Donor Relations is Everyone’s Job: A Stewardship Primer with Ben Pendry

by Emilie Dye

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Emilie Dye:

Hi, everyone. Today, we’re joined by Ben Pendry, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Development at Western Carolina University. Part of what we wanted to talk about in this issue of Perspectives on recognition included some perspectives around donor recognition, stewardship, and the importance of recognition and gratitude as it relates to donors in the fraternity and sorority world. So, I’m joined today, like I said, by Ben and would love first for him to just sort of give you a little bit of background on who he is and why we’re talking to him today. And then, Ben and I are going to have a little bit of a conversation around this subject.

Ben Pendry:

Hey there, Emilie. Thanks so much. It’s great to be able to spend some time with you. I’m Ben. I got my start in fundraising because of fraternity. And so, I am an alumnus of Western Carolina University. When I was a junior here, our Vice Chancellor of Advancement at the time, came to me because there was a fundraising project that involved my fraternity, Sigma Chi, and that really was my first introduction. My involvement with fraternity led to a job with the North American Interfraternity Conference working for John Williamson and Pete Smithhisler, which I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

That led me to my wife, who’s a member of Sigma Kappa and was working at Sigma Kappa when we were living in Indianapolis. Fast-forward many years later, the opportunity came to return to my alma mater and work in the advancement office. And so, now I get to serve as the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Development here at WCU, which is just a neat job. And so, Jenna and I and our family live here in beautiful Cullowhee, North Carolina and I get to work with our fabulous donors here at Western all the time and get to still stay involved with fraternity as well, which is wonderful.

Emilie Dye:

Awesome. Thanks, Ben. So, maybe just sort of cutting right to the chase first. Do you want to talk a little bit about why you think the work of advancement and donor relations should matter to fraternity and sorority professionals, whether they be on campus or in headquarters-based roles?

Ben Pendry:

Sure. I think it’s a really good question. I had the great experience of working with our Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Foundation, the AFA Foundation, for a few years when I worked for Sigma Chi Foundation and UNC Charlotte. And so, one of the things that we did as a part of AFA Foundation is constantly try to talk about philanthropy as a means of giving back or as a way to give back to the industry. And so many AFA members understand the role of the Foundation, whether it be through scholarships or the development of new programs. Well, the same is true on your local campus.

And so, one of the things that I truly wish that we did more of in our preparatory programs for student affairs leaders, higher education leadership, is talk about advancement and the external affairs piece of higher education. We talk about the co-curricular experience. We talk about academic affairs. We talk about shared governance. And I think it fits in there really well, because one of the things that I would suggest that any young professional do, or really anywhere in your career, is getting involved with their advancement office. Go talk to the alumni engagement professionals. Go talk to the folks who are spending day in and day out with folks who want to have a hand in helping develop the next generation of leaders for our communities.

And our advancement professionals are absolutely doing that. I get to work with wonderful donors all the time who care about what happens on college campuses, who care about making sure that students have the best experience possible in the classroom and in their co-curricular education. And so, when we as fraternity and sorority professionals have the opportunity to engage with alumni, whether they be young alumni, whether they be folks in their seventies or eighties, and we talk about the experiences that we as fraternity and sorority life professionals have the ability to help create and sustain on campuses. There are myriad ways which donors and stakeholders can be involved in helping make those things happen.

Long-winded answer, but the state budgets are not increasing when it comes to support for fraternity and sorority life. And so, one of the opportunities that we have is talking about philanthropy as a way to grow our programs, to do the things that are creative that we wouldn’t otherwise think about. Oftentimes, donor dollars or foundation dollars have fewer restrictions placed on them, and so we’re able to do some different and creative things as opposed to just depending on state-restricted dollars if you’re at a state school. And so, I think that we’ve got a huge opportunity there when it comes to engaging folks outside of our campus partners and looking beyond that to donors in private philanthropy, not just to our programs in our offices.

Emilie Dye:

Awesome. Yeah, the creativity and flexibility of the dollars I think is key. So, how do you believe that the incorporation of gratitude practices enhances stewardship efforts? And what advice might you give to AFA members in their efforts to support that work, even if their role isn’t directly connected to foundation or their organizations?

Ben Pendry:

I think folks want to know that they’re making a difference. Folks give for a lot of different reasons. They give because they want to give back to an experience that was meaningful for them. That’s certainly why I support my fraternity. It’s why I support my alma mater. It’s why I support the Boy Scouts of America. There are those experiences in my life that I believe helped shape me into the person that I am today and that I would want to be in the future. And so, I give to support those experiences and I get involved there.

Sometimes we give because a trusted peer asked us to consider making a gift. That’s probably how I got involved with some local stuff here, whether it be through the Rotary Club or our local children’s theater, things like that, that I know we’re doing really important work and that I want to be involved in and I want to be associated with the work of that organization when we talk about our offices and how we get involved with donors, like when we’re asking folks to go across campus and talk to the person in the alumni office or the fundraising office and say, “Hey, I want to be involved here. I’ve got a group of students who are doing amazing things. I want to help you tell stories.”

And so, one of the most important ways that we can exhibit those gratitude practices is: Tell fun stories. Do neat things. We get in a silo in student affairs so often that we do things, and then who do we report it to? Ourselves. I promise you anybody who’s working in a fraternity and sorority life office and you’ve got stories sitting in your lobby right now because you’ve got those students like I was like, like you were, Emilie, that are just waiting out there. “Hey, when can I go in and talk to the director,” or, “the assistant director?” Or, “I’m going to learn about what the grad students are up to,” or, “I want to go to the next conference and do something exciting and fun and learn about who I am as a leader and help my chapter grow.” And so, go and tell fun stories. That’s the best way that you can say thank you or engage is when you tell folks what cool stories you have. Right?

Emilie Dye:

Yeah. It’s so true, and certainly makes an impact on… What you were saying about sort of the personal connection of being able to say, “I know what impact this had on me,” or on a trusted peer. Considering the evolving landscape of philanthropy, how do you envision the future of gratitude in donor relationships looking? I feel like I’m talking regularly to people even here at Duke about the power still of a written thank-you note, right? But what methods do you think are going to be crucial to maintain, but then what are some maybe new ways of enhancing appreciation?

Ben Pendry:

I think that thank-you note is going to become even more and more important as we go forward. The human connection, whether we’re talking about AI or whether we’re talking about how quick and easy it is to send an email, the personal connection, helping donors see what they’re doing and the impact that they’re making, I think that that helps. It helps remind me that we are in the people business, and so that’s power of fraternity and sorority, right? And so, we’re teaching people how to have human interactions and how to see yourself in someone else’s life. And so, one of the biggest things, the biggest evolution, as you say, is: How do we continue to show relevance of what our mission is in our fraternity and sorority life offices? How do we show the donors and the stakeholders and the communities into which our graduates are going… How do we show that the experiences that we’re helping create are still relevant in those communities and the lives of the students?

Because I believe very strongly that our communities are in dire need of values-based actors. We need people who understand leadership. We need people who understand philanthropy and service and acting on one’s values. We need that more than ever. And so, those are the kind of stories that we have to tell. It’s so easy to just get stuck into thinking about what the day-to-day is. We need big thinking. We need big dreams. We need people who are willing to take risks, because we’ve got to do a better job of telling the story of fraternity and sorority, especially in our campuses and especially in the lives of our students.

I’m pushing 40 and I know that it’s not as easy for me to relate to the experience of the young, new member of Sigma Chi when I go to the chapter meetings. It is harder and harder for me to relate to that, but I still have a shared language. I still have some shared experiences. I still like to think that I can talk about that, of knowing that they’re embarking on experience that will help them shape the kind of person that they want to be, and that’s really special to me as a donor and as a member. And so, how are we as fraternity and sorority professionals thinking about the kind of experiences that we’re helping create, and then how we’re talking about the experience against the others.

Emilie Dye:

Yeah. That’s awesome. I’m reminded of a donor that I worked with here who was so excited to hear what we were doing also because it was… The language that she used was that there was something “redemptive” about being involved in this sort of new and exciting program; because she had not had a great experience when she was here, and it felt so good to know that sometimes it’s the people on the other end of the… She had a really not-great experience and wanted to make it better for other people, which was also a really cool to hear.

Ben Pendry:

Good. Absolutely.

Emilie Dye:

So, we’ve talked a little bit about… We’ve talked about storytelling and being able to really share the mission of the work that we’re doing as a great way to be good stewards and to build good recognition. But related to that or otherwise, what are some key principles or actionable steps that you would suggest to help our AFA members effectively incorporate gratitude into their interactions, whether it be with people who are already donating or just alumni and other stakeholders?

Ben Pendry:

We’re already packaging some of that into our annual stuff. And so, whether it be when someone turns in their annual packet of community service hours or help them celebrate the wins at intramurals. And so, I get the regular newsletter from the office here that I wish went to more alumni. And so, whether it’s going to the communications office and saying, “We’ve got a really strong chapter here. Can we test some messaging around who won the intramural flag football championship?” And so, say, “Look, we’ve already got the article written, or we’ve already got the standings. Let’s just put a little link in the next alumni newsletter to say, ‘click here if you’re interested in what the Greek intramural bracket looked like this year.'” Just do some testing. I mean, I don’t know that who would push back to say, “Let’s just see if we get any clicks on it.”

There’s so much data out there that you can gather in a really easy way, and you’ve got a chapter on your campus that you don’t mind putting in the spotlight, whether it be through that intermural thing or whether it be a story about community service hours for the first half of the year. We’re coming up on December, so the end of the first half of the year for a lot of places. For most places. And so, you can say, “Hey, here’s where we stand on hours for this year. If you’ve got some ideas, let us know. If we’ve got opportunities for service or for volunteerism or internships, let us know.” And so, building the relationships across campus, I think, is going to help, especially a young career fraternity/sorority life professional, helping them learn the different pieces of what happens around campus. And so, going across and saying, “Hey, can we test something on the next newsletter that goes out and see if we get any click-throughs to see if people are really interested in learning this?”

And then, you can kind of hone in on what they might be interested in learning. Right? And so, building those relationships that you’ve already got with the chapter advisors. We’ve got a really cool program here at Western called The Greek Challenge, which focuses on our athletics events. And so, fundraising around athletics, it’s called Catamount Club. It’s a booster club for WCU Athletics. And then, we have a competition every year between the fraternities and sororities. Number of donors, percent of donors, percent of members who give. And so, it’s a really neat way to then also tell a story, and you can quantify impact through dollars that our alumni are having on the success on our fields and courts. And so, you can do that on the academic side as well, and certainly there are people who are willing to talk about that. I know the AFA Foundation board is happy to talk through some of that. I’m always happy to chat through, as well.

Emilie Dye:

Yeah, it sounds like part of it is data collection, and that’s certainly something that our chapters drag their feet about having to do a lot of the time. But if we can convert for them on maybe some helping to show that those stories that we’re collecting, the data we’re collecting, is helping fund really cool things that they get to do, maybe we won’t have to send one additional email about collecting that data from them. That would be great.

Ben Pendry:

If we could just get them to send in whatever they’ve had to send into their national office for their national award or their national accreditation process… Just send me that. I mean, if they would just complete that document and send that in, because it’s got most everything that we’d want to know at the host institution level.

Emilie Dye:

Oh, man, that’s a whole other topic of Perspectives. A soap box I could get on on accreditation programs, I think.

Ben Pendry:

Oh, totally. Totally.

Emilie Dye:

So, sort of final question for you: What are some best practices or standards regarding the ways that universities and our organizations could work together on stewardship and appreciation?

Ben Pendry:

Every single one of these groups has an alumni relations chair or a communications chair. We used to have… We called it the chapter editor, who’s responsible for writing stuff up in Sigma Chi. Everybody’s got an office like that, and more often than not it’s somebody who is maybe a recently initiated person or a relatively younger member of the chapter who just gets tapped at the end of the night. It’s like, “Oh, you’re going to be the chapter editor.” Right? So you’re going to be the alumni relations chair. It’s not an office that’s really taken seriously, and that’s a bummer. Because I would love if somebody came to me and said, “Look, we’ve got five fraternities who have alumni relations chairs who need something to do.” And if they came over here and said, “Do you have 50 alumni from each one of these chapters who have made a gift in the last year?” And we ask these guys to put their chapters to work writing ten thank-you notes.

I try not to math in public. And so, just bringing them, just putting them to work, having them sign a thank-you note saying, “Hey, I’m a member of Kappa Gamma chapter of Sigma Chi. Dear Randy, I saw you made a gift recently. Wanted you to know that meant a lot to the university. And as a fellow Sigma Chi, just wanted to say thanks. I’m a student here. I’m studying X, Y, or Z.” And you can take that out as far as you want to go based on the data you have, but just put them to work with something easy, like, “Let’s write some thank-you notes.” Take them over and ask them to film themselves, sending a ten-second thank you message and text it in, and then coordinate that through your office or the alumni office. However they want to do it.

There are some easy ways just to personalize it, because I believe strongly that our alumni are a little apprehensive about approaching the undergraduate chapter because they don’t know how well they’re going to be received. They don’t know how much has changed. They’re a little nervous about that. And the same is true vice versa. The undergraduates, if they don’t know these people, then they’re going to be a little apprehensive as well. And what that turns into is, “Well, those alumni don’t do anything for us.” And the alumni, “Well, those stinking undergraduates, they don’t respect us.” We’ve got to build stronger relationships, and it starts with just some folks who are willing to do a little bit of outreach and just make a little extra effort; and our offices can really help facilitate that. There are some really, really important things that fraternity and sorority life office can do to help bridge that gap and to help translate between the two sides. I think that can be a role that often gets overlooked when it comes to those offices for lots of really good and some not-so-good reasons.

Emilie Dye:

Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Ben, for your willingness to chat with us today. Any final words of wisdom or advice before we close?

Ben Pendry:

No, I’m just thrilled to be able to chat with you, my friend. Fraternity’s made all the difference for me, and the AFA has been a huge part of that for Jenna and I. We’ve had a wonderful experience and continue to really appreciate everything that the Association does for our industry, for our campuses, for professionals. It plays a really critical role, and so I’m so glad that you continue to lead, Emilie. I really appreciate the time.

Emilie Dye:

Thanks so much, Ben.

 

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