Annual Programs’ Class Gift Campaign Builds a Culture of Philanthropy from the Ground Up

During Georgia State University’s May 2012 commencement ceremony at the Georgia Dome, nearly 4,000 students in bobbing, black caps marched down aisles of meticulously arranged folding chairs, past friends and fellow graduates, and across the stage erected near midfield. There, the students received (finally!) their Georgia State University diplomas, the official documentation of their years of intellectual endeavor.

A number of their caps were decorated, with fraternity letters, talismanic figures, and jokes taped onto their tops for the benefit of the gathered crowd’s bird’s eye view. Hundreds of them, though, were adorned with a simple blue tassel, the subtle yet significant symbol of a promise — a promise to give back to a school to which these students had already given so much.

“The Class Gift Campaign has always been known as the blue tassel program,” explains Alison Mercer, Director of Annual Programs in the development division at GSU, which runs the campaign. The mechanics of the program are relatively simple: before graduation, students who make a donation of at least $10 to GSU receive a blue tassel to wear to graduation.

Mercer and her team, however, have been revamping the program over the last few years in order to increase awareness and participation. The campaign “started out with [students]giving in commemoration of their class year,” Mercer says; for instance, students graduating in 2007 were asked to contribute $20.07. When she and her co-workers realized that younger students rarely carry much change around any longer, the Annual Programs team switched to a flat donation amount of $25.

“Then Rachel started working here,” says Mercer, referring to Rachel Brown, a graduate of GSU’s own J. Mack Robinson College of Business. Brown, the current Associate Director of Annual Programs, admits she was enticed to work for GSU’s development division through the opportunity to fundraise for scholarships and by a strong belief in the direction of Georgia State’s growth. “It’s amazing to see the transition from more of a commuter school to having more traditional students here and seeing so much school pride. It’s very rewarding for me to see people as proud of this institution as I am,” she says.

With the addition of Brown, Annual Programs “had insider knowledge from a recent grad and a previous student at Georgia State,” Mercer continues. The group decided the contribution amount should be bumped down to $10 in order to accommodate students’ budgets. To remark, as Mercer does, that “participation really took off” following this change is an understatement: since the spring term of 2009, when the donation amount initially became $10, participation has nearly doubled – from 7% in 2008 to 13% so far in 2012.

These statistics square with the anecdotal evidence experienced by Natalie Jones (right), the student assistant for Annual Giving, who participates in the Class Gift Campaign process from the planning stages each semester all the way through the commencement fairs just before graduation: “When I first started here,” she says, “I would go to the commencement fair and have my table set up, and people would ask, ‘Why should I give to the Class Gift Campaign? My student fees have gone up,’ or ‘tuition has gone up.’ They were very hesitant to give.”

Recently, though, one student at the fair, who already had picked up her blue tassel, turned suddenly into a forceful advocate of the campaign. As Jones recounts, “She was giving my spiel to [the other students], and I thought that was really cool to see a student tell another student ‘this is why you should give because this is so important.’”

Education is a major component of the campaign’s mission – including educating graduating seniors about how graduation works: “We’re really trying to help them toward graduation,” says Mercer. According to Brown, Annual Programs attempts to help relieve the “information overload” that students often experience just before they graduate. To do so, they have set up Twitter and Facebook accounts that post relevant graduation information along with information about the Class Gift Campaign. In addition to advertising via social media, Annual Programs staff gets the message out via regular e-mails and slides that run on various televisions on campus, including those aboard GSU buses.

The other major educational thrust of the Class Gift Campaign is about raising awareness of what the GSU development division actually does. According to Mercer, the division “helps students understand what exactly the money is going toward, and how [students are]helping the university after graduation. . . . Of course it’s about increasing participation, but it’s more about bringing awareness to the current students about how they can help once they leave campus.”

It seems somehow appropriate for the development division to help educate students about what it does because the gifts it brings in help make students’ education possible for so many GSU students. Jones – when asked to share her sales pitch to fellow students – says “my favorite thing to tell them is that tuition and fees only cover a third of the university’s operating budget. Many people don’t know that. . . . Another third of it comes from the state, and the rest of it comes from private giving.” The gifts from generations of students in Georgia State’s history have helped make the school everything it is today.

Of crucial importance to the Class Gift Campaign is the ability it gives students to designate precisely where their money goes. As a current student, Jones knows how important this feature is: “A lot of students don’t like when their tuition is raised or their student fees because they don’t have a say in it…when I tell them about why it’s important for people to give back and the fact that they get to choose where their funds go, they’re pretty excited about it.” Philanthropy, as it turns out, is empowering because it means that students are in control of their money and can choose how—and for whom – it works.

Recently, contributing to the Class Gift Campaign became an addition to the Student Alumni Association’s Tradition Keeper book. Comprised of more than 50 activities, events, and important places, this book encourages graduating students to take pictures of themselves completing important GSU traditions.

That making this donation – a student’s first gift back to Georgia State – can now be considered a GSU “tradition” says a great deal about where the Class Gift Campaign is today and the hard work that Mercer, Brown, Jones, and others have done to make this happen. Annual Programs is working to build a culture of philanthropy from the ground up, and on this evidence, it is a tradition that is poised to take a firm hold on the GSU campus for decades to come.

—Written by Heath Wood, (404) 413-3422