Giving Students Agency: Guiding a Successful Senior Class Gift Committee

Lauren Mimms (lmimms@uchicago.edu) is assistant director, class giving and reunions at the University of Chicago.

Senior Class Gift Committee, 2015

Senior Class Gift Committee, 2015

The University of Chicago instills a lasting tradition of philanthropy in its students through its Senior Class Gift campaign, which began funding programs directly affecting student life in 2003. For the last several years, 75 to 80 percent of the senior class contribute due to the efforts from the Senior Class Gift Committee, a group of dedicated peer-to-peer fundraisers. These students represent all different areas of campus life and are often already established leaders on campus. But, recruiting experienced leaders isn’t the only key to creating a successful committee—it’s how you advise the group that affects its success. As the Senior Class Gift Committee adviser, I’ve found that central to the success of student groups, not just in Senior Class Gift Committee but in all types of student organizations, is giving students agency.

University of Chicago's President Robert Zimmer and the 2015 senior class gift committee at the Museum of Science and Industry Night.

University of Chicago’s President Robert Zimmer and the 2015 Senior Class Gift Committee at the Museum of Science and Industry Night.

When you hold students to high standards and give them the responsibility to make important choices, they will step up to the challenge and grow from the experience. Micro-managing students can make them feel devalued and sets a precedent that you, the adviser, are responsible for the success of the campaign rather than the committee. It also limits student leadership development. I make sure to take the following five steps to empower our Senior Class Gift Committee:

  1. Set expectations. Early on, I have students sign a pledge outlining their responsibilities as committee members. This ensures that they understand the important role they play and the commitments expected of them. I also ensure they understand my role as the adviser—I am there for guidance, but the committee is ultimately theirs to manage.
  2. Provide education. Your committee members will only be enthusiastic about fundraising if they believe in the cause. Be transparent with them about where Senior Class Gift funds go and how important even a small donation is to future student life. Show them past years’ goals and actions, and then allow them to set their own. Providing this knowledge allows students to educate peers effectively and gives them ownership of the final results.
  3. Build excitement. Have fun! Let the committee choose which activities and incentives would excite their peers and then give them the power to plan and execute. These events will be more successful because the students are passionate about them.
  4. Let them lead. We have a board of two co-chairs and three vice-chairs who lead all meetings. They are welcome to come to me for guidance, but asking them to be responsible for the group instills accountability. Students holding their peers accountable can be more effective than a staff member doing so.
  5. Let them fail. If something doesn’t work, it becomes a learning experience. Let students experiment and search for solutions on their own. Be available for larger issues and advice, but allow them to grow through failure when you can.

Students are our greatest asset in Senior Class Gift fundraising, and can become strong fundraising leaders if advisers build up students’ confidence and allow them to take the lead.

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