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In Canada, professors aren’t afraid of their students

August 31st, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Education

Writing pseudonymously for Vox, a professor at a university in the Midwestern US has claimed that his students, particularly the liberal ones, “terrify” him, forcing him to moderate his curriculum in order to avoid complaints. But things are different in Canada, says Joseph Heath, a Professor at the University of Toronto. Writing in the Ottawa Citizen, Heath says that institutions in the two countries are subject to completely different incentives. Canadian institutions, Heath writes, simply don’t have the same “customer-service orientation” as American ones, and therefore—for better or worse—are not subject to the same concerns around offending students.

One of the lazy habits that Canadian journalists sometimes fall into is talking as though Canada and the United States were the same country. This shows up most clearly in the belief that whenever anything bad is happening in the United States, it must also be happening in Canada, and so there’s no need to actually go and check.

You can see this at work in the recent uptick in concern over the tyranny of “political correctness” in our universities. There have been a number of recent accounts coming from the U.S. of traumatized professors, explaining how they’ve become terrified of their students. And cases of administrators rolling over and playing dead, afraid to offend students’ increasingly delicate sensibilities.

All of this has been enough for some commentators to proclaim a new dark age descending over all of North America, as our universities become, as Rex Murphy put it, “factories for reinforcing received opinions.”

This big trend is one that I’ve seen no evidence of in Canada. I suppose something could always blow up, but so far all there have been are the usual low-level scuffles between left-wing and right-wing student groups, the sort of thing that has been going on forever. The fact is, Canadian universities are quite different from American ones. Even though we have a fairly integrated job market, the incentives that the institutions face are almost completely different in the two countries.

There are few better ways of illustrating the difference than to look at the top U.S. colleges and compare them to a highly-ranked Canadian university, like the University of Toronto where I work. The first thing you’ll notice is that American schools are miniscule. The top 10 U.S. universities combined (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.) have room for fewer than 60,000 undergraduates total. The University of Toronto, by contrast, alone has more capacity, with over 68,000 undergraduate students.

In other words, Canadian universities are in the business of mass education. We take entire generations of Canadians, tens of thousands of them recent immigrants, and give them access to the middle classes. Fancy American schools are in the business of offering boutique education to a very tiny, coddled minority, giving them access to the upper classes. That’s a really fundamental difference.

The second thing is that U.S. schools charge astronomical tuition fees. Most of the top 10 charge over US$45,000, but then they make students live on campus as well, which brings the total bill to over US$60,000 per year. University of Toronto, by contrast, charges annual tuition of just slightly over $6,000 for an Arts and Science degree, and students can live wherever they want, including at home.

Because of the tuition fees, fancy U.S. colleges have what one might call a strong customer-service orientation. No wonder these schools are worried about “offending” people. Offend a student, you get a call from the parents. The same parents you’re milking for over US$60,000 per year.

Also, because U.S. colleges charge these fees on a per-semester basis, they are extremely sensitive to fall semester drop-outs. The number of students they can accept is limited by the number of residence spaces. Lose a student before Christmas, you wind up with an empty dorm-room for the rest of the academic year. As a result, they have begun to practice “yield-management” just like airlines and hotels, overbooking the incoming class, or doing staggered enrolments, so that they can slot new students into whatever rooms become empty in January.

I mention this only to emphasize the point that U.S. colleges care a lot about their tuition revenue, and will bend over backwards to do student retention. If you do badly in a few classes, someone from the administration will actually give you a phone call to find out if you’re doing okay, and if you want to talk about it. The atmosphere this creates on campus is, in my view, cloyingly paternalistic, but it’s what Americans have come to expect. It’s the business model.

That’s why many U.S. colleges have all but stopped failing students, or enforcing rules against plagiarism. It’s also why they pander more to students in the content of their course offerings. But if one were to assume, on this basis, that all universities are doing the same thing, in Canada and the United States, one would be failing to recognize very real differences between these institutions.

Public mega-universities in Canada are, for better or for worse, pretty much completely insulated from “customer complaints.” During my 20 years at University of Toronto, I’ve never had blowback from anything I’ve said or done in class. This of course creates its own problems, but cravenness in the face of student opinion is not one of them.

(The situation in Canada is not as bad as in France, where the universities actually try to get half of the first-year class to drop out. But let’s just say that, if you fail a few classes in Canada, nobody will be calling to check on you.)

There’s one other big difference between Canada and the U.S., which greatly affects the political climate on campus. Left-wing students and faculty in the U.S. have practically no outlet for their political energies or frustrations. Both political parties in the United States are ossified and essentially corrupt. As a result, a huge amount of political energy that should be directed at changing the U.S. government is stymied, and so gets redirected into campus politics.

In other words, intellectuals in America are genuinely alienated from the political system. Many persuade themselves that purifying the universities is actually an important first step in bringing about broader political change. Usually though it’s just a sign of desperation. Recognizing that they will never be able to bring about significant political change in their country, they turn their attention to the small corner of the world that they do control.

Canada, by contrast, has an incredibly dynamic political system, with very accessible political parties and low barriers to entry. After the last federal election, I overheard a funny conversation between a group of professors I know in Montreal, comparing notes on how many of their students had been elected as MPs. If you’re an undergraduate in Canada, why fuss around with campus politics, when you can run for parliament?

To the extent that Canadian students do engage in militant action, it has been largely focused on their own economic interests (lower tuition, higher funding guarantees), rather than abstract ideas about social justice.

The accessibility of the political system, along with the existence of a genuinely left-wing political party in Canada, not to mention the Green Party, hugely affects the political landscape on campus. All of it serves to siphon off a lot of political energy, putting it to better use, and preventing the development of the sort of hot-house atmosphere that prevails in many U.S. colleges.

None of this gives us immunity from the forces that are currently roiling the academy south of the border. But institutional differences do matter, and when it comes to the universities, there are enormous differences between our two countries.

By Joseph Heath
June 8, 2015
Ottawa Citizen

Joseph Heath is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto.




Fear? Not Really
June 9, 2015
By Charles Green

I’m a liberal white faculty member, and I have a confession: I have no idea why other liberal white faculty members claim to be so afraid of their liberal students. In the past few months, anonymous (and sometimes not) white professors have started airing these fears, or re-airing them, as they are reminiscent of old complaints. The campus culture, they claim, has grown toxic, with faculty members carefully paring their syllabi to avoid any potentially uncomfortable material. A specter, they will tell you, is haunting universities — the specter of political correctness, or radical liberalism, or identity politics.

The latest of these accounts, published recently in Vox under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser, is particularly unconvincing. Schlosser, an ostensibly liberal professor, conflates real problems — the shifting of higher education toward a consumer experience (explained and deflated well here by Rebecca Schuman) and the absence of job protection for contingent faculty — with ghosts conjured by paranoia. The generality of Schlosser’s writing doesn’t pass the sniff test; for example, he claims, “Personal experience and feelings aren’t just a salient touchstone of contemporary identity politics; they are the entirety of these politics.”

That sentence doesn’t stack the deck so much as it replaces it entirely. And the oddly random anecdotes of feelings-driven radical liberalism don’t add up; as in many invocations of the dangers of student liberalism, Twitter is a central go-to demon. The fundamental irony of Schlosser’s essay is that he criticizes overreliance on emotional responses that students have, but the fear he describes ultimately seems like an overreliance on an emotional response by some white faculty members. Criticism from students — whether it’s over the reading choices, the assignments, the in-class dynamic — isn’t new, even if it develops out of students’ political perspectives or not. Instructors have to learn to meet that criticism and engage it respectfully.

Finally, people of color are starkly underrepresented among full-time faculty members and face authority challenges in the classroom that white male faculty do not, so the growing concern about what the white professoriate can and cannot say seems laughable to me. Plus, for what it’s worth, I’m a white male instructor unprotected by the tenure track, but I don’t feel the fear Schlosser describes, and my academic friends and colleagues, both tenured and not, at a wide variety of institutions, either don’t feel this fear or don’t confess it to me.

All that said, I do think Schlosser’s concern comes from meaningful, important questions: How do faculty members teach controversial material in an open, respectful forum where students can learn? And how can white male instructors approach issues of race, gender and sexual orientation with sensitivity? I teach first-year writing, creative writing and the personal essay, so each semester I regularly teach (and encounter in student writing) controversial material. If a student has raised a complaint about my handling of that material, it hasn’t been mentioned to me. I don’t assume to know every experience that might arise in the humanities classroom; I also can’t claim I’m the exemplar of how to encounter controversial issues in the classroom. Based on my experience, though, I have suggestions below on how Schlosser and other fearful faculty can teach controversial material.

Know, and admit, the limits of your authority. All instructors try to prepare as comprehensively as possible, but we all enter the classroom with our blind spots, our little (and sometimes big) ignorance. If you help students understand both the background of knowledge you bring as well as the uncertainties and questions you ask of a subject, they likely will understand your perspective more fully and engage with the questions you want them to consider. You won’t lose authority; rather, they’ll grow to see, via your model, how they can enter into complex problems and develop their own authority. They’ll also recognize the limits of their own knowledge, and that knowledge is fluid and limited.

Know, and admit, the extent of your authority. Faculty members are overwhelmingly, disproportionately white; department chairs more so. That’s the main reason I can’t take seriously this anonymous fear of retribution from liberal students: even at colleges with less diverse student populations, students still find more diversity among their peers than on the faculty. The resistance some white faculty members feel from students is, among other things, likely resistance to discovering the university as an ostensibly open environment that is still a sometimes unwelcome one for students of color. Even if we’re trying to be welcoming, white faculty members, myself included, are part of the problem, whether we like it or not. (NB: We should not.) Acknowledging that disparity as part of the process of teaching difficult material can help students discuss that material openly.

Know your place — or, rather, know the place you’re in. While earning my Ph.D., I taught at an urban campus in the Midwest. In one first-year writing course, a student argued that affirmative action has given unfair opportunities to African-American students. In the course of the conversation, I asked the students what percentage of the student body they thought was African-American. One student, from a rural area, guessed 50 percent; no student guessed less than 25 percent. When I told them the percentage was actually under 10, well under the demographics of the city, state and nation the university was home to, they refused to believe me. (Had they looked around the room, they would have seen a single African-American student among the 18 of them.) When I showed them the university’s website, the look of confused resistance that spread on their faces appalled me; one student continued disagreeing, saying there must be some mistake with the website — an administrator had told him it was 25 percent.

Had I been more aware of the place I was in, I would have understood their reactions better. A colleague reminded me later that the university was bordered on two sides by predominantly African-American neighborhoods; the custodial staff and service workers on campus were also largely African-American. Many of the students came from predominantly white neighborhoods and rural areas; they’d never seen so many African-Americans, so their imaginations likely multiplied those numbers.

Wherever we are, we should remember that academe is a shorthand for extraordinarily diverse kinds of universities. That’s why many of us resist when longtime tenured faculty from elite universities describe their experience as universal, a useful reminder that advanced age and advanced degrees don’t necessarily confer wisdom. Knowing your own college or university culture more intimately will help you work more directly with your students, whether the subject matter is controversial or not.

Recognize your own emotional reactions. Fear has a way of magnifying itself. Just because you’re afraid doesn’t mean the thing you’re afraid of is real. Along those lines, I’m skeptical of those who posit a split between the intellectual and emotional. Too many of the essays about fear of liberal students (especially Schlosser’s in Vox) posit the fearful faculty as reasonable and the student body as unreasonably emotional. Not only does the fear some white faculty members describe seem like an emotional embellishment, conceiving of emotion and reason as disconnected opposites does a tremendous disservice to both. Yes, reason and logic can be dispassionate, even at times disconnected from our emotional responses, but to pretend that they must be ever thus in the humanities classroom ignores basic human experience. If you pretend as Wendy Kaminer does that the utterance of the n-word by a white person has a negligible emotional charge, you’re committing an intellectual sin.

Explore your own bias, and never treat it as solved. I’m a white man born and raised in Arkansas. I’ve spent years working to understand the legacy of racism in my home state, and I’ve come to understand that, no matter how fully I try, I’ll probably never filter from myself the last dregs of that legacy. Exploring that bias — via Harvard University’s Implicit Bias test, for example — and acknowledging it to students can be a useful path to helping instructors and students recognize their own biases and develop a more complex understanding of their own emotional and intellectual responses.

When we discuss race in my classes, I tell my students of my background and acknowledge that, as careful as I try to be in thinking and speaking about race, I almost surely bring biases and emotional reactions I don’t yet recognize. In my experience, that engages them with their own experience and the intellectual material we discuss. Along those lines, instructors can benefit from presenting themselves as learners. Both the best and the most frustrating students have an inherent mistrust of authority, I think. As an instructor, I do, too. My greatest pleasure in teaching is being surprised and enlightened by my students’ work, especially their productive, constructive challenges to authority. And when they realize they’ve taught the instructor something, the students gain a useful confidence and foundation for the development of more complex ideas.

Teach difficult, controversial texts, paying particular attention to intellectual and cultural diversity. The avoidance of difficult material that Schlosser describes would be enormously counterproductive, of course, and faculty need to reconsider their syllabi in light of ongoing change. For example, I had long been proud to have a diverse list of poets and fiction writers in my creative-writing class. But when I reconsidered the syllabus last summer, I discovered that the poetry readings were less diverse and less focused on issues of race and gender than I had thought. So I adjusted the readings, adding in poems like June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights” and short stories like Percival Everett’s “The Appropriation of Cultures,” excellent writing that drew the students’ attention to complex issues. Just as we discussed sound and sonnet structure in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” and image and figure in Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” we discussed line breaks, anaphora, tone and race in Jordan’s poem.

As sometimes happens, I encountered student fatigue with discussions of race (in this case in a discussion of Jordan’s poem), only to discover what I think is often the source of that fatigue: many students see the beginning and end point of such discussions as “racism is bad.” When reluctant students saw how the issues were more complicated and required more inquiry, they became more engaged and moved to more compelling insights about the poem and about race.

Make clear the potential discomforts and challenges of the course material. To many, that might sound like a trigger warning, but it actually isn’t. On the first day of my classes, I mention that our reading (and possibly their writing, in creative-writing and personal-essay courses) will make us think in complicated, sometimes uncomfortable ways, about sexuality, race, gender and age, among other subjects. That isn’t a trigger warning; it’s simple politeness. Each class approaches its subject matter differently, and guiding students to your pedagogical approach helps them build the class dynamic more constructively. Trigger warnings, on the other hand, explicitly inform students about subject material that might trigger memories of trauma for those who’ve suffered that trauma. Though I don’t include trigger warnings, it’s frustrating that so many critics of trigger warnings conflate discomfort and trauma, ultimately misrepresenting the idea and design of trigger warnings.

If a student accuses you of hurting her/his feelings in a meaningful way, assume you’re in the wrong before you assume you’re in the right. This runs counter to the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” but it’s a useful guide to self-awareness. (Bear in mind that I’m not arguing that departments should assume their faculty are in the wrong.) In academic and nonacademic contexts, I’ve seen plenty of people react immediately with a sharp defensiveness to all kinds of accusations, only to calcify that defense over time. (Full disclosure: I’ve been that person before and likely will be again.) Moving past the initial defensiveness, or converting the initial impulse into self-inquiry, can be useful in helping instructors consider their biases and emotional responses. Even if you and your colleagues decide you weren’t in the wrong, avoiding the defensive impulse will make you a more perceptive teacher.

What I’ve written above isn’t a comprehensive guide for scared white faculty; I’ve based it on my experience, so it’s necessarily limited. I’m trying to keep myself malleable in the hope of becoming a better teacher. Students will change over time; decrying the loss of some golden age while warning of some encroaching PC liberalism screaming across the sky does the students no good.


Charles Green teaches writing at Cornell University. He hopes that his bosses at the Politically Correct Policepersons Union will accept this essay in lieu of dues this month.

Want to reach more donors? Spill your guts.

August 28th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Fundraising

My plea for emotional copywriting.

There are some “tricks” you can use to improve your appeal. Simple things, really, like better formatting. I mentioned 8 things you can do to improve your letters here. And how you can improve your writing by keeping it simple here.

But there’s one thing you can do that you can’t reduce to a formula or a checklist. And it’s one too many people avoid when they’re trying to write to donors.

You’ve got to wear your heart right out there on your sleeve.

Maybe even on the front of your shirt.

In neon.

To make your writing effective, to make it feel sincere, you’ve got to dig into yourself. You’re going to have to let go a little and allow yourself to feel all the feels.

Think of it like acting.

Back in my pre-kids life, I enjoyed performing. I loved to sing and dance and act. Acting could be a challenge. I had to dig into my character, think about his or her emotions and live them – even if just for a little while.

Well, I was writing a thank you letter recently. And I realized I was doing pretty much the same thing.

No, there wasn’t a character. But there was an idea, a profile, of the person who’d be reading this letter. And of the person the reader would want to hear from.

You have to become the writer (or the best possible, most sympathetic version of the writer). And you have to become the reader, as well.

As the writer, you want to think about:

  • What is it I’ve experienced that will tell the story of my organization?
  • What do I feel every day when I see the problems a donation will help?
  • How do the people we serve feel about the work?

Note I’m not suggesting a list of programs here. You don’t want to include an organizational resume.

Because you’re selling benefits (to the community, the people you help, the donor) not features (all the cool things your organization does). Remember, you’re not going to amaze people into giving.

As the donor, you want to think about:

  • How will I feel when I read this?
  • Is it about me?
  • Why should I care – why should I get emotional about this?
  • What is it I can do to help?

There are other characters to consider, as well. If you’re telling a story about someone your organization has helped, you need to get into his skin.


The bottom line?

Actors have to be willing to be vulnerable. They expose emotions to an audience. It can leave them feeling raw, exposed – but also exultant. It’s a very human experience.

So is giving. And your writing needs to be just as vulnerable, exposed and human.

That’s how you win hearts – and donations.

By Mary Cahalane
Hands On Fundraising

Students may benefit from gap year

August 27th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Education

The Globe and Mail reports that many Canadian students could benefit from taking a gap year—a year off after high school to travel, work, or volunteer—before starting college or university. The article notes that while gap years are common rites of passage in Europe, they remain relatively rare in Canada. Advocates say that a gap year can help students explore their interests and possible career paths before committing to a particular educational program. Lauren Friese, founder of online career resource site TalentEgg, says that a gap year can also provide the opportunity for students to differentiate themselves to prospective employers further down the line. There are now programs in Canada that offer young people structured gap years, including life coaching and personal development options.

As a new generation of Canadian students prepares to make the transition from high school to college or university, a small number will consider taking a year off to travel, work, volunteer and carefully consider some of the most important decisions they will need to make in their young lives – though many more would benefit from doing so.

Unlike many countries in Europe and around the world where taking a year off between high school and university is considered a rite of passage, taking a “gap year” is rare among Canadian students.

In Norway, Turkey and Denmark, for example, more than half of students take a year off before starting their postsecondary education, according to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education. While 30 per cent of Canadian students took more than four months off from school before entering a postsecondary institution, according to a 2008 study by Statistics Canada, most of them did so for financial reasons.

Taking a year off before college or university, however, often leads to better grades, increased job satisfaction and even higher pay later in life, according to the American Gap Association.

While many Canadians appear to believe that a gap year will merely delay a student’s entrance into the work force, the fact that 38 per cent of college and university students will drop out or change majors – according to a 2008 study co-written by the Canadian Education Project, a Toronto-based education policy and research association – exemplifies how taking a year to explore interests and possible career paths could potentially save parents and students a lot of tuition fees and career angst.

“One of the problems is that in society we just assume that everybody matures at the exact same rate and the exact same age,” said Lauren Friese, founder of TalentEgg, an online resource and job board for students and recent graduates. “The idea is that when you graduate high school at age 17 or 18, you’re automatically ready to go to university or college, and that’s generally false.”

As someone who helps young Canadians to find meaningful work, Ms. Friese says that taking a gap year can actually help students stand out to future employers.

“The biggest problem for students post-graduation when they’re applying for jobs is that they all look like clones; there’s not a lot to differentiate business grad one from business grad two, or sociology grad one from sociology grad two,” she said. “Taking the initiative to work with a charity, or travel the world or whatever it is, those things stand out.”

Ms. Friese says that those who accomplish little during the time they take off between high school and their postsecondary years will similarly have to answer to future employers who will expect to see some personal growth during that time.

In the U.K., where Ms. Friese earned her master’s degree in economic history, she said there are plenty of websites, travel agencies, businesses and other infrastructure in place to support students taking a gap year, something that “doesn’t really exist in Canada.” She said she thinks the idea would likely gain more support from Canadian parents if there were similar resources and support networks here.

While some programs, such as Mygapyear, do provide resources and structured programming for Canadian students taking a year off, they remain few and far between.

“It’s sort of a chicken-and-the-egg thing. Do we need society to think more highly of gap years, or do we need the institutions to acknowledge that gap years are an educational opportunity?” said Madelyn Steed, the director of gapper services for Mygapyear, an organization that coaches students wanting to get the most out of their year off. Ms. Steed says the concept is more entrenched in the United States, where institutions such as Harvard and Princeton allow applicants to defer their acceptance by one year, a luxury that is scarce among Canadian postsecondary institutions.

Over the past seven years, Mygapyear has provided personal life coaching and other resources to about 90 Canadian students, but remains among the only options for Canadians interested in pursuing a structured gap year.

Another recently launched program, however, seeks to provide Canadian students with a more highly structured gap year, in hopes of seeing them return to school more confident, accomplished and prepared for postsecondary life.

Created by Joel Nicholson – the co-founder of – the Global Leadership Academy is built on four pillars: discover, design, build and achieve. During the eight-month program, students are required to solve a problem in their community, organize an event, volunteer abroad, overcome a physical challenge, complete an internship and create something from nothing.

“We aim for the student to set these goals and achievements as lofty as possible, because then it brings a little bit more of a challenge and excitement for us as instructors to help them reach those,” said Mr. Nicholson, adding that the program also puts an emphasis on teaching soft skills. “Creativity, problem-solving skills, structured communications, these are the courses in the training programs that I was given in management consulting, and Google and GE and other highly successful organizations do deliver these skills-based training to their employees, but it’s really missing in education right now, and that’s why I’m trying to incorporate it into the Global Leadership Academy.”

After four months in a classroom setting, students will spend four months completing the goals they’ve set out for themselves, with regular check-ins and progress reports from Mr. Nicholson and his staff. Mr. Nicholson adds that while the program costs approximately $5,000 – not including the cost of volunteering abroad – the program is structured in a way that allows students to break even through paid internships and by organizing a fundraising event.

“Gap years can be a good way to gain a year of maturity while also answering some key questions about yourself and what you want in life,” said Ms. Friese, adding that many who take a gap year are still at risk of not spending that time effectively, and that parents remain rightfully concerned that it could prove a wasted opportunity.

“[Global Leadership Academy] is solving both of those problems – providing structure for those young people who may otherwise struggle to find it, and providing legitimacy to the concept of a gap year.”

Tuesday, Jun. 09, 2015
Globe and Mail

Best tips on growing email lists via offline efforts

August 26th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Email

link to podcast

We’re pleased to have Emily Goodstein, Online Media Strategist, share her best tips on growing your email lists via offline efforts, in this podcast.

Developing your nonprofit’s email list is crucial.  Even if your organization finds many donors are direct mail only, research has found that those constituents who are contacted through multiple channels tend to give more–so, isn’t that a good reason to build it up?

Moreover, your organization undoubtedly holds some type of in-person event, or canvasses the streets, or gets involved at community events.  What better way to develop a relationship with interested, potential donors than to keep in touch via email?

Drawing upon her years working with nonprofit organizations, Emily sheds light on some easy to implement ways to get those people you have met in real life (i.e., “offline”) to be part of your online community– and become stronger donors.  Take a listen and let us know your thoughts!

link to podcast

December 28, 2014
by Emily Goodstein through Third Sector

Why you should probably trash your general brochure

August 25th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Marketing

Perhaps the single biggest waste of time and money in fundraising is the general brochure.


That’s because of what it usually sets out to do:

It explains “what we do.”

It shows how superior our processes are.

It brags about how long we’ve been around, what awards we’ve won, and how famous our CEO/Founder is.

I’ve noticed that many general brochures focus in on what we don’t do — as if that could possibly be of any interest to donors.

Basically, most nonprofit general brochures are a four-color exercise in chest-thumping.

Which is a complete waste of time, money, ink, and paper.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If your general brochure spent its energy bragging about the donor instead of the organization, you’d have something powerful on your hands.

If it was about…

What you can do through us.

How much difference you can make when you give through us.

Why you can trust us, why others trust us, and what third parties have said about us. (This is the part that comes closest to bragging, but if you’re really good, it won’t be braggy.)

And it never, ever, talks about what you don’t do. Because that’s worse than boring. It’s annoying.

That kind of general brochure would support fundraising. Not undermine it, the way the other kind does.

But here’s another thing about brochures: In direct mail, even a good brochure usually depresses response.

There are too many brochures in the world. Maybe you can do you part in decreasing the overpopulation of brochures by not creating any at all.

by on 02 June 2015
Future Fundraising Now

Test It Out

August 24th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Email, Marketing
From easy to complex, there’s a testing strategy for every email campaign


All marketing should be iterative. You launch a campaign, review results and determine your success. During the process, it is imperative to test. The direct marketing mantra is “beat the control.” Marketers look for ways to better connect with their targets and improve results. They learn from testing and the review of results, and then they apply their learnings to the next campaign.

Email symbol

“Beat the control.”
—Direct marketing mantra

Email Marketers Can Generate Response Quickly
Here’s an example I worked on for a client, which demonstrates the ability to use timeliness for email testing:

A marketer provided horoscopes on its website and collected more than half a million email addresses. A light bulb went off and the marketer wanted to send an email to encourage recipients to register to receive a daily horoscope, rather than waiting for the individual to visit the website.

At 9 a.m., we launched seven tests to portions of the file. At noon, we evaluated results and saw that two tests performed much better. We looked at what worked and what did not work, and decided to develop one more creative test. At 2 p.m., we sent three emails to a subset of the list with the winning creatives and a newly developed email.

Finally at 5 p.m., we evaluated the results. The new creative was the winner. We rolled it out to the balance of the list the next day. Just to give you insights into registrations for all testing: The lowest registration rate was 7 percent and the highest was 43 percent.

Email testing can give actionable results in a short time frame that you can act upon quickly.

If Email Is Iterative, What Does That Mean?
You can understand from the previous example that you can easily use email for testing. But that’s not all I’m referring to when I say this. You should learn from every campaign you send. It might not be a test, but who opened? What portions of your list clicked … and on what product/offer did they click? The only way to improve is to develop segments and a testing strategy.

What and How to Test?
There’s a lot of material available on testing that you can learn from in Target Marketing. But the cornerstone is to select two elements and take a subset of your file and expose them to different message and creative elements.

So, what do you test? Let’s examine some easy to complex testing strategies.

• Subject line testing: Subject lines affect open rates. It’s important to determine what resonates with your audience. This is easy to test. Determine what success metrics are most important to you. It might be open rates or clicks to your site.

If you are testing urgency, you might test the phrasing “Last chance” or “Only 24 hours.” For some reason, numbers fascinate people, and numbers in a subject line capture attention.

Conventional wisdom says that subject lines should be short and include no more than 35 characters. Test long vs. short. Or test benefits against features.

• Personalization: Test the impact of including a person’s name in the subject line or in the body copy. Remember, this is a tactic and not something you need do all the time.

Here’s a B-to-B example from Talon Mailing and Marketing. The snippet marketing message at the top of the email was: “Reggie, Let’s Work Together and Make 2015 a Banner Year.” I thought the execution was eye-catching and fun. I loved seeing my name on a banner!


Personalized email from Talon Mailing

Well-placed personalization is a sure-fire way to catch attention. Here, Talon Mailing and Marketing uses Reggie Brady’s first name twice, including her full name in the banner.


Personalization can be based on geography, gender, business title and more. So, you have plenty of options.

• Offers: We know that offers are critical and the way you present them can make all the difference. If you are offering a discount, one important aspect to test is whether you offer a percent discount or dollars off.

There was a test conducted by Evo — an online retailer of outdoor gear — reported by MarketingSherpa. Evo promoted wake boards and tested a 15 percent discount vs. $50 off in the subject line and the body copy. Both offers had similar opens and clicks, but the dollars off positioning generated 170 percent higher revenue and a 72 percent higher conversion rate.

In my mind, if you have higher price points, it can sometimes be difficult for people to calculate percentages in their heads, while dollars off is easy to figure out.

• Behavioral: Sending emails based on prior clickthrough interest behavior can be a winner. Here’s an idea you might consider: American Meadows, purveyor of flower bulbs, sent one email a week to its list. The company tested sending a second email later in the week, focused on the item the recipient clicked on. If there were no opens or clicks, the highest clicked item was featured.

As direct marketers, you know that testing is the key to future results. Resolve to put a rigorous testing plan in place that includes the areas we’ve covered.

Target Marketing magazine

ON allows grads to use Aeroplan points to pay student loans

August 21st, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Education

Through a partnership with Higher Ed Points, students can now use Aeroplan points to pay down Ontario Student Assistance Plan (OSAP) loans. Using either their own points, or points from friends, family, or employers, students can redeem their miles in $250 denominations and then transfer the funds to their student loan account. Reza Moridi, ON Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities, called the partnership an “innovative way [for students] to invest in themselves and their future.” Rajean Hoilett, Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario (CFS-O), criticized the move as “yet another example of a government that treats Ontario’s student debt crisis like an episode of Extreme Couponing.

In what’s surely a twist on the laws of money management, Ontario grads now can use a “points card” to actually get out of — not into — debt.

Loan-laden college and university graduates can fly, shop and charge their way to a smaller loan balance now that the province will let them — or any kind-hearted friend or relative — use Aeroplan points to pay down their Ontario student loans.

While the chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario says the plan “treats Ontario’s student debt crisis like an episode of Extreme Couponing,” the College Student Alliance hails it as “another avenue for paying off student debt.”

“Now a points card can go to something a little more positive,” said communications manager Veronica Barahona.

The Ontario government announced Wednesday it has partnered with a private company called Higher Ed Points that will convert every 35,000 Aeroplan points — earned by flying Air Canada or using a TD or American Express Aeroplan credit card, for example — into a $250 payment towards the student’s debt under the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).

It’s the latest move Aeroplan and Higher Ed Points have made into higher learning. A growing number of colleges and universities, including York, Ryerson and most GTA community colleges, are already letting students use the system to pay tuition. While few students have used it yet — only a couple at Ryerson, a handful at Centennial — these institutions say they plan to promote the option more as this fall’s tuition comes due.

But letting students also use Aeroplan points to pay down student debt “will offer students and graduates another innovative way to invest in themselves and their future,” said MPP Reza Moridi, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities.

Alberta started to let grads use the system to pay down debt back in March. Already, actuarial science grad Charles Bernatchez has knocked $1,500 off what he owes by dipping into his hefty bank of Aeroplan points, earned from frequent flights between his Edmonton home and the Montreal head office of his employer. He also uses his own Aeroplan American Express card to cover upfront expenses for a youth group with which he works.

“Ironically, I can’t afford to travel myself until I pay off my student debt,” said the 26-year-old, who owed $40,000 when he graduated. “I’m going to keep paying it off with Aeroplan points; it’s a great way to take some of the weight off.”

The average university graduate owes about $22,200 after a four-year degree, and a two-year college grad owes on average about $13,000.

The president of the Ontario Undergraduate Students’ Alliance said that the program, while it’s handy for those who can afford to earn points, “wouldn’t be something a large portion of students will be able to benefit from.

“It seems like an odd, disconnected way to pay back OSAP; you wouldn’t normally associate it with a retail benefit,” said Spencer Nestico-Semianiw.

However, Suzanne Tyson, founder of Higher Ed Points, said “it’s not meant to be the solution” for making higher learning affordable, “but part of the solution. Already some $120,000 in tuition and student loan offsets have been converted through this plan.”

One Toronto employer cashed in his Aeroplan points and put them toward summer course tuition for three students, she said.

“The average student redeems about $1,000 worth of points. And it’s often not the students themselves, but parents and grandparents, who make the donation.”

By: GTA, Published on Wed Jun 17 2015
Toronto Star

Clintons Charge Big Fees to Small Nonprofits

August 20th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Information

When Condoleezza Rice headlined a 2009 fundraising luncheon for the Boys and Girls Club of Long Beach, she collected a $60,000 speaking fee, then donated almost all of it back to the club, according to multiple sources familiar with the club’s finances.

Hillary Clinton was not so generous to the small charity, which provides after-school programs to underprivileged children across the Southern California city. Clinton collected $200,000 to speak at the same event five years later, but she donated nothing back to the club, which raised less than half as much from Clinton’s appearance as from Rice’s, according to the sources and tax filings.

Instead, Clinton steered her speaking fee to her family’s own sprawling $2 billion charity.

The Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which has come under scrutiny for its fundraising and fiscal management, has taken in as much as $11.7 million in payments from other nonprofit groups. The money was paid for speeches given by Hillary Clinton; her husband, the former president; and their daughter, Chelsea Clinton, since the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency in 2001, according to a POLITICO analysis of a list of speeches voluntarily released last month by the foundation.



The groups range from smaller charities like Long Beach’s Boys and Girls Club and an AIDS service provider, Chicago House, to public policy advocacy groups, large universities and trade associations.

The cash, according to Clinton Foundation spokesman Craig Minassian, allowed the foundation “to effectively and efficiently use our resources to implement programs that are fighting HIV/AIDS and childhood obesity, increasing opportunity for women and girls, lifting people out of poverty and combating climate change.”

Few of the groups talked publicly about their payments for Clinton speeches, citing concerns about angering the family or violating provisions in the speaking arrangements.

But fundraising experts and people affiliated with some nonprofits on the list — including the Boys and Girls Club — grumbled that the hefty price tag for securing a Clinton speech is a significant drain on small charities’ fundraising and that community-based nonprofits could put the money to better use.

It’s not uncommon for charities to build fundraising events around speakers with “star power” to sell tickets, even if the strategy doesn’t always pay dividends, said Marc A. Pitman, a nonprofit fundraising coach. Such speakers are often expected to return some portion of the speaking fee as a “gift to the club or sponsorship of an event or underwriter for some outreach.” It’s less common, he said, for “a bigger nonprofit to raise funds by speaking to smaller nonprofits. I don’t know of any other foundation that collects speaking fees.”

A Boys and Girls Club volunteer who helped plan Hillary Clinton’s appearance said the arrangement “felt more like a pay-to-play type thing.”

As Hillary Clinton positions herself as a champion for everyday Americans during her presidential campaign, scrutiny has been directed at the $139 million in speaking fees she and her husband have collected since leaving the White House — including millions of dollars from nonprofit groups. Bill Clinton collected millions in personal income from speeches to hospitals and synagogues, as well as $100,000 from the British nonprofit National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and even $150,000 from the Long Beach Boys and Girls Club, the same group that sought out Hillary Clinton in 2014. She earned $12 million on the speaking circuit from the beginning of last year through March, when she stopped giving paid speeches as she prepared to launch her presidential campaign.

In their defense, the Clintons say they have donated other speaking fees to their own charity, which has balanced domestic efforts like fighting childhood obesity and heart disease with far-flung international efforts like increasing access to HIV/AIDS medication, ivory poaching in Africa and earthquake recovery in Haiti.


Bill Clinton, asked last week if he would continue giving paid speeches should his wife be elected president, suggested he would not. But he also aggressively defended their speaking forays, which have yielded at least $139 million in speaking fees for the couple — not including fees paid directly to the foundation.

“I give 10 percent of my paid speeches, a little more actually, have gone directly to the foundation,” he said, adding “and Hillary gave even more of her paid speeches to the foundation.”

Leaders of several nonprofits that paid speaking fees to the Clintons said fundraising tickets sold quickly after the announcement of a Clinton appearance. Others questioned whether financing six-figure speaking fees adhered to charity best practices, which dictate that costs should be less than one-third the amount brought in by the events.

That doesn’t appear to have been the case when Hillary Clinton addressed a University of Nevada-Las Vegas fundraiser last year, an event university spokesman Tony Allen called “a tremendous success.” The university’s accounting shows the event netted $110,000 for the school’s foundation after paying off expenses including Clinton’s $225,000 speaking fee.

Allen told POLITICO the event also raised an additional $237,000 in scholarship donations. But student leaders had called on Clinton to donate some or all of the speaking fee — which one called “a little outrageous” — back to the school to “enrich thousands of students and faculty on campus.” She instead steered the cash to her family’s foundation.

And a small charity called the Happy Hearts Fund, which rebuilds schools destroyed by natural disasters, donated $500,000 to the Clinton Foundation in conjunction with a Bill Clinton speech at its 2014 gala, only after trying unsuccessfully to get him to appear for free. It reportedly was told by the Clinton Foundation that “they don’t look at these things unless money is offered, and it has to be $500,000.” The gala at which Clinton spoke brought in $1 million less than its previous gala in 2012, a Happy Hearts Fund spokesperson told POLITICO. Praising Clinton for raising awareness “about the need for sustained response in countries impacted by natural disasters,” the spokesperson suggested the fundraising decline was unrelated to the former president. “Differences in amounts between years result from a myriad of factors including donor interest, the time of year events are held and how much other fundraising we do in a given year,” said the spokesperson.

Representatives from several other charities that paid Bill and Hillary Clinton for speeches said they typically do not pay speaking fees — only expenses — but they made exceptions to land the Clintons.


Bill Clinton has, in fact, delivered some free speeches to nonprofits, including one to the gay rights group GLAAD, which gave him an award at its April 2013 gala in Los Angeles. It paid only Clinton’s travel expenses to the ceremony, where he memorably spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act — a bill he signed into law as president that recognized marriage as between a man and a woman, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2013.

And last week, he said: “I have done more appearances for other people than I have given paid speeches.”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign did not respond to questions. The Clinton Foundation and a spokesman for Bill Clinton referred questions to the Harry Walker Agency, which arranges the Clintons’ speeches but did not respond to a request for comment.

Some charities that donated to secure Clinton speeches said the deal was a bargain.

“The fee that we paid was greatly reduced from what his asking fee was at the time,” said Mark Fowler, the acting executive director of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. It donated $25,000 to the Clinton Foundation to get him to give a speech accepting a 2006 award. Judging by the group’s tax filings that year, it appears to have made more than $230,000 from the gala, but Fowler suggested that calculation was secondary. “We don’t just look for people who can raise money for us. We look for people who are uniquely aligned to our mission, and Clinton was, and his speech is still remembered by many people.”

The Clinton Foundation is not only aligned with the Boys and Girls Club, but the two organizations also formed a partnership to provide healthy eating and exercise opportunities to kids outside of school. Announcing it in January 2014 — 10 months before Hillary Clinton’s speech to the Long Beach chapter — at a Clinton Foundation conference, Bill Clinton noted that he was a former Boys and Girls Club member and praised the organization for working to “create a culture of wellness to sustain healthier environments for young people most in need.”

Bill Clinton was the featured speaker at the Long Beach Boys and Girls Club’s March 2007 corporate luncheon — the event his wife and Rice would later headline. Held on the top-floor office of a donor’s downtown suite, it’s considered “a must-attend” for the city’s movers and shakers and has drawn appearances from Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair, Rudy Giuliani and former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.

Bill Clinton charged the group $150,000, which was reported as personal income — not a donation to the Clinton Foundation — on his wife’s federal financial disclosure form.

A Boys and Girls Club supporter said that, comparatively, Hillary Clinton’s speaking fee was “a little less offensive” than “writing a check to them and having them profit from it.”

But Hillary Clinton’s $200,000 speaking fee was the largest paid to any speaker, according to sources familiar with club finances. Partly as a result, her appearance was among the least profitable for the group of any event in the 25-year-old series, netting only $106,000 for the club, they said.

By contrast, the Condoleezza Rice luncheon five years earlier raised nearly $258,000 after expenses and Rice’s give-back of her speaking fee were tallied, according to sources and the organization’s tax filing.

An extra $150,000 — the difference between the yields at Rice’s speech vs. Clinton’s — can go a long way at an organization that, like the Boys and Girls Club, has an annual budget of less than $3 million.

Neither Rice nor the club responded to questions, and the tax filing detailing the finances of Clinton’s appearance has yet to be filed.

But Boys and Girls Club sources told POLITICO that another reason Clinton’s speech yielded less for the club was that her representatives requested more complimentary seats for her entourage than previous speakers had sought. As a result, there were fewer tickets for sale at prices ranging from $1,500 for individual tickets to $50,000 for a platinum table sponsorship.

That irritated some supporters, who also noted disapprovingly that Clinton gave her speech (which was billed as closed to the press), then took off without visiting any of the club’s facilities to meet the children who benefit from its services.

By contrast, Rice spent the morning before her speech (which was open to the media) touring a club facility and talking with its children about the importance of staying in school and chasing their dreams, according to an account in the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

“With Hillary, it was more businesslike,” said a volunteer involved in the planning. “She did acknowledge what we do for the community, but it felt like a little bit of hypocrisy because her speaking fee was higher than anyone we’ve ever had, and she didn’t donate anything back.”

By 6/16/15

Matt Yurus contributed to this report.

Tech companies deploy own certification courses to build credentials sought in job applicants

August 19th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Information

Peter Janzow was in the midst of a successful career in ed tech, including at one point founding Brownstone Learning, a homework management startup. When he got laid off, suddenly his bachelor’s degree in history, from Knox College—his only academic credential—felt inadequate and dated.

“Do I need to reskill?” he wondered. “I became very familiar with what’s going on in terms of alternative credentials.” One thing quickly became clear to him, he says: “We’re all going to be lifelong learners; we need to get credit for that in a way that’s demonstrable.”

Fast-forward to today, and Janzow has landed at Acclaim, Pearson’s first big bet on the next generation of learning credentials. The platform, built on top of Mozilla’s open-source badges framework, provides organizations a way to grant and verify badges, and students with a way to claim and share them.

“If we can provide verified credentials, that’s solving a real employer need,” says Janzow, who leads the Acclaim team, a startup embedded within Pearson VUE.

Acclaim arrives at a time when traditional academic degrees are falling out of favor, in part due to their staggering cost, and online learning options are on the rise. Back when badges emerged on the scene in 2012, education pundits were optimistic that these new digital credentials could be a “fantastic bargain” by allowing students to bypass the expense of college tuition. “If digital badges infiltrate the credential market, they could shake the economic foundations of a higher-education industry that over the last 30 years has consistently increased prices much higher than inflation and family income, resulting in over $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt,” Kevin Carey wrote in The New York Times. But so far, it’s been private employers, not universities, that have taken the lead.

Meanwhile, demand for continuing education has exploded, thanks to technology’s impact. Amid this rapidly shifting landscape, it has become incredibly difficult for prospective students to evaluate the return on investment associated with a course or program; for companies, it has become difficult to find qualified new hires and keep employees’ skills fresh.

The solution, many companies have decided, is to get more deeply involved in education and training themselves. In April, LinkedIn bought course provider for $1.5 billion, helping to close the gap for the recruiters and job-seekers on its site. And it is Microsoft—and not an educational institution—that is the top certificate-issuer on LinkedIn, in a ranking dominated by technology companies like Cisco and Google. Last year, Microsoft became one of Acclaim’s first customers when it entered into a partnership with INSEAD, resulting in an online course on “Business Strategy and Financial Acumen.”

“Microsoft is in a moment of transition right now,” says Hilary Albert, who manages the program. “We have tens of thousands of people we need to change and train.”


A sample dashboard from startup Degreed


Microsoft ran a pilot of the course last fall for nearly a thousand employees, and is now on track to offer the course three times per year. In the most recent session, 83% of students completed the course and 66% earned a certificate.

Albert attributes the course’s completion rates—high in comparison to many other online courses—to the paired value of the Microsoft and INSEAD brands. “It’s a way for people to take part in a prestigious institution. It’s a way to differentiate yourself from other people that work here. And because it’s a cobranded badge, it has value outside of Microsoft,” she says. According to LinkedIn, profile views for members with certifications are six times higher than for those without.

Adobe, Autodesk, IBM, Microsoft: Acclaim has a growing list of private-sector customers, and so far has issued more than 1 million badges. For some badges, claim rates (meaning the course or objective was completed and passed) are as high as 90%—a promising sign that the marketplace is seeing value in the credentials.

But challenges remain. One of the dangers for Acclaim and its customers is that the new badges will get lost in the sea of certificates, nanodegrees, and other résumé-builders.

“I think that the [Mozilla] community overemphasized the wide-open nature of badges at the start,” Janzow says, noting that “literally any individual can issue any badge based on any criteria.” The result has been a system in which many badges are offered but few are claimed.

That issue of diluted value extends to certifications more broadly, says Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass, which uses data analytics to better match people and jobs. “There are only a couple hundred that get mentioned in job postings,” he says. “Are we just creating a different kind of noise?”

Expanding the new credentials to nontechnical industries poses another challenge. In fields like software development, where skills are defined and measurable, credentials have largely kept pace with evolving employer expectations. But in fields where softer skills like communication are prized, the credentials remain inchoate—another rationale for companies moving education in-house, where they can design the curriculum to their specifications and closely monitor student progress.


Another view of the Degreed platform


The last challenge is figuring out where the new wave of credentials will live. Students issued badges by Acclaim customers will have to claim their badge by creating an account; once logged in, they’ll be able to share the badge on LinkedIn and elsewhere. Other badge-issuers are using Mozilla’s “backpack,” also designed as a central hub for students to manage their badges over time. Then there are options like Degreed, a startup that pulls all of your learning—from badges to more traditional forms of company-sponsored professional development—into a central dashboard.

“You learn in higher education for two, four, six years. You learn in a professional context for 30 or 40 years,” says Degreed founder and CEO David Blake. “We need a better way to capture that and make all learning matter.”

Companies pay Degreed for access to the startup’s platform, but Blake says accounts are portable, even for job-switchers. “Honestly, it’s been refreshing and a bit surprising how eager companies are to empower employees,” he says. “I think some of it is because in this category of media—learning content, learning platforms—in the enterprise context, there is this long, pent-up dissatisfaction.”

Blake envisions a future in which traditional credentials, like university degrees, coexist alongside modern markers of achievement and ways of gauging experience. “Badges, nanodegrees—we’re still at this noisy level in our evolution. I think what will happen next is credentials that can bring all this together and contextualize things.”

He hopes to make Degreed the place where that happens. For now, the market remains dependent on résumé PDFs and LinkedIn profiles, funneled into the labyrinth that is job-screening software. Indeed, frustrated job searchers may welcome greater corporate involvement in training and education. But recent corporate activities go far beyond helping colleges and universities graduate career-ready students.

“We’re going to see private companies creating their own education systems,” CEB executive Jean Martin, a human resources expert, told an audience of education insiders at a recent conference. Human-resources departments are increasingly borrowing from supply chain management practices, she said, as they look to custom-engineer their “suppliers” of people. “Walmart is saying, ‘We want to source our cashiers ourselves, and we want to do it starting in the sixth grade.’ They’re seeing this huge skills gap at the same time that they’re seeing a need to reshore a lot of jobs.”

Even if Walmart does an excellent job of preparing students for those jobs, it’s unclear whether other employers would be interested in hiring workers with a credential from “Walmart U.”—a major risk should those jobs ever evaporate.

June 17, 2015
By Fast Company

Deal to keep Sweet Briar College open approved by VA judge

August 18th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Education

Sweet Briar College lives on.

In a deal announced Saturday evening [June 20, 2015] by Virginia’s attorney general, the college’s current leaders agreed to relinquish control to a new president and a largely new board. Saving Sweet Briar, an organization of alumnae who have fought the planned closure of the college, has agreed to raise $12.5 million to continue operating the college in the 2015-16 academic year. The first $2.5 million would have to be provided by July 2.

Based on that agreement, the attorney general will end restrictions on $16 million in the college’s endowment. The funds from the endowment and from Saving Sweet Briar are believed to be sufficient to operate the college in the coming academic year. All litigation will be dropped.

The deal also states that there will be a severance plan for faculty and staff members, but that they “may be offered employment” after the change in leadership. Most tenured and tenure-track faculty members were told by the current administration that they would lose their jobs at the end of June.

Links to Essays on Sweet Briar

The announcement that Sweet Briar would close set off a wide debate in higher education. Here are links to some of the essays published by Inside Higher Ed, all appearing while the college planned to close:

  • Nancy Gray, president of Hollins University, argues that Sweet Briar’s decision shouldn’t be read to mean that all women’s colleges are going to disappear or that their role isn’t vital.
  • Alice Brown, president emerita of the Appalachian College Association, writes that there are times that the best thing to do for a college is to close it.
  • Jane Stancill, who writes about higher education for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., writes about why she enrolled at Sweet Briar and why she left.
  • Jason Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, writes about how Sweet Briar’s problems make it essential for researchers to document the unique qualities of liberal arts colleges.
  • Robert M. Moore, president and chief executive officer of Lipman Hearne, considers what Sweet Briar’s problems say about marketing of colleges.

As soon as word of the deal started to spread, alumnae who fought against the long odds started to celebrate. “Never doubt that a small group of women can change the world. We saved Sweet Briar!” said one of the first comments on Twitter. The hashtag #savesweetbriar was replaced by many with #sweetbriarsaved. One of the alumnae groups that has been working to keep the college open promoted a Sweet Briar 2.0 website, with collections of ideas on how to strengthen the college.

“Today’s settlement is an answer to the prayers of many and a powerful validation of the value of fighting for what you believe in,” said Sarah Clement, chair of Saving Sweet Briar. She noted that the organization has $21 million in pledges from alumnae and others who want to keep the college going.

The news in March that Sweet Briar would shut down stunned not only the college, but many others in higher education. Unlike most colleges that close, Sweet Briar still had more than $80 million in its endowment, name recognition, a beautiful campus and a sound academic reputation. But trustees cited a rising discount rate (the percentage covered by institutional aid or discounts off sticker price that families pay), a declining yield (the percentage of admitted applicants who enroll) and the difficulty of recruiting applicants to a rural women’s liberal arts college.

But alumnae immediately objected, criticized the management of the college and said that they would raise enough money to keep it going. They have apparently done so. But now they face the challenges that the previous board could not solve: how to attract enough students to sustain the college, and specifically how to attract students in an era when being a rural liberal arts college for women doesn’t by itself draw enough students — however high quality the experience for those who enroll.

Sweet Briar had an undergraduate enrollment of 561 students in the academic year that just ended. Since then, 134 have graduated and another 231 have requested final transcripts, which typically indicates a transfer. However, it is unclear how many of those students might reconsider now that their college has survived. Sweet Briar alumnae report that ever since the announcement Saturday night they have been hearing from students who transferred who want to come back, and from others who are interested in enrolling.

Saving Sweet Briar and others have been engaged in a bitter legal battle with the college over the plans to close. While the college has avoided any orders to stay open indefinitely, the opponents of closure won a key victory this month when the Virginia Supreme Court ordered a new hearing by a lower court on an injunction to block closure. While the ruling was not a conclusive victory for Saving Sweet Briar, it kept the legal case against closure alive.

Up until Saturday, the college itself had been predicting that the college would shut down after helping students graduate or transfer this summer. And officials have said repeatedly that there was no realistic way to make the college successful over the long run.

But shortly after the announcement by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, the college issued a statement endorsing the deal. The announcement noted that Saving Sweet Briar says it has $12 million in donation pledges for the next year (the larger total reflects some longer-term commitments). With that money added to existing funds, the board statement said, “the Board of Directors decided that new leadership should be allowed the opportunity to operate the college for another year with the hope it will be able to find long-term solutions for ongoing sustainability.”

A spokesperson for the college said the current administration and board would have no comment beyond the statement.

Change in Leadership

The agreement announced Saturday stipulates that at least 13 members of Sweet Briar’s current board (of 23) will resign. They will be replaced by at least 18 trustees nominated by the plaintiffs who have been suing to keep Sweet Briar alive, and they will constitute a majority of the board.

w board is expected to appoint Philip Stone (at right) as president. Stone is a lawyer who from 1994 to 2010 served as president of Bridgewater College. While Bridgewater is coeducational, it has much in common with Sweet Briar — both are liberal arts institutions, and like Sweet Briar, Bridgewater is located in a part of Virginia more notable for its beauty (the Shenandoah Valley) than its city life. When Stone took over as president of Bridgewater, it was struggling with enrollment. By the time he had been there 10 years, enrollment was up 78 percent. Bridgewater summarizes Stone’s presidency here.

Stone’s biography on his law firm’s website notes that he has extensive higher education experience beyond Bridgewater, having served as (among other leadership roles) chairman of the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Virginia, and chair of the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III Presidents Council.

In an email to Inside Higher Ed, Stone said he could not give a full interview until he is officially appointed. But he said he is not trying to help Sweet Briar just for the coming year, but for a much longer future. “After seeing the extraordinary passion, courage and strength of the Sweet Briar alumnae, I feel privileged to be asked to join their heroic efforts to save this great college,” he said. “I want to make it clear that my commitment is not merely to keep the college open for the coming school year but to help it embark on a path for its next 100 years! I am enthusiastic and optimistic about what lies ahead. With the support of such wonderful alumnae and so many other supporters and friends of Sweet Briar, I am confident the college’s finest years can still lie ahead.”

The issues facing Stone are significant. A report last month by Moody’s Investors Service said, “In Sweet Briar’s case, challenges included small scale, which, combined with weakening demand, declining pricing flexibility and an insufficient endowment, led to an unsustainable business model.” Some of the very qualities that make alumnae so loyal also make it hard to balance the books, Moody’s said. “Sweet Briar’s model of providing highly personalized education with small class sizes is expensive, as indicated by educational expenses per student of approximately $42,000,” said the report. “Although this cost structure is commensurate with the other rated women’s schools, standing at the median, colleges either need greater pricing flexibility, larger endowments or more gift revenue to sustain the model.” And the report added that Sweet Briar lacks the resources of those other colleges.

The college will need to quickly build its infrastructure back — since many administrative positions have been left vacant. And Sweet Briar may want to undo some of the moves taken when it looked like the college was closing. For example, Sweet Briar runs a highly acclaimed program for study abroad in Paris and Nice. When the college announced it was closing, it transferred the program to Hollins University. A spokesperson for Hollins said that the university was “hoping to clarify the status” in the next few days.

Richard Kneedler, former president of Franklin & Marshall College and of Rockford College (where he brought the college back from a near-death situation), said that Sweet Briar’s new leadership can succeed, but that it won’t be easy. He said that the infusion of cash from the settlement will be of enormous help, but that demands for that money will be high, and it will be hard for the college to satisfy everyone.

His advice to Sweet Briar’s new administrators: “You need to be certain of your facts, understand the underlying financial realities and then agree to certain things — agreeing to do those things you know you can pay for, and to only make promises you know you can deliver on.” He said that with a “commitment to transparency,” a college facing a difficult situation can rebound, especially if the various players work together, discussing views with civility and respect.

“If there is a commitment to teamwork, to honesty and collegiality, that is often the key element that makes colleges strong enough to survive,” he said. “It’s a bigger asset than a big endowment.”

Professors Think About Change

While many faculty members spent recent months job hunting, some decided to stay put, joining the lawsuits trying to keep the college open and thinking about what to do if they beat the odds and had a college at which to teach this fall.

Deborah Durham (right) is one of those faculty members. A tenured professor of anthropology, she has taught at Sweet Briar since 1993, winning three Fulbrights along the way. She has a letter from the college (from the time closure was announced) telling her that June 30 is her last day on payroll. On Sunday, she said she was full of hope about the future.

Many professors have obtained positions elsewhere, although many have been hired for one-year jobs and may be able to come back. Those staying and those leaving have been meeting to talk about what the college would look like in the coming academic year with — in the best of scenarios — far fewer students or faculty members than in the past.

She said colleagues are going through departmental offerings, trying to assure that there is someone who could help a student with any existing major. She said some of those who have taken positions elsewhere have said that they could teach one course a semester to help during the transition. Faculty members are also reaching out to people who have specialties that might be missing next year, to check on their availability. Durham said that she and other faculty members also expected more interdisciplinary courses and programs in any plan for next year.

One question for the faculty will be how closely to stick to the liberal arts model. Durham said that professors have been talking about this issue, with a mix of opinions. Some professors, she said, want the college “to retain the pure liberal arts focus, and feel that the college can succeed if it promotes itself that way, and that there is a place for the liberal arts in the world and that the fad of training for the job market will turn around.”

Others, Durham said, are more open to adding more vocationally oriented programs, if consistent with Sweet Briar’s values. “When they announced that we were closing, of course we were all shaken. Maybe we’re now open,” she said.

A Rare Development

Decisions by trustees to close a college are almost always heartbreaking to alumni. But typically their protests and even litigation fail to change anything. The only known case of a college board announcing that it would close — and then being forced to reverse course — is that of Wilson College, in Pennsylvania. A women’s college, Wilson faced declining enrollment and a poor balance sheet, and in 1979 Wilson’s board voted to shut the college down. But a state judge in essence found that the college’s board hadn’t made good decisions, and he ordered the board to keep the college going, which it did.

For a while Wilson College rebounded, but by 2012, the board determined that it was falling apart financially, and that only admitting men (and making numerous other changes) would make the college financially viable. Alumnae protested, but the plan was adopted.

Lessons for Other Colleges
Experts discuss the implications
of Sweet Briar’s reversal for the
many small private institutions
watching it. Read more.

 June 22, 2015
By Scott Jaschik
Inside Higher Ed