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More community colleges embrace fund-raising, reconnect with alumni

Many colleges seek donations for new construction or scholarships. Pasadena City College, however, has an additional goal that was unthinkable before California's budget crisis forced community colleges to slash course offerings.

The school is seeking donations from alumni and others to restore some of the 570 classes it planned to cut this academic year. The campaign, launched in April, has received about $89,400 in donations, and the school is also devoting $106,000 from savings resulting from some cost cuts, officials said.

The result: 35 classes are being revived in such high-demand fields as biology, political science and psychology.

FULL COVERAGE: California Community Colleges

Beyond the effect on that 30,000-student campus, the effort highlights how community colleges around the state and nation are increasingly courting donors and reconnecting with their alumni — tasks often neglected when state funds were more plentiful.

"Community colleges are definitely taking huge steps in fundraising that they have not in the past. Ten years ago, you would never hear of us raising money for this kind of thing," said Bobbi Abram, executive director of PCC's foundation, which raised about $2 million last year.

More two-year schools are trying to follow a path long traveled by four-year public and private universities. However, some experts say the community colleges face special difficulties since many alumni tend to give loyalty and cash to the four-year colleges where they subsequently transferred and earned a degree.

In addition, the community colleges usually don't have the big league sports or scientific research that can attract donations. And because of the intermittent enrollments of many students, it is not always clear who is an alumnus, and it can be difficult to locate them.

Two-year schools averaged just $1.2 million in donations in 2011, compared with $90 million at research-oriented universities, according to a national survey by the Council for Aid to Education, a New York City-based nonprofit. Less than 1% of community college alumni donate, while nearly 20% do so at some four-year colleges, the survey found.

But if they are contacted, many alumni acknowledge that their community college education was valuable and they are willing to donate to their former schools, whether at a bowl-a-thon or through estate bequests, according to some school officials.

"More schools are coming to the realization that there are philanthropic dollars at hand," said Paul Heaton, who directs a center on community colleges at the Washington-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education. But in contrast to most four-year schools, many community colleges are just now taking the first steps: finding and reaching out to potential donors. "You don't get if you don't ask," he said.

Catherine Hazelton attended PCC in the 1990s and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Scripps College and a master's in public policy from UC Berkeley. She donated to Scripps and UC Berkeley but was never contacted by PCC. Recently, after she and a colleague reminisced about how the Pasadena college "led us to our career paths," Hazelton discovered the new Graduation Fund on the school's website.

"I was really struck by the idea that classes were being cut at the school I attended, and that this transformative experience I had may not be available to other students," said Hazelton, a senior program officer at the James Irvine Foundation. "It just captured me emotionally and made me want to give."

So, with a personal donation and a grant from the Irvine foundation, she arranged a $1,000 gift.

Across the 112 community colleges in California, state funding has not kept pace with enrollment growth, and course offerings have been slashed by almost a quarter since 2008.

The news of some very large gifts recently made more colleges realize the potential for outside help during these tough budget years, officials said.

Last year, a local dermatologist gave $14 million to Bakersfield College, mainly for scholarships, in what was described as the nation's largest donation from an individual to a community college.

In 2008, the Bernard Osher Foundation established an endowment to help students at all California community colleges pay for books, supplies and tools; by this year, Osher has provided $40 million and local colleges have raised about $30 million in matching funds.

About 40% of community colleges in the state have only one full-time or part-time fundraiser, and most of the others have fewer than five, according to the Foundation for California Community Colleges. Those are tiny staffs compared to the development departments at most four-year colleges and universities. Now, however, some community colleges are adding personnel.

The two-year schools know "we are leaving potential money on the table," said Charles Potts, associate director and chief financial officer of the Santa Monica College Foundation, which raised about $1.9 million last school year, up from $1.3 million the previous year. That foundation's first fundraising bowling event in March brought in $22,000.

The college recently worked to obtain email addresses for 170,000 alumni since the early 1990s, but hundreds of thousands of other names are in older paper documents that the campus does not have enough staff to mine. The school is also trying to establish loyalty among freshmen, telling them at orientations that they will be future alumni and that their participation is welcome "not only now but later too," Potts said.

Pierce College in Woodland Hills in June launched a new alumni association, with an interactive website that has attracted about 4,000 members. Unlike alumni organizations at universities, such community college support groups should include not just those who earned degrees but also nearby residents, relatives of students or anyone who attends a class or cultural event, said James Low, president of the association and chairman of the college foundation.

"An alumni association should be a bridge between the college and community," said Low, who attended Pierce a decade ago and then earned a bachelor's degree at USC. Such outreach would be important even if state funding had remained strong, he added.

Last year, Saddleback College in Mission Viejo received its largest gift — a $2.2-million unsolicited bequest from the estate of Dorothy Marie Lowry, who frequently took courses for older adults. The school is using that to expand its fundraising staff and to give scholarships to senior citizens. Saddleback expects to launch its first alumni campaign, reaching out to 112,000 former students.

Saddleback President Tod A. Burnett said his school and others should have taken such steps many years ago. "If community colleges had been doing what UC and Cal States were doing," he said, "we wouldn't be as bad off today as we are."

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