As director of transformational giving at the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Carol Rognrud has extensive experience working with female donors. Here she shares with “Give & Take” her most successful strategies for appealing to women, including her insight into the remarkable response generated by her most recent planned giving newsletter.
Give & Take: Tell me about the American Association of University Women.
Rognrud: For almost 130 years, AAUW has brought college- and university-educated women together to examine the fundamental educational, social, economic and political issues that affect women and girls.
AAUW was founded in 1881 by 17 women who wanted to interact with others who had pursued higher education. At the time, educational opportunities for women were quite limited, so this group of like-minded women joined together to promote women’s rights, comradeship and conversation.
AAUW has a history of taking courageous positions that are often far in advance of popular opinion. Early on, we supported voting rights for women and racial integration. More recently, we played an active role in passing and protecting Title IX and have lobbied to remedy injustices involving child labor and pay equity.
Today our focus is on workplace opportunity: family and medical leave, civil rights, equal pay and work/life balance issues. We’re also working to increase female representation in the high-paying fields of science, engineering, technology and mathematics by increasing the number of fellowships we offer students in those areas.
Our membership and influence have grown tremendously over the past 130 years. We now have 100,000 members, 500 college/university affiliates and 1,000 regional branches.
G&T: What led you to AAUW?
Rognrud: My first fundraising job came right after college. I was a theater major with an advertising background, and I was hired to raise funds to restore a local theater. When I came to Washington, D.C., about 14 years ago, I worked in development for Johns Hopkins University’s School for International Studies in Washington and gained valuable experience raising money in Hong Kong and mainland China. I then worked in development at AARP Foundation for four years before leaving to finish my master’s degree at Johns Hopkins. When I learned about the opening at AAUW in 2006, I knew I wanted to work here.
I was hired to handle both planned and major gifts at the same time that my colleague was hired as development director. Both of our positions were vacant at the time we were hired, so there was no overlap with our predecessors. That was good and bad. While it would have been helpful to have a transition period, we appreciated having the freedom to largely create our own department.
G&T: Your recent planned giving newsletter was very successful. How did you select the recipients?
Rognrud: We used a formula that our Sharpe Group consultant helped us develop. It is based on a donor’s age, marital status, length of membership, and role within the organization, especially those who volunteer their time because they generally are likely to provide financial support as well. We also devoted a great deal of time to developing the look of the newsletter so it would be visually pleasing and would evoke the impressive history of our organization.
The information contained in the newsletter was designed to be appealing to our membership and included estate planning information geared specifically to women, an explanation of our Legacy Circle society, and an article featuring one of our bequest donors.
We mailed our newsletter to 30,000 in October and have had a very strong response. The breakdown includes a group that requested information on making and updating a will and other plans and others who asked to be informed when Congress acted on the estate tax (the newsletter was sent before Congress passed legislation in December).
Additionally, a significant number indicated that they would consider including AAUW in their wills or other estate plans, and several more told us for the first time that they had already done so. A number of respondents also included gifts with their responses, including one I would consider a major gift.
G&T: How else do you interact with your donors?
Rognrud: About 10 years ago, we established the Legacy Circle to honor those who have included AAUW in their estate plans, and we currently have about 350 members. We expect to build membership in part through our planned giving newsletter.
We promote the Legacy Circle and our planned giving program through our national magazine, which arrives at all donors’ homes three times a year. We also hold a national convention every other year, and usually about a third of our Legacy Circle members attend.
Our board of directors and our development committee are charged with helping our stewardship efforts. It is our goal to have board members or committee members meet and visit with every current Legacy Circle member within two years, and we’re about halfway through. After each visit, the volunteer sends a handwritten note thanking the donor for her time and then updates me on their conversation. It’s a great partnership between our national board, this committee, and our major and planned gifts department.
G&T: What do you like most about your role?
Rognrud: I feel very lucky to be able to spend time with people who not only have the means to give to causes they believe in but who want to be thoughtful and purposeful in the way they give. Some of these women are wealthy, but others are giving sacrificially because they believe so much in our work. Being around that kind of spirit is inspiring.
G&T: Given the challenges women with college ambitions faced 50 and 60 years ago, I imagine the women considering planned gifts to AAUW have strong and dynamic personalities and interesting life stories.
Rognrud: Exactly. The women who went to college 50 or more years ago who are now our planned giving prospects are very special. Many of them were on the leading edge of their generation. AAUW gave them a place to practice their leadership skills and became a partner in their ambitions.
We’re also a community. A number of our members chose a career over marriage and children and now consider AAUW their family.
G&T: Do you have any advice for those new to development work?
Rognrud: Try to educate yourself as much as you can. I’m not an attorney or an accountant. I have two degrees in theater, which did not necessarily prepare me for a lot of the complexities of planned giving work. I am fortunate that my previous positions provided opportunities for me to learn and that AAUW continues to do so. The Sharpe seminars I’ve attended have given me much of the information I need to be effective in my work.
Also, I would tell anyone who needs advice to look to those who have more experience. Our Sharpe consultant’s counsel helped me convince our board that we need to invest in planned giving now to move our organization forward in the long term.
Appealing to Women
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) is by definition a selective group. Membership is restricted to women who hold an associate’s degree or higher from an accredited college or university. Carol Rognrud, director of transformational giving at AAUW, said fundraising with this limited group differs from her previous work at other institutions that have both male and female donors. “Some of the differences are practical ones,” she said.
“For instance, all of our materials—from our newsletter to our Legacy Circle pins—are based on what we believe appeals to women.
“Other differences are more subtle. I’ve found that when I’m dealing with women and philanthropy, the relationship I form with them is especially important. I work very hard to create honest relationships and to be aware that these women are often sharing information that is very confidential. I try my best to do what is in their best interests and to treat all of them as I would my own loved ones.
“I also remind them that they will probably be the ones making final estate planning decisions. Women typically outlive men, and women who are members of AAUW live longer than the national average. They must have a plan in place to care for themselves and their loved ones, and for many of these women, that final plan includes AAUW.”