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The Story of Saving Sweet Briar – or Don’t Mess with the Vixen!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016   (0 Comments)

By David King, President & CEO, Alexander Haas

By now you may or may not have heard the saga of Sweet Briar College. The cliff notes are that the college President and Board decided to close the women’s college after 114 years, because they believed it had insurmountable financial problems. The other side of the story is that, in the year leading up to that decision, they never took the time to inform their alumnae of the situation or seek their support. When the alumnae were blindsided, they rose up and formed an organization called Saving Sweet Briar, Inc.which succeeded in keeping the college open.

Alexander Haas provided fundraising counsel and campaign management to Saving Sweet Briar and had a front-row seat as this miracle unfolded. 

Here are a few interesting facts:

  • Saving Sweet Briar raised more than $13 million in cash in just over 120 days, with no development staff or a staff or any kind. In the early stages of this effort, the organization had not received its 501C(3) status from the IRS, but people gave anyway, not knowing if gifts would even be tax deductible.
  • More than 7,000 gifts and pledges were recorded from March 3—when the closure was announced—to September 2, when the final conditions of the settlement were reached.
  • As part of the settlement to keep the college open, Saving Sweet Briar had to transfer $12-million to the college to be used for operations by September 2. They ended up delivering more than $12 million to the college.
  • The largest cash gift to this effort was $2 million made by an alumna and the smallest was $1.50, the contents of the piggy bank of an alumna’s grandson.
  • Saving Sweet Briar probably could not have happened 15 years ago, as social media—and specifically Facebook—provided a gathering place for alumnae after the initial announcement. It was from the “virtual” gathering and sharing a collective outrage that the Saving Sweet Briar movement emerged. It was also through social medial that Saving Sweet Briar kept alumnae updated on its efforts and its progress. Without social media, it would have been nearly impossible for alumnae from around the globe to unite behind this cause.

Despite the fact that last year’s students and newly admitted high school seniors were told in March that the college would not open for them in September, the college did open in September with an enrollment of more than 320 students.

What lead to the fundraising success of Saving Sweet Briar Inc.? As every consultant at Alexander Haas would tell you, campaigns succeed because of a sound plan, a compelling and urgent case and strong volunteer leadership. Peer to peer solicitaton is the best way to make a significant impact on a campaign. The volunteers for Saving Sweet Briar were resilient, determined, and very passionate which was the winning combination. Each person devoted time, talent, and treasure in the hopes of saving the institution they loved, Sweet Briar College. 

  • Time: Countless hours of phone calls, emailing, stuffing envelopes, and reaching out to fellow classmates and complete strangers to ask for significant gifts. These women (and a few good men) devoted seven months to eat, sleep and breathe Saving Sweet Briar. 
  • Talent: Personal artwork and handcrafted jewelry were auctioned off or sold online and the proceeds given to Saving Sweet Briar. Someone designed and maintained the Saving Sweet Briar website. People ranging in age from 6 to 70 stuffed and mailed over 10,000 letters. A cadre of Sweet Briar alumnae who are professional development officers deployed their skills to solicit hundreds of major gifts. Every single person gave the skills they had to support the college.  
  • Treasure: Each person made a commitment they were proud to stand behind before going out to ask others join them in making a sacrificial gift. To generate additional gifts women hosted parties and donated percentages from their business sales.  

With the proper support of gift and prospect management tracking, which Alexander Haas along with Complete Prospect were able to provide, the fearless women from all over the country were able to succeed in saving their college.

The future of Sweet Briar College is now in the hands of a newly elected Board and a newly appointed President. They all understand the challenge that lies ahead of them and are working hard to meet it.

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