.
  • Role Play: One of the major challenges for fundraisers is how to approach conversations with donors who aren’t as bought into equity work. These role playing exercises provide the opportunity to test out approaches to challenging conversations.
  • Open Space Technology: Like many workshops, we brainstorm about strategies in small groups, but “open space technology” offers more flexibility for participants to move from one group to another when they see fit. We’ve found that using this approach allows for the cross-pollination of ideas between groups resulting in even more creative solutions and concepts.

Open quotesWe 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.Close quotes

Laure A. Morris
Director of Major Gifts, Office of Alumnae Relations and Development, Smith College

The Impact

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.

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