Making a Compelling Case for Scholarship Endowments

illustration of online learning with computers and textbooks

In this week’s news, Hamilton College (Clinton, NY) is adopting a “need blind” admissions policy; Hamilton expects over the next four years to add about $2 million to its annual financial aid budget. Initially, that additional expense will be borne by six trustees, who have each pledged $500,000 to seed the need-blind effort, and then from an anticipated $40 million supplied by capital campaign.

While most institutions are not considering something on the scale of need blind admissions, many colleges are working to establish endowed scholarships or other financial aid through donor support. We asked Jim Langley, founder and president of Langley Innovations, and past vice president of advancement at Georgetown University, for advice on how to make the most compelling case possible to donors.

A Sense of Shared Enterprise

“Make sure that your donors and prospective donors know that this has to be a shared enterprise. You can’t reach the goal without their support.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Langley recommends framing your message to donors in terms of a shared enterprise. This entails a shift from “bucket-oriented fundraising” to “project-oriented fundraising.” In bucket-oriented fundraising, you set a dollar goal for a particular “bucket” (perhaps student aid) and ask donors who are giving to that bucket to trust that the gift is having an effect.

By contrast, project-oriented fundraising is focused on specific project goals and sets specific milestones for reaching them. Langley suggests, “By communicating where your are, where you need to get to, what it will cost, and how much time it takes to get there, you can make a powerful case. Don’t talk about an open-ended process; talk about specific admissions goals to achieve in the next five years.” For example, if your outcome is a specific number of students from a particular socioeconomic class, then:

  • Define your desired class five years from now
  • Define your current class (this is your baseline)
  • Show the math: What will it cost to get there? How many students will be affected?

“In difficult economic times, it is so important for donors to see your institution striving toward specific outcomes, not just asking for open-ended gifts.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

A Sense of Shared Success

“Once you have set a baseline, a goal, and milestones toward it, march toward those milestones with a sense of success.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Langley recommends:

  • Demonstrating progress in a way that shows how every dollar makes a difference
  • Demonstrating progress through messages that speak to both the head and the heart

“Make progress visible,” Langley advises. For example, have a bar or a meter on your website that allows donors to see the numbers ticking upward to the goal. “If someone can contribute $100 online, and see a bar move up, that’s a very powerful philanthropic experience. When people see the gap closing, they may turn around shortly after and give another $100. And because this sense of success is satisfying, they become a part of the enterprise, driving forward that goal.” Letting everyone see the ongoing progress is essential — this conveys that there is no such thing as too small a gift, and the visible momentum triggers sustained contribution.

Showing numeric successes will appeal to the practical, goal-oriented donors, allowing them to quantify the difference their gift is making. But you also need to appeal to the heart, to the idealistic side as well as the practical. “Personalize the story of your progress,” Langley suggests, “bring it home to donors.” Some ways to do this:

  • Describe the quality of the students coming into your institution, who are provided for by these gifts
  • Tell the story of what these young students are up against — what challenges these dollars are addressing
  • Give personal anecdotes where possible

In your phonathon, train or encourage your student callers to integrate into their scripts stories of the students they know. A student caller can easily personalize the ask by telling the story of a student in her class whose father lost his job and saw the value of his home drop 37% in one year, and who is enrolled and on the right path because of this scholarship fund.

“The more you can personalize the student experience and get students to tell that story, the more powerful that story will be.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Appealing to both the head and the heart, show the impact of these funds on both the human being and the strength of the institution. And connect the stories you tell directly to the institution’s mission and to your admissions goals. “Many of your prospective donors want to help, want to make a difference, and want to be sure that their limited funds are put toward the best possible purpose.”