On Target and Ahead of Schedule: Behind a College's Startling Fundraising Success


Less than three years ago, Wellesley College launched a $500 million capital campaign, the largest ever undertaken by a women's college. In what's become an increasingly familiar development across the higher ed funding landscape, the college recently announced it reached its goal a year early.

As we'll soon see, larger political and social crosscurrents contributed to the campaign's success. But more universal factors were in play as well, explaining why schools over the country have become so adept at raising mountains of cash.

I'll explore some of these drivers in a moment. But first, let's travel back in time to October 2015.

"In thousands of ways, in every corner of the world, Wellesley is a transformative force for tangible good," said then-president H. Kim Bottomly in welcoming nearly 600 alumnae, parents, students, faculty, staff, and friends who gathered to celebrate the launch of the Campaign for Wellesley.

"With the launch of this campaign, we are doing nothing short of challenging ourselves to be at once the premier college for women, and a global center of women’s leadership."

Two anonymous alumni got the ball rolling with a $50 million launch gift to create Wellesley's College Career initiative. "Taking advantage of Wellesley’s network of alumnae, widely considered to be the world’s most powerful women’s network, the initiative will reimagine how the college introduces the world of opportunity to Wellesley women over their four years on campus and over the course of their lives," the school's press release read.

As we noted at the time, the gift came at a time in which philanthropy had pivoted toward narrowing the gender gap and improving outcomes for girls and women, especially in areas like STEM education.

The larger context changed even more dramatically in the three years since that lead gift, creating a kind of momentum that compelled Wellesley's powerful women's network to dig deep and kick the campaign into overdrive.

"With millions of women taking part in marches and the #MeToo movement, and amid an explosion of unprecedented numbers of women running for political office," the college said that its fundraising success "adds to a transformational moment for women’s leadership, women’s public engagement, and the ongoing fight for women’s rights."

The campaign's success, I'd argue, also represents another big win for the liberal arts.

Upon announcing the $50 million launch gift in 2015, Bottomly set the tone for the campaign, calling it "the strongest possible endorsement of a liberal arts education and its power to prepare our students for any calling that inspires them." 

As it turned out, the campaign priority that attracted the most support was "Intellectual Community." The school specifically cited donor support for "pathbreaking initiatives" like the Calderwood Seminars in Public Writing.

Corresponding evidence suggests that Wellesley donors aren't alone in embracing the benefits of a liberal arts education. Alumni donors understand there's a market for graduates with strong analytical, communication and critical thinking skills.

But part of this fundraising windfall, I'd argue, also hinges on the fact that schools have evolved with the times. Many are deftly integrating STEM into classic liberal arts curricula, providing students with career paths to complement that French philosophy minor. 

For example, Amherst College's executive director of advancement and campaign operations Suzanne Newby-Estes recently said that the school's $625 million campaign is specifically "looking to expand the faculty by a number of positions, and that is to meet the need in the STEM fields."

Similarly, Wellesley's press release cites a "state-of-the-art science center" to fortify the school's position at the "forefront of STEM education for women."

Three additional takeaways from Wellesley's fundraising success are also worth noting. 

A key driver behind the boom in higher ed philanthropy is the fact that so much wealth has piled up in the hands of the top 1 percent, including many people who live outside affluent coastal corridors. There are more deep-pocketed donors everywhere, and as we've explored, the wealthiest alumni are playing an increasingly dominant role in higher education fundraising, while alums of more modest means account for a declining portion of contributions. Logic suggests this phenomenon would be especially impactful across the Wellesley donor network, which consists of some of the world's most accomplished and successful women. But Wellesley's success wasn't a top-down affair. According to the college, more than 85,000 gifts were for $100 or less.

Another driver behind today's super-charged higher ed fundraising era is the fact that many university development teams operate in a kind of permanent campaign mode. Wellesley's last major campaign, which ended in 2005, raised $472.3 million, setting the record for the most funds raised by a liberal arts college. That said, circa 2015, more than 50 percent of Wellesley alumnae made a gift each year, while the school raises more than $10 million raised annually in unrestricted support.

Lastly, a closer look at the numbers suggests that while tuition keeps rising at private universities, donors have no qualms about helping to cover the costs. According to Wellesley, over $80 million was raised to support financial aid, with 60 percent of students granted an average of $40,000. 

"Thanks to the unflagging support of the global Wellesley community, this historic achievement is a remarkable testament to the critical leadership role Wellesley continues to play in the world," Wellesley president Paula A. Johnson said.

"As the number of applicants continues to rise year after year, we know that bright, promising young women believe a Wellesley education will help them find their voice and realize their dreams. And the world has never needed Wellesley women more."