One Key to This Community College's Fundraising is Civic Pride

Pasadena is famous for its annual Tournament of Roses and the Rose Bowl. At the cutting edge of tech, it’s home to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the California Institute of Technology. Once upon a time, many imagined that Pasadena would be the leading city in southern California—a role that, instead, Los Angeles ended up playing. 

And while outsiders tend to think of Pasadena as a mere satellite of L.A., or simply part of its same endless urban sprawl, this ethnically diverse city of 141,000 has a strong sense of its distinctive identity and quite a bit of civic pride. 

Tapping into this pride is a key to the fundraising strategy of Pasadena City College, which has been around since 1924. Bobbi Abram, the executive director of the Pasadena City College Foundation, shared her insights with Inside Philanthropy on how it funds its mission to support the school’s 30,000 students.

"People are just as likely to give to their local community college based on the fact that they live in the community as if they actually attended college there, so we do as much with a community fundraising program as we do an alumni fundraising program," Abram said.

That is not a thought you'll hear often from campus development officers, who tend to be laser-focused on hitting up grads. But you do hear it sometimes, and we've written quite a bit about local non-alum donors stepping up to support colleges and universities that they see as boosting their community economically and culturally. 

Community colleges, which are getting lots of play lately as critical ladders for socio-economic mobility, are especially well-positioned to tap into that sentiment. And all the more so if they're long familiar institutions in a civically engaged town like Pasadena. 

"Pasadena itself probably has more nonprofit organizations per capita than just about any city of the country, so it’s a very philanthropic community," Abram said. "We’ve done a lot of work to make sure that Pasadena City College feels accessible and approachable by the community. We’ve had a lot of community involvement in the campus which has increased our ability to go straight to the community.”

Like many community colleges, PCC has an active schedule of extension classes that are popular with locals, and it also has a pool that's open to the public. In addition, an NPR affiliate, KPCC-FM, is licensed to the college, which Abram said raises its community profile, along with the Tournament of Roses. “The Tournament of Roses and Pasadena City College have always had a mutually beneficial relationship. Our band is the honor band in the Tournament of Roses. A lot of our employees and executives are volunteers and are part of the leadership of the Tournament of Roses.”

So what's the actual funding model that pulls in support for PCC? “Our funding actually comes from couple of sources, one of which is unrestricted gifts, which is basically our annual fund,” Abram said. “And through the years, that has continued to grow."

There's also been a bigger push around planning giving lately. Before Abram arrived at PCC, the foundation got a grant to focus in this area. “We have been the beneficiary of a lot of hard work which went into a planned giving program. We are about to move into another campaign in which planned giving is very important.” 

The foundation offers a range of planned giving programs from charitable gift annuities tocharitable trusts. Abram sees planned giving as the most effective way of raising funds for the foundation but acknowledges that the payback is long-term.

Along with alumni, the foundation taps the largesse of former faculty, “Our retirees are probably the biggest group of donors to make planned gifts,” Abram said. This success underscores a point we often make at Inside Philanthropy, which is that current and former faculty members can be a surprisingly strong source of gifts. 

Related:  University Professor as Donor: A Case Study at Villanova

As for other funding streams, Abram said that grants have not been a huge part of the picture, "although that is something we will be concentrating on as the years go by." She said grants often focus on specific programs, like a three-year, $300,000 grant that PCC landed from a nonprofit, Los Angeles Universal Preschool, to train child development workers. One program that has attracted ongoing support from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is the James R. Galbraith Endowed Speech Scholarship Endowed Journalism Scholarship. Galbraith is an alumnus and matches the Hilton gifts himself.

About 90 percent of outlays from the Pasadena City College Foundation go to student scholarships. And Abram and her team have been keen to showcase how such funding is changing lives. “One thing that we have done recently is to pull our scholarship recipients together to be greeters, ushers or speakers at some of our donor events so that donors have the opportunity to see some of the students they have helped,” Abram said. "The more we find that connectedness can happen, the deeper the relationship the more meaningful that donation becomes.”

This is a point we've heard a lot from other savvy fundraisers, who devote considerable attention to ensuring that donors and their beneficiaries get to know each other. 

Meanwhile, Abram and her team are also focused on the bread and butter of all campus development departments, which is ensuring that PCC is building relationships with current and future donors. One thing she's concluded is that ultimately a school’s fundraising success is dependent on what happens in the classroom. “If the student has had a great experience at PCC if a faculty member has had a great experience, you are building two donors there.”

Meanwhile, she feels that, as with all organizations asking for funding, PCC has to show the return that donors are getting on their investment. “Just to say you have a great cause is not enough. You have to prove that you’re effective in moving the needle with your organization,” Abram said. “We really have to focus on the outcomes and be able to articulate that message when we are raising money.”

Related: What's the Secret to This Community College's Fundraising Success?