Posted March 8th, 2017

Capturing Stories at Midwestern University

Robin Strachen, Midwestern UnivRobin Strachan is director of development at Midwestern University in Downers Grove, Illinois. A gift planner with more than 33 years of experience, Ms. Strachan has worked in executive and development capacities at institutions of higher education, healthcare and medical research. Here Ms. Strachan shares with Give & Take the techniques she has found most successful when working with donors, including a unique initiative to collect and archive donors’ memories of their time at Midwestern University.

Give & Take:
Can you tell us a bit about Midwestern University?

Strachan:
Midwestern University began in 1900 as the Chicago College of Osteopathy, which later became known as Chicago College of Osteopathic Medicine. This flagship college moved to its current location when Midwestern University was formed. The university now has two campuses providing graduate healthcare programs—in Downers Grove, Illinois and in Glendale, Arizona—and there are 11 colleges. Despite how much we have grown over the years, what has not changed is our focus on educating holistic, compassionate healthcare providers. Our alumni value their educations and the faculty who taught them.

Give & Take:
What is your “Capturing the Stories” project?

Strachan:
“Capturing the Stories” represents our effort to preserve our donors’ memories of their years at the university. In my visits with donors, either in person or over the phone, I’ve found they are generally very forthcoming about their experiences at Midwestern. They talk in glowing terms about their educations and their careers, and interwoven with their memories is a lot of really helpful information. Listening to their stories helps me understand them better, to learn what they care about and discover what they value. I get to know them as individuals, not just as alumni who happen to be healthcare providers. That information can then become helpful in the context of a continuing gift discussion.

Give & Take:
And so you started documenting their stories?

Strachan:
A while back, I decided it could be a nice entrée with donors to let them know that I want to hear their stories. I discovered that most donors love being able to share their memories with someone.

Then, instead of simply filling in contact reports about our conversations, I began writing down their stories. It can take time to do this, but documenting what they share helps me remember the important details of their lives. With donors’ permission, the stories will become part of the university archives, so these bits of oral history will be preserved.

Give & Take:
Do you also share these stories with the donors or their families?

Strachan:
That’s the plan. In one case recently, I was talking to a donor who explained, “I give because I care about the students and because I can.” This donor has told me almost all of his stories about being in school, about his internship at the hospital and about how his wife gave birth to their first child at that same hospital. He’s told me about all of the professors he knew and the classmates he still cherishes. When I give him the story I’ve written about his memories, the end of the story will include his quote about why he gives to Midwestern.

For most alumni, it only takes a few minutes of conversation to see that their days at the university were some of the best days of their lives. By capturing their memories surrounding the university, I’m getting to know them much better—what’s important to them and what they might be interested in supporting. I have deepened my relationships with donors by actively listening to them. Hopefully by recording their stories and returning them, I will reinforce their ties to the university and help preserve their memories for future generations.

Give & Take:
How else do you strengthen your relationships with your donors?

Strachan:
When I first started working at Midwestern, the first thing I did was send a handwritten note to each of our Heritage Circle members, a special group of donors who have decided to include the university in their estate plans. Handwritten notes make a big difference, particularly with older donors. A lot of these donors have kept that note and a year or two later would refer back to it when talking to me. Additionally, we call these donors regularly and send birthday cards. We also stay in touch with a broader audience through the newsletter and website that Sharpe Group helps us produce.

Our donors like to see the impact their gifts have on students, so for the past couple of years I’ve asked students to hand-write thank-you notes to all of our donors. I’ve received a lot of positive responses from those notes. And when a scholarship is awarded, the recipient always sends a handwritten thank-you note. Those donors hold on to these notes and have told me they find them very meaningful.

Give & Take:
What advice do you have for gift planners who are new to the field?

Strachan:
We as a field have gone toward a metrics-based, performance-based model, but the danger is that we are using technology so much to track our success that we are not getting out from behind our desks as much as we should. We need to spend more time visiting with people and less time getting tangled up in technology. You’re not going to raise money sitting at your desk entering information into software programs.

Also, it’s important not to get overwhelmed. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. One thing Sharpe Group does so well is help fundraisers see that their job is doable. No matter how busy you are, no matter how big your development operation might be, Sharpe can help you see how to meet your goals. I couldn’t respect them more.

The fundraising opportunities available through planned giving are phenomenal. With good relationship building and engagement of donors, the sky is the limit. Gift planning is not an instant-gratification job, but the ultimate gratification can be enormous.

 

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