Fundraising efforts lead to strong student experiences

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The student media groups at Western Kentucky University and the University of Arizona both benefited from developing powerful relationships with people who cared about safeguarding their student media programs

By Susan Smith
South Dakota State University

Photo By Dave Barger, Creative Commons.
Photo By Dave Barger, Creative Commons.

Several cups of coffee, and strong relationships with a committed alumni base, helped to build a new home for the student publications of Western Kentucky University.

“We focused on not big numbers,” said Chuck Clark, director of student publications.

“We focused on if you could find a way to donate $10 a week – skip two Starbucks – this is what it could buy.”

The School of Journalism and Broadcasting was relocated across campus from the traditional home of WKU’s student publications with no room in the new building for the twice-weekly College Heights Herald and the Talisman Yearbook and specialty publications produced by College Heights Media.

Clark was the president of the student publications’ alumni association at the time the campaign began. The campaign was announced at the annual, and widely popular, homecoming breakfast. In a month after the announcement, $600,000 in pledges was raised. In less than a year, it jumped to $1 million in pledges, the majority of which were modest contributions that could be paid over five years.

The building committee did much of the fundraising by personally reaching out to alumni and making phone calls, Clark said. Those who donated were featured on a donor wall in the new building. The opportunity to be represented resonated with donors.

“Pretty much everybody we reached out to contributed on some level,” he said.

Clark worked closely with the university’s development office and a development officer, Leslie Watkins. She was assigned to student publications and the Potter College of Arts and Letters, which includes the school of journalism. His relationship with the office started with the building campaign.

Once the project was complete, he and Watkins had become good friends. Prior to the initial building project, Clark had no close relationship with the development office.

“That’s part of building this great relationship,” he said. “That really helps.”

Clark said those involved with the building project were confident they could get where they needed to get.

“She (Leslie) worked with us and believed we could do it,” Clark said. We were told we needed someone to donate a half a million or we wouldn’t be able to raise enough money. We told them that wasn’t going to happen. Most people who are in journalism can’t reach into their pocket to pull out a half million bucks.”

The editor of the Herald at the time, Michael Casagrande, also pledged $1,000 and wrote letters to young alumni imploring them to give. A number of them reached into their pockets and made pledges, Clark said.

Western Kentucky student publications also benefited from a supportive university administration. The president was on the advertising staff as a student.

“We have a good relationship,” Clark said. “He defends us, even when things are controversial. His response has been that while he didn’t like what happened he stands by the Herald’s right to report on it because it’s their duty.

The University gave significant financial support to the student publications building project. When pledges reached $600,000, the university contributed land and money for the project’s design. When pledges reached $800,000, the university started construction.

The project broke ground a year after the fundraising campaign was announced. In 2005, 2006 and 2007, when the fundraising was taking place and the building project started, the housing boom was in full swing and many of the region’s construction resources were taken up with Hurricane Katrina recovery. The building was supposed to cost $1 million but ended up costing $1.6 million, Clark said. The university covered the shortfall.

While The Herald, a twice-weekly publication, is self-supporting, The Talisman gets university funding. College Heights Media brings in revenue from various media projects.

In recent years, funding for WKU has taken a dip similar to that felt by other universities. The state of Kentucky now funds about 16 percent of the university’s operating budget. The Talisman’s budget took a hit because of that shortfall. For the first time in eight or nine years, WKU is selling its yearbooks for $20 due to a decrease in university funding.

“It’s more state supported than state funded,” Clark said of the university.

According to a September 2013 USA Today article from 2007 to 2012 university systems in 48 states faced a decline in funding, in 12 states by 30 percent or more. Only two states showed an increase in state funding. The decrease has resulted in increased tuition making higher education increasingly unaffordable, particularly for the middle class, according to the article.

In Arizona, state funding for higher education was cut 35 percent between 2007 and 2012, according to a report on higher-education financing put out by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association reported in the Sept. 3, 2013 USA Today article ( Mark S. Woodhams, director of Arizona Student Media at the University of Arizona, said there is an expectation from his administration that university entities broaden their fund base. Student media groups there began fundraising for a new building in 2003.

Student Media at Arizona is also self-supporting, paying facilities, utilities and salaries mostly via ad revenue. Ad revenues declined in recent years from $1.5 million to $1 million over the last five or six years, Woodhams said.

“So fundraising does provide an important source of revenue,” he said. “We use it mostly to buy equipment and to pay for student travel to conferences or to cover away sporting events.”

Woodhams said he relies on the support of donors who can contribute large sums at once. Arizona Student Media hosts an alumni reunion banquet every two years or so that includes inducting new members into the Daily Wildcat Hall of Fame.

“This is a pretty big event – we’ve had as many as 300 turnout for it,” Woodhams said. “And of course we do fundraise.”

He once received a $50,000 donation from a Hall of Fame inductee.

The fundraising done at Arizona is “pretty mainstream,” Woodhams said.

“We will have to get more creative,” he said. “As print revenue and readership continue to drop, a lot of old school media operations are seeing dramatic shift in how they have to operate and even what their mission is.”

Expecting ad revenues to cover expenses while continuing to give quality media experiences for students is no longer realistic, Woodhams said.

“Funds will have to start coming from more student fees or from new collaborations (and) partnerships with the university and from creating new revenue sources, not just fundraising,” he said.

His student groups publish the official university guide twice a year and get to keep all the ad revenue. They partner with the Parents & Family Association to publish its magazine twice annually. Those magazines each bring in $150,000 a year.

College Heights Media at WKU also raises additional revenue for the entire student publications organizations to buy equipment and cover spending that might go over budget. They produced a high-end coffee table about the campus for the alumni association, which was “enormously popular,” Clark said. They also produce the graduation video – a high-energy recap of the years that is used to promote the yearbook — a welcome guide to the new student union, and a university guide for parent and family weekends, among other projects.

In addition, the student media produce these publications more cheaply for the university and make money. It also helps build student skills and a broader publishing experience.

Both programs still rely on alumni support.

Woodhams said keeping track of alumni is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. Arizona Student Media used to do that via print newsletters, but postage costs add up; they now use instant-contact digital updates. But solicitations via print or email only result in $25 or $50 checks, he said.

“We concentrate on identifying those alumni (or others) who have deep pockets and would like to help,” Woodhams said.

Their alumni list has 600 names on it and 300 of those attend the alumni reunion banquet. They also have access to the University of Arizona Foundation’s database.

“We are currently working with an alum who is a senior executive at Disney in helping use his contacts and expertise to fundraise, and he has given us a nice gift too.” Woodhams said.

When Clark took over as student publications director at Western Kentucky University, he had a built-in alumni database and fundraising resource in former adviser and WKU graduate Bob Adams. Adams’ work with student publications stretched to the 1960s.

“He personally knows everybody who came through these doors,” Clark said. “He is the most wonderful networker.”

At one time the university administration tried to appoint faculty editors to oversee the newspaper’s content. The alumni rose up in large numbers to protest. Within weeks, the University president had resigned. That incident helped to solidify the strong relationship WKU has with its alumni, which includes the current university president.

The first time alumni were ever asked for money was at the start of the building project.

This fall, WKU student publications is launching another fundraising campaign to create specific funds that would:

  • Provide direct financial support to the Herald and Talisman.
  • Create ongoing funding for internship partnerships between WKU student publications and professional media outlets.
  • Guarantee the new facility has state-of-the-art media operations and technology in perpetuity.
  • Allow the editors to pursue special projects via grants.

Alumni have also contributed money for several scholarships. WKU Student Publications has an active advisory board that works to provide students and adviser Chuck Clark with direction on how to build the program to make students most relevant to the work force.

The group will also award grants for the special editors’ projects. The board is made up of alumni and non-alumni and working and non-working journalists. Student publications students may or may not want to pursue a traditional journalism career; Clark places members on the board who can advise those students as well.

The student publications alumni group basically has fun, Clark says. They play a hospitality role at the annual homecoming breakfast. They are replacing an alumni newsletter with a comprehensive alumni website that will include a job bank. The student publications alumni database is more extensive than the overall WKU alumni list. Clark said they were asked to share their list with the alumni association several years ago and were happy to do it.

“We’ve got some quirky, interesting, fun folks,” Clark said.

WKU student publications look for ways to brag about their alumni and work closely with the school of journalism to recognize their achievements. Between 30 and 40 WKU alumni are Pulitzer Prize winners. Several of them also worked for student publications.

“That helps build relationships, too,” Clark said. “The great thing about being in my job is we are blessed with alumni who really care.”

Small-time fundraising

While big campaigns and donors are fantastic, sometimes a little money can make a major difference in paying for staff rewards, food or travel. An article about college student fundraising on has some ideas for raising money locally and creatively that get students involved in the process.

  • Competitions — It’s an isolated person who doesn’t know about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Try something similar at your own university. Competitions, according to, are a good way to get students involved in raising extra money by challenging faculty or staff to do stunts. Solicit sponsorships for the contests, like marathons, skipping contests, or trivia face offs, and then have faculty swear to shave their head or do something equally embarrassing when a certain amount of money is raised.
  • Odd Jobs — Offer to clean up lawns, paint houses or shovel snow for people who aren’t able to do it themselves for a small fee. Get local governments or other groups to sponsor the event. Sponsor a local event that will increase your visibility, work to build contacts through the community and university and perhaps raise some money – particularly if tickets are sold and speakers can donate their time.
  • Take advantage of your strengths — Try doing fundraising around your main area of operations. Take some ideas from Woodhams and Clark or try printing a campus calendar you could either sell to university entities or use to build ad revenue.

Susan Smith
Susan Smith

Susan Smith Bio: Susan Smith is the media adviser at South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD. She oversees The Collegian newspaper, KSDJ radio station and the Jackrabbit yearbook. She did both her undergraduate and graduate work in journalism at SDSU, and was raised in South Dakota on a family farm.