There is an understanding at Rutgers University that the more educated a student is regarding philanthropy, the more inclined he or she will be to give as an alum. Which is why the Annual Giving department hired Lauren Redfern as Assistant Director of Student Philanthropy in the summer of 2014.
In her three years and counting at Rutgers, Redfern has fully devoted her time to creating a culture of philanthropy and increasing young alumni giving participation by understanding the education and messaging that resonates with students. She also works alongside them to collaboratively advocate for the impact donor support has on Rutgers and the current and future generations of students attending.
Benchmarking: The First Step in Student Philanthropy
Rutgers is a large university, serving over 30,000 undergraduate students across three campuses. So it was vital to Redfern to learn not only the institutional culture, but the existing approach to philanthropy.
Initially, she reached out to Rutgers’ Division of Student Affairs and other student organizations to hosts focus groups. Through this, Redfern quickly learned that Rutgers is an institution full of pride and diversity.
“Our students really care about this institution and their community, and they are really community-minded,” she said. “They understand the importance of supporting those in need, and we don’t have to teach them about that. We just have to help them grasp that Rutgers is also in need of their support.”
Developing Rutgers’ Student Philanthropy Message
As Annual Giving shifted focus to increase the overall alumni participation rate, it became clear that objective would be met through instilling a culture of student philanthropy. The next step in developing that culture through education came in identifying students’ mindset towards giving.
As Redfern explains, a student between the ages of 18 and 25 doesn’t feel they will have a disposable $50,000 in their lifetime. If they do envision themselves with that type of capital, their instinct will be to pay off loans, help out their parents, purchase a home or car, or get involved in social work.
“Their first thought isn’t about how they can make a difference at their university. So we want to help them understand that donors of $100 a year are really important to Rutgers,” she said. “We want to express to students the impact it can make if everyone makes that type of donation.”
Redfern runs Rutgers’ student philanthropy organization, TAG Team (we will discuss the structure of TAG later), which plans the philanthropy events that Annual Giving ultimately hosts.
In developing messaging for TAG events, such as TAG Day, Redfern sought to consider how alumni support Rutgers and break that down to the impact students feel at the institution. For example, promotional copy for an event may read, “It’s a no-brainer. School is expensive. That’s why alumni pay it forward, making gifts to make scholarships and fellowships available.”
In exemplifying her ability to adapt, Redfern noticed messaging around scholarships wasn’t resonating with students because those attending Rutgers don’t often have a scholarship. So, Redfern and TAG adjusted their messaging to make students aware they can earmark their gift for a specific student organization.
“You could see the light go off in their head when we first presented this to students,” Redfern recalled. “Now, they’re able to give where they have a passion. They can give to an academic program, club or student organization fund, or the student emergency fund.”
Redfern emphasizes that she, as well as her fellow colleagues in Annual Giving, will constantly be adapting to resonate with different generations of students. But, Annual Giving’s structure ensures the education Redfern provides aligns with how Rutgers approaches alumni.
With another new assistant director position created to work directly with Rutgers’ youngest, most recent alumni, Redfern explains how the two are able to partner to correlate student philanthropy education to the marketing and messaging used to appeal to young alumni.
Student Philanthropy Education Through TAG
As mentioned previously, Redfern worked to form the student organization, TAG Team, to aide in planning giving events and contributing to Rutgers culture of philanthropy.
Initially, Redfern gave TAG an informal structure allowing her to gain student opinions on how to best execute events and what types of giveaways they would enjoy. In her first year at Rutgers, she was struggling to get opinions that she could take action on.
“So I met with Student Affairs and discussed the things I was really struggling with, and they suggested structuring our organization so it felt more like a nonprofit board,” she explained. “Students identify with that. They understand that they want to volunteer for things like that in the future. So if we can give them some of those experiences for their resume, they would be interested in that.”
Currently, TAG is made up of six committees, each with an executive chair and one or more co-chairs. There is a TAG Day committee, Marketing & Communications committee, Education & Events committee, Membership committee, Recruitment committee, and a Senior Gift committee.
As further evidence of her office’s agile nature, Redfern states she is in the process of consolidating TAG committees to give students larger responsibilities and a stronger sense of ownership.
To date, TAG has involved roughly 35 students in planning numerous giving events.
“We are lucky in that we have a lot of underclassmen involvement in TAG Team,” Redfern stated. “We get to educate them year in and year out to be executing these programs without losing a big chunk of them to graduation.”
Student Philanthropy Benefits from Collaboration
Collectively, Redfern and TAG have made a large impact on Rutgers philanthropy in a short period of time.
She speaks directly to the improvement their initiatives have had on senior giving participation. The inaugural Rutgers Giving Day was held in 2015, and Redfern would have been ecstatic to get donations from 50 students considering it was a new initiative.
Ultimately, over 500 students made some type of gift on Rutgers Giving Day. In year two, that number grew to over 600 students.
In addition, faculty and staff are getting more involved in philanthropy. For example, the deans of the Rutgers Honors College encouraged and challenged their students to participate in Giving Day by stating they would match student support if they donated a specific amount.
“We’re seeing that shift. Students are understanding that Giving Day happens every year, and that is important,” Redfern said. “Now we’re seeing more offices and departments at the university getting involved through collaboration.”
Redfern’s work has really just started at Rutgers, and she is excited at the early accomplishments they have made and what the future holds.
“How can we look and see how after four years, or after a time when students haven’t been on campus without student philanthropy, what that looks like?” she said. “I’m excited for how we can further develop our student organization and build more programs that are really useful to our students and that are student-minded.”
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Images courtesy Rutgers University