Alumni Relations and Phonathon aim to build culture of giving

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Students work together at Phonathon to encourage alumni giving, which has been slow in recent years. Photo by Parker Van Nostrand.

As part of a new alumni giving initiative, Grinnell has hired Michelle Czarnecki as the new Assistant Director of Alumni Relations for Student Programs and Lila Singer-Berk as the new Assistant Director of Annual Giving for Phonathon. 

The new hires come as Grinnell’s administration seeks to increase alumni and student contributions in an effort to maintain the College’s need-blind admissions policy and ease the burden on its 1.5 billion dollar endowment.

“We work with the student organizations associated with the alumni office, such as the Student Alumni Council, of which philanthropy is a component,” Czarnecki said.

“We are also partnering with the Student Government Association with a new program called the Class Ambassadors, who will be putting on events for their class-years to try to build affinity [and] education about philanthropy,” she added.

Czarnecki said one of her main goals is to foster changes in Grinnell’s giving culture, particularly among fourth-year students and recent graduates. She added that fourth-year giving has become increasingly important over time. 

“We are seeing a rise in our peer institutions of what are called recurring gifts, in which every month, for example, the College can charge the contributor’s credit card five dollars,” Czarnecki said. 

Although some peer liberal arts colleges have been seeing success with this type of gift, Grinnellians’ responses to previous fundraising efforts have not been as successful.

“Last year our senior participation was maybe 26 percent, which is not a huge portion of seniors. Our peer institutions get 80 to 90 percent,” Czarnecki said. “I don’t just think that our seniors don’t care about Grinnell. I think that they just don’t understand why they should give.”

Undaunted by these figures, Czarnecki is implementing a plan to improve Grinnell fourth-years’ participation. 

“We are stepping back and looking at philanthropy entirely different from the way they did last year,” Czarnecki said. “We are looking at it as a holistic concept, and giving money is part of that, but we will also be focusing on what sort of time seniors give. A lot of Grinnellians do service work, so we will be incorporating that into what they give.”

In addition to students, Czarnecki and Singer-Berk said it is vital to share the importance of giving with alumni. Singer-Berk stated that the Phonathon program will not be greatly altered, but that there will be some changes made with the student body in mind. 

“One of our big goals is to change the culture around giving on campus. We want to make Phonathon one of the best jobs on campus, for the students working within Phonathon itself,” Singer-Berk said. “Part of that is spreading the understanding that giving is important.” 

Students work together at Phonathon to encourage alumni giving, which has been slow in recent years. Photo by Parker Van Nostrand.
Students work together at Phonathon to encourage alumni giving, which has been slow in recent years.
Photo by Parker Van Nostrand.

As for alumni giving itself, Singer-Berk feels confident that it will improve in the coming years. 

“I’m trying to decide if I think there has been a struggle, and I don’t. Grinnell has a long tradition of giving, and a long tradition of alumni who are extremely supportive of the College,” Singer-Berk said. “There was nothing really wrong with the program before, we are just looking to improve it even more.”

Czarnecki and Singer-Berk emphasized that the changes they are implementing will take time before they are proven to be effective. Czarnecki anticipates the most significant results will appear with the first-year class of 2018.

“The idea is … starting with the class of 2018 … you will start getting exposed to philanthropy in all its aspects, so that by the time you do get to be a senior and you’ve been here for years, and we ask you to give to the College, you’ll at least have that background,” Czarnecki said.