The season of students returning to campus is upon us, and this year, that season took on a whole new meaning for me. Our oldest child began her university journey last week, over 2,000 miles from home. I experienced this process through the lens of a proud (and sometimes overwhelmed) parent, but also of a career fundraiser who has led parent fundraising programs, a consultant who is working with several higher education clients, and a former student orientation leader.

And in a season where we should be honored to introduce philanthropy to these new and proud parents, instead I am seeing a wealth of missed opportunities:

  • Parent/family welcome receptions and orientations with no mention of philanthropy, and no development staff present.
  • Giving envelopes on tables with no statements of impact.
  • No strategies in place for parents whom we have now known about for months (and with the increase in early admission applications, in some cases we’ve known for almost a year).
  • Parent asks sandwiched briefly between other housekeeping statements at orientation.
  • No demonstration of how philanthropy supports the programs that I care about most as a parent (student success, safety and wellness).

The list goes on and on.

Allow me to share my experience at my daughter’s two-day orientation this summer:

The afternoon of the first day was spent with all students in her major for an academic overview. Halfway through that discussion, an articulate and passionate senior stood in front of the room, and shared that philanthropy and involvement were hallmarks for this college. Giving to and supporting the programs is important. And she gave examples. She then confidently asked the parents in the room to make a gift. The amount was not large, but that is not the point. She did exactly what we as fundraisers should do every day. She built passion. She linked us to the students’ success. And approximately 80% of the parents gave to the college after the session, and we waited in a line to do so!

On day two, at the Parents’ Breakfast, a representative from Student Affairs talked to parents about numerous topics. Somewhere in her remarks was a brief mention of parent giving. No passion. No vision. No statements of impact. Where was the message that parent giving supports student success? Where was the highlight of how philanthropy enhances student safety? Student wellness? Experiential learning? Career and professional development?

We walked out of the breakfast, and the person sitting at the Parents’ Program table was texting on her phone and had no parent representatives. I picked up the envelope on the table, and it looked like something I might have put together 20 years ago, before I knew better: Check boxes for giving amounts. No statements of impact. And no invitation. It was a missed opportunity, and then some! My husband and I have yet to make a gift to the parents program, because while the institution has done everything right in courting our daughter and our family, we have not been asked to make a true philanthropic impact to support this fund.

The priorities of parents of college students have not changed much over time, and linking philanthropy to these programs is not hard. And, there is NO better time to invite parents and families to join in philanthropic giving than right now.

I have had push-back that we need to build a case with parents; we need to better engage them, or we will ask them after homecoming. I appreciate the goal of engaging me, but I am already engaged. Engaged, excited, proud, curious, and committed to your mission. I could not be any more ready for the ask, and there are parents at every campus across the country who are feeling just like me. If you doubt the passion and pride of new parents, walk over to the bookstore and see how fast merchandise is flying out the door.

For years I have said if you did not ask by Thanksgiving, it was too late. As a newly minted parent of a freshman, I’ve updated that statement. If you have not asked by move-in, you may have missed the boat. Parents are the perfect audience to be presented an opportunity to give in a first meeting, as they already feel like part of the family! And, once they are part of the donor family, then you should build engagement from there.

So, for those institutions that will be welcoming parents in the coming days and weeks … get out of your offices, and get in front of some of your most engaged and passionate supporters. 

Need help strengthening your parent infrastructure? KDD Philanthropy can assist your university through consultations, individual coaching calls and workshops. Send us a message to discuss how we can help.

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