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Fundraising and Volunteerism ft. Vanderbilt University

Fundraising and Volunteerism ft. Vanderbilt University

Melinda Phillips, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Annual Giving at Vanderbilt University, shares her key lessons from building a wildly successful giving program.

A Unified Front and Vanderbilt’s Meteoric Success

Growing young alumni donors by 69% over just three years isn’t easy, but for Melinda Phillips and her team at Vanderbilt, that tremendous growth became a reality through a unified approach to engagement and tactful implementation of a robust volunteer network.

Fundraising and alumni events planning teams used to work largely separate from one another at Vanderbilt. Melinda Phillips’ top priorities at Vanderbilt were to merge the teams under a common set of goals and responsibilities and to expand the volunteer rosters for both teams. Before the two teams unified, the volunteer team consisted of about 125 volunteers; their ranks have since grown to over 600 total volunteers today.

“Volunteers reach out in a different way than you can as an institution,” said Phillips. “Volunteers of all ages are absolutely huge for Vanderbilt.”

The initiatives have seen incredible results. Participation climbed from 20-25% to over 35% since the unification of the two teams, and total annual giving jumped from the $12-15 million range to over $40 million.

“When engagement, fundraising, shared goals, and volunteers come together, there’s really no limit to what you can do,” said Phillips.

A Student-First Approach

Putting the needs of students first has been integral to Vanderbilt’s success. Young alumni engagement is a top priority for most organizations, yet many struggle to connect with that segment. Understanding the different needs of alumni at different stages of their lives can make the difference between a lost contact and a lifelong contributor.

“Come in with an engagement opportunity first,” said Phillips. “They want to know you’re invested in them, not just their pocketbook. Show them you’re interested in how you can help them.”

Leveraging Volunteers as a Form of Engagement

Enlisting student volunteers is a crucial step in developing these meaningful relationships for Vanderbilt. “People want other ways to give back to your institution other than financially. They want to give you their time,” said Phillips. Many recent graduates are not yet able to contribute financially at a level more common to established alumni, but are more than willing to volunteer and give in other ways.

Phillips also emphasized the importance of maintaining those relationships to stay abreast of changes in student interests over time. Volunteers are hugely beneficial in maintaining this level of communication. Vanderbilt uses volunteers to reach out and personally thank donors, providing personalized connections while also creating a useful point of feedback to help guide future efforts.

“It’s important to always be looking toward the future, trying to capture students’ current interests as they often change the further alumni get from graduation,” said Phillips. “There might be years where alumni can get lost in their own lives, so we strive to be ready for them when they’re ready to re-engage.”

Looking to dig deeper? Listen to the full conversation with Melinda Phillips, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Annual Giving at Vanderbilt University here.

For more conversations with the industry’s top minds, subscribe to Fundraising Forward with Brittany N. Shaff bCRE, CFRE, Graduway Global VP, Fundraising.

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