This blog post is written by Kristin Woods.

The resulting blog post derived from a conversation with Di Hershey, Director of Development, Penn State York.

Di Hershey sat in a meeting of her local women’s giving circle and suddenly thought to herself, “Why aren’t we doing something like this with alumnae at Penn State York?” With unrestricted annual giving on the decline and more good ideas than funding available, Di pondered if an alumnae-focused philanthropy group might be just the strategic initiative she was seeking to reverse the trend.

Four years later, the Penn State York Women’s Philanthropic Network (WPN) is annually funding four student scholarships and has supported campus initiatives such as a keynote speaker for the STEM Pathways program for 300 seventh-grade girls, and a robotic football team set to compete in a national competition. And Di couldn’t be happier or more excited for the future.

Launch of the network

The WPN launched in 2015 with a goal of raising $20,000. To recruit members, WPN mailed an invitation to join to about 300 alumnae using a mailing list created by PSU Development Research. WPN invited members to join at one of three giving levels: $100 (for young alumnae defined as having graduated within the past 10 years); $500 and up; and $2500 and up.

With 20 members recruited in the first year, the group surpassed their goal, raising $25,000.

How does it work?

The money raised from members goes into a pool of funds to be awarded in small grants. The number of grants and amounts awarded each year are dependent on the dollars raised through the membership. The maximum award for a funding request is $10,000.

Individuals and groups interested in applying for funding submit a completed application, a budget outline, and two-minute video in early fall. Central to the application is this question: “How does this project enrich the lives of students at Penn State York or enhance the campus’ mission of promoting civic, social, cultural, and economic growth throughout the community?”

The application materials are then shared with members and the Penn State York Chancellor. At the Discovery Meeting held each fall, members and the Chancellor engage in discussions about the funding requests, using the campus mission and strategic goals as guideposts for decision-making. Ultimately, the final funding decision resides with the Chancellor.

The Chancellor hosts an event each spring for members to meet award recipients and celebrate the WPN’s philanthropic successes. Penn State York encourages members to invite family and friends to join in the celebration with the hope they too will become members of the WPN.

Today and futurecasting

In its first year, 100% of the funds donated by members provided funding for three grants and four scholarships awarded to students demonstrating leadership through involvement in organizations such as student government. It also provided sponsorship for the keynote speaker – a retired female astronaut – for the 20th anniversary of the STEM Pathways program designed to inspire seventh-grade girls to explore future education and career paths related to science, technology, engineering, and math.

Four years later, WPN continues to support these initiatives and others, including:

  • Expansion of on-site counseling services for students;
  • Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE)training for faculty;
  • Renovation and relocation of the Nittany Success Center with a WPN named space; and
  • Seed funding to create a new women’s softball program and hire a coach to start the recruitment process for the team, as well as seed funding for a new co-ed golf team.

The WPN is on track to exceed this year’s fundraising goal of $34,000, with 54 current members, including 13 young alumnae within one to ten years of graduation. Di is particularly proud that among these 13 are alumnae who were student recipients of the WPN Leadership scholarships. One of her hopes is that she is building the donor pipeline to support WPN for years to come. Five years down the road, Di hopes the group is 100 members strong and is raising in excess of $50,000.

As she reflects on lessons learned, Di offers the following four pieces of advice to others considering starting a similar program.

  1. Alumnae-to-alumnae outreach has been the most valuable membership recruitment tool. She notes that they suspended the annual recruitment mailing after two tries. Instead, attention has focused on referrals and the relationships current members have outside the WPN to identify and recruit members. Also, WPN has several male donors who want to support the work of the network but not participate in its programs.
  2. The best way to retain members is never to lose site of the value proposition, she says. Di knows the members keep coming back every year because they can witness firsthand the impact their giving has on Penn State York and because of the relationships they build with one another.
  3. Also, find meaningful ways to engage alumnae in programming between the two events that bookend the year. Di has now added an annual retreat that drew 19 of the 40 members in its first year. There are also networking events and self-care events such as aerial yoga.
  4. Consider whether the impact you are seeking might benefit the local community as well as the institution. By supporting the local STEM program and engaging girls at the age when, research shows, they begin to lose confidence in these career paths, the WPN support is far-reaching.

Kristin Woods has spent almost 25 years in alumni engagement with career stops at Hood College, Bucknell University, the University of Richmond, and University at Buffalo. Follow her on Twitter or connect LinkedIn


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