Saving Sweet Briar: A Story of Alumnae Engagement (Part I of ???)

Photo captured of some of the Sweet Briar daughters (credit: Jennifer Phelps Stanton).
Photo captured of some of the Sweet Briar daughters (credit: Becky Johnston Lambert).

There is a generation of girls who want to attend a College that is special to their Moms…and they have seen her fight for it. There are a generation of sons (like mine) who might want their daughters to attend. There is a current generation of parents who want these kind of alumnae to be there for their daughters. There are students who want to be part of history. Colleges are special and part of our DNA. If anyone wonders why so many worked to sustain Sweet Briar College, I give you this… — from my Facebook post, July 29, 2015

Independent Schools, Colleges and Universities all strive for “engaged alumni/ae”.  There are conferences on “engagement”. There are departments for “Alumni Engagement” with teams of people working on the issue.  At my own University, there are senior staff trained in this area. As the national news began to cover the story of the efforts to save Sweet Briar College, my professional peers began asking me questions as they learned of my affiliation.  They would ask:

How did they do it?

How will they sustain all of these engaged alumnae?

How might I harness a little of this for my institution?

This blog post is about capturing the answers I’ve given so far.  As I told my industry publication who contacted me about writing an article this past spring, “It is really too soon to write an article about saving Sweet Briar.  We don’t yet know if she will be saved; however, once we do save her, there will be books, conferences, talks, videos, movies and who knows what else.”  I am happy to share my perspective which is just that – one perspective among thousands….

Why do I love Sweet Briar so much? 

Sometimes it isn’t until you lose something that you realize how precious it is to you.   Sometimes it takes facing that loss to tap into a love so fierce you will fight for it.  This is the kind of love that saved Sweet Briar College – and it is the kind of love that will sustain it moving forward.

I did not need the College to face closure to tap into my love for Sweet Briar.  My affection for Sweet Briar College began in my senior year of high school.  After moving many times and having four high schools (moving in the middle of every single year), the one thing I wanted for my College career was a place I could call home. Of course I wanted an exceptional education, but I also wanted to join a community.  I had not considered a woman’s college, but it considered…nudged…beckoned….invited and held out its friendly hand…to me.  When I began to receive mail and then personal notes and phone calls from the admissions counselors, invitations to local events for prospective students in my home town (Annapolis, Maryland), I felt Sweet Briar was reaching out to me.  I felt they knew me.  I reached back.  Like many of my fellow alumnae, my love affair was solidified when I drove up the long driveway through tall trees and reached the Admissions Office.  I was home.

3,000 acres, historic buildings, renovated state-of-the-art facilities.
3,000 acres, historic buildings, renovated state-of-the-art facilities.

Service is a given at Sweet Briar College.  Everyone does something to improve the campus while you are there.  Formally, it was being an Admissions Ambassador and a Fundraising volunteer.  I gave countless tours becoming the “face” of Sweet Briar for others like me (and unlike me, by the way, I worked particularly hard to bring these people to campus as I believed in the value of a diverse campus back then too).  At one point I kept track of how many acceptances I had (it numbered over 40 by my senior year).  Sonja Gruhl Dupourque, a dear friend, is one of those who stayed on my dorm room floor and became a lifelong friend (the Godmother to my eldest son as well).   I served as Resident Advisor, a member of the Student Government Association.   I served in the Student Government Association and helped lead the Chapel program after serving on the search committee for the then new Chaplain, The Rev. Susan Lehman.  Informally, I was tapped as a Q.V. in my sophomore year (a group that does kind things for their class) and that spirit has stayed with me since that time (my sons don’t realize those notes and candies I leave them stem from that experience). After graduation, I served as a class officer and a Reunion Chair and Agent – year after year after year.  As recently as our 25th Reunion, I was still doing something for Sweet Briar, serving on the Reunion Gifts Committee.

1988 at our 25th Reunion
1988 at our 25th Reunion

My friends who attend other schools sometimes marvel at this devotion and shake their heads.  They might have LIKED their College experience, but the kind of LOVE and devotion they see in me confuses them.  They didn’t know their professors personally.  They didn’t dine with them at meals and visit them as friends.  They left their College and rarely look back. Some of these same people are those who made pessimistic statements to me when they heard about Sweet Briar closing.  The good news for Sweet Briar (and small institutions like it) is this:  I am not unique at all.  There are thousands of other people like me who volunteered both on campus and from afar.

I loved Sweet Briar because it loved me.  I loved it because I saw it through the eyes of prospective students and donors.  I loved it because it became for me all of the relationships with friends, faculty and staff who became lifelong important people to me.

Ask your alumni – often – what your institution means to them.  

Give students an opportunity to serve.  Keep those students engaged as they become alumni.

A trickle became a stream which became a raging river which overflowed its banks and traveled around the globe... (photo credit: Niagara Falls)
A trickle became a stream which became a raging river which overflowed its banks and traveled around the globe… (photo credit: Niagara Falls)

What would a world be like without Sweet Briar?

Then came March 3, 2015.  After the President and Board of Sweet Briar announced their intentions to close, alumnae devotion swelled.  This wasn’t just like a small creek overflowing its banks and heading towards a raging river.  This was more like a damn where one bit of water finds its way through and then a torrent of water shooting out in all directions cascades through towns, valleys, countrysides, cities and even around the globe.   They say a “rising tide lifts all boats”.  In this case, the rising tide lifted all hearts, sights, minds and intentions.  This was NOT going to be a sinking ship.

There were those who sat back and rearranged deck chairs on the sinking Sweet Briar.  From their perspective, there was no hope.  There were students, faculty, staff and alumnae who were resigned.  From my perspective, the closer someone was to a staff member or board member, the more they could not see any other possibility.  I know what they were saying because I spoke to many of them on the phone.  Visiting campus for the “last” Reunion in May 2015, it was clear that the majority of campus was preparing for closure.  Hallways were lined with moving boxes, offices were empty, even the Chapel sacristy had gaping cupboards and overturned chalices.  It was a dismal scene.

The interesting thing is that this dynamic repeats itself everywhere.  There are always unhappy students, faculty, staff, alumni and others who see a half-empty glass where other see a half-full.  There are always the nay-sayers, the pessimists and those who actively work to tear down their institutions.   Particularly when there is a negative situation — someone being fired or stepping down from a board or being forcibly kicked out — it is very likely those people will slam the institution.  I call this the “slam the door” syndrome.  They cannot leave a place unless they are angry and they tear it down.  It happens in relationships too, sadly.

For students, only a select few were bold enough to speak out against the closure and to fight for what they thought was right.  I’ve spoken to a few of the students (and their parents) who endured during this time.  It was incredibly difficult to speak out for possibility and many of them were treated very badly for it.  Most students, according to these braves ones, aligned with the administration.  They prepared for the final days.

Fortunately, there were others within the College community who saw possibility where others saw dispair.  Some students hung banners and worked to raise awareness.  Faculty and staff took time to hold hands, comfort and even wage their own lawsuit for unfair termination.  Outside the Community, alumnae did all they could from writing op-eds to giving to providing moral support during legal proceedings.

Protests at Sweet Briar College
Protests at Sweet Briar College

Sweet Briar’s President and Board did not feel they could trust their alumni to be honest about the financial condition.  They had the opportunity with a Donor Insight Survey, but they elected not only not to be honest with alumnae, they also weren’t candid with the staff conducting the interviews — or the firm charged with conducting the survey.  They felt surely if they were honest, no one would give and they would be in an even worse position.  This is pretty commonly accepted in marketing and fundraising.  The belief seems to be that sending messages that are positive and filled with “excellence” is critical for people to invest.  The problem is, being honest with the very people who can help you is also critical.  In another blog I wrote about an institution I worked for who also faced possible closure – they chose to be honest.  It works.  Not only is honesty the best policy, crisis messages call people to action.

I once had a staff member who worked for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  She was an exceptional fundraiser.  In one meeting she asked, “So when are we going to use a crisis message?”  This shook us all up.  We never did.  She pointed out that their Foundation solicits almost seven times a year and usually one or two of those appeals has a crisis message.  There is always something in any institution that deserves raising up for constituents.

What is your “crisis message” and how can you help your alumni see why their gift matters to your institution?

Sometimes testing the question, “What would a world be like without ________________, is important.” 

People tapping into how much they love a place engages them.  You must be honest and let your constituents know where problems exist — and how they can help solve them whether budget shortfalls or volunteer hours.  Chances are, your alumni will rise to the occasion.

We have nothing if we do not have activism.  Activism breeds engagement.  

Banners protesting the closure and leadership hung from balconies, the bell tower and buildings.
Banners protesting the closure and leadership hung from balconies, the bell tower and buildings.

Devotion took many creative forms.  Each person did what they could do and tapped into their unique set of time, talent and treasure.   For me, the logical thing to do was to raise funds.  This is what I do for a living and I figured I could do that for Saving Sweet Briar.  The problem was, we had no records.  Social media became the primary vehicle for communication and sharing.  I had no “tools of the trade” I was used to having. I had no lists, no research department, no annual giving or major gift data.  A group of faithful people recreated lists based on old magazines with giving records.  Someone who worked in the catering department found a table seating list from a former campaign dinner and thoughtfully entered those names onto a spreadsheet.

The Board of Saving Sweet Briar – an incredible group – set out to wage a legal battle and then began receiving funds.  Lots of funds. Most organizations have a gift processing department and database managers.  These dedicated volunteers did not have the infrastructure for gift accounting and they did an admirable job considering that.  Everyone did the best they could tapping into systems they knew.  The lawfirm which led the original suit provided important services beyond legal including accepting pledges and gifts in the early days.   It was and is a marvel to me how we managed to make it through those days.  It bordered on chaos and a lack of clarity, but with a pure motive we made calls, accepted gifts and loyal donors sent them.  Over and over again.

I sat down with my list and I started to make calls.  I reached people via Facebook messenger, web searches and friends of friends.  It truly was a remarkable process.  I wouldn’t know if people gave; however, unless they told me.  We had gifts going to a lawfirm, we had gifts made through Paypal, we had people sending funds to people they knew. I kept the people I called as a “portfolio” like I do at work sending them occasional updates.

Our efforts were led by a passionate woman, Mary Pope Hutson, who held weekly conference calls.  Over time, our numbers grew.  Thankfully, a fundraising firm, Alexander Haas offered to provide pro bono fundraising counsel.  This was a godsend knowing there were fundraisers handling contributions and the databases began to be combined.  I would – occasionally (okay more than occasionally), become concerned and agitated about the condition of things, but our extremely committed committee chair (who ultimately assumed the role on the new board as Development Committee) said to me several times:

We have got to keep our blinders on.  We have funds to raise and keys to get back.  It’s not going to be perfect.  Perfect is the enemy of progress.

I now have this printed on my computer at work.  It is so true.  There is always something to be worried about and nothing is ever perfect.

You don’t need perfect spreadsheets, amazing databases, super software or approved scripts to be a successful fundraiser.  You need passion, honesty and tenacity to just keep going.

Class of 1988 classmates - one all the way from Singapore -- attended an alternative reunion. Events were held all over the country.
Class of 1988 classmates – one all the way from Singapore — attended an alternative reunion. Events were held all over the country.


Events popped up everywhere from small towns to big cities to around the globe.  Never mind we didn’t have complete mailing lists.  Never mind we needed every event  to be a fundraiser with an overt “invitation to give” (this is usually something people try to avoid).  Never mind we often didn’t have enough “proper response time”.  The events were held and they were successful.  A whole team of volunteers worked to coordinate these events and get them published so that people could attend events wherever they were.

One event in Atlanta raised over $1 million organized by local volunteers with special guest, Teresa Pike Tomlinson, Mayor of Columbus Georgia (and now Chair of the Board for Sweet Briar College).

Events were important.  They built momentum.  They got the word out.  They got people feeling they were part of something bigger than themselves.  Most importantly, they forged new relationships and friendship.

People affiliating around a cause they believe in is important.  Providing opportunities for gathering is so important. Using events to provide updates is critical.

Volunteer Coordination

Beyond my Committee, there were many other committees at work – informally and formally.  Each of these committees had someone at the helm who cascaded messages on a regular basis.  Evangeline Taylor, an amazing woman, agreed to be a coordinator of coordinators!  Regular updates with news releases, legal updates and upcoming events were sent to State Representatives, Class Representatives, Committee Chairs, Event Chairs.  Some people wore multiple hats like my classmate, Katie Keough Widener.  She started out as a Class leader, then took on the state of Pennsylvania and then joined the Major Gift Task Force!

The saving Sweet Briar Major Gift Task Force meets for the first time in person.
The saving Sweet Briar Major Gift Task Force meets for the first time in person.

The question now arises – what to do with all of these volunteers?  Life will rush in and fill the places Sweet Briar once occupied. One of the suggestions I made to the board and College leadership was to consider hiring volunteer coordinators or alumnae engagement professionals among the first to be hired.

Formal structures will exist, of course, but not everyone will be able to join those structures.  Committees like Admissions and Development of Boards often include non board members, but there usually are not volunteer structures around academic programs, buildings and grounds, etc.   If you do have strong volunteers who have proven themselves, it might be worth personally asking them to step forward to serve so that you don’t lose them.  Asking people for their “recommendations for strong candidates” sends the message to a volunteer that they must not be needed anymore – or their efforts didn’t meet the criteria of a formal committee.

Once leadership structures exist organically, try if possible to continue them.

Once volunteers are engaged, try to find a way to allow them to continue.

As of this writing, Sweet Briar has just conducted a series of “work days” where alumnae came to paint, weed, repair.  These Habitat for Humanity-like days engaged women and their entire families.  One volunteer wrote to me after returning:

“Doing something physical for Sweet Briar – seeing spaces become more beautiful – was cathartic.  I want to do it every year.”

Family Affair

Up until March 3, Sweet Briar was an important part of MY life, but I wouldn’t say it was on the radar of my children, cousins, husband, community.

As my friends, family, neighbors and community began to pay attention to news media and the legal fight, they began to express support for Sweet Briar, Women’s Education, Liberal Arts Education, the list goes on….

Events were held that included families for picnics, bike rides, museum visits.

Some spouses and partners REALLY rolled up their sleeves (mine included) to support Sweet Briar from financial support to doing legal research.  One couple I met along the way who inspired me are Christine Bump and Elias Papasavvas.

Are you engaging the families of your alumni?  Are there family-friendly activities for them?  Are you including spouses and partners in your fundraising calls?

Children of alumnae sold lemonade, donuts, cookies and art to benefit their Mom's College. In this photo, Joan Dabney Clinker's daughter sells a donut to campus security.
Children of alumnae sold lemonade, donuts, cookies and art to benefit their Mom’s College. In this photo, Joan Dabney Clinker’s daughter sells a donut to campus security.


There must be a special section on work days because this truly is an example of going “above and beyond” for a College and engaging at the deepest level.  Alumnae came from all over the country to paint, mulch, power wash and provide special touches to make campus the most welcoming it could be for incoming students.  Jen Phelps Stanton and Debbie Thurman, local and dedicated alumnae, helped organize volunteers.  A post on the Virginia Chapter website read:

Alumnae, family and friends came together over the past few weeks to spruce up the campus prior to the students’ return under the guidance of Jen Staton and Debbie Thurman. Tom Connors, VP of finance, estimated that 4200 man-hours were donated resulting in an approximate $60,000 savings in maintenance costs for the college!

You Have to Have Leadership

People don’t always like to be led, but they need it. The Saving Sweet Briar board assembled itself organically quickly after the March 3rd announcement to both fight an important legal fight as well as to raise funds.  These women will forever be an important part of Sweet Briar College.  They are just as important as the founder, Indiana Fletcher Williams, in terms of creating a vision and pointing to a future.  Indiana Fletcher Williams pointed to a vision of a College in perpetuity.  The Saving Sweet Briar Board stepped in when that perpetuity was threatened.

There are other leaders who stepped forward to help launch additional legal suits and provide support to those who led them.  Without these leaders – both self appointed and supported with grass roots support – Sweet Briar would not likely be open today.  Initially, everyone looked to one group for leadership.  In time, people did what they saw needed doing.  This level of engagement was self-appointed and critical for the ultimate success.  If everyone sat back and waited for direction, we likely would not have reached the successful conclusion in the end.

The Saving Sweet Briar Board always said it was a temporary one.  This must have been difficult for them and they deserve admiration for seeing this vision.  From the beginning, they simply asked to have a voting majority of the Sweet Briar Board.  Their intention was to become unnecessary because the goal was to keep the College open and channel the support there.  Ultimately, the Board who voted for closure all resigned.  Saving Sweet Briar and the parties to the other law suits provided recommendations for new Board members through mediation.

It is hard for me to find a replicable instance of this for another institution.  Except perhaps to say – don’t be afraid to embrace an organic leadership structure that emerges.  It may be that leadership structure will have an energy you need and become the fuel for your current leadership.

It is worth noting that the Alumnae Association of Sweet Briar is entirely revamping itself.  They realized that their previous relationship of being completely a part of the College resulted in tensions and difficulty when the College elected to close.  Their independence is a strength.

It Takes a Village:  “Town & Gown” Relationships

Institutions often forget that they have neighbors.  It is very important to maintain close ties to the community and region nearby.  These neighbors are impacted by students who may live in off-campus housing.  The elected officials may prove critical at some point.

For Sweet Briar, it was the County of Amherst who came to its rescue.  The County Attorney was the person who originally filed suit to stop the closure and who advocated for protecting donor’s rights.  The Mayor of Amherst wrote amicus briefs regarding how the town and the College had shared infrastructure, investment and both would be harmed if the College closed.

Take time to get to know your elected officials and community members.  Identify the faculty and staff who live nearby.  Consider days when the community can visit to interact with your student body.  Keeping the relationships strong will avoid the divisive issues of “town vs. gown” which many communities face.

Amherst and Sweet Briar have a shared history and future (I explore these relationships in my blog “What’s In a Seal”).

Image courtesy Central Virginia Sweet Briar Alumni & Friends Chapter
Image courtesy Central Virginia Sweet Briar Alumni & Friends Chapter

Social Media

Saving Sweet Briar logo and the website became important symbols and community builders.
Saving Sweet Briar logo and the website became important symbols and community builders.

I often tell people, if it were not for social media, Sweet Briar College would not have been saved.  If this closure had been announced before social media, the alumnae and friends would have had no way to mobilize so quickly.

Brooke Linville, Saving Sweet Briar Board member, created the website and it became a portal to organize:  legal updates, recent news media, testimonials, fundraising updates, links to events.   The website was critical for communicating — especially since the College was busy posting closure messages daily.

Other channels of social media were also critical.  Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, Reddit, Instagram, Pinterest.  There truly was not a form of social media that was not used for the benefit of Sweet Briar.  In fact, Forbes Magazine launched a contest based on twitter posts resulting in Sweet Briar being awarded the “top small college”. 

Facebook became a place where people could organize themselves, vent, research, post events, inform.  As of this writing, there are over 20 different sub-pages fueling the passion and commitment for Sweet Briar.  Students, parents, faculty, staff, alumnae and community could bond together over shared issues, concerns and hopes for the future.  Eventually, many of these channels split into further categories.  Some even became their own websites such as the strategic planning work,

Just as in any group, human nature plays a part.  Some people get emotional and angry about things.  Some people like to keep the peace.  Some like to follow the leader.  Some are naturally suspicious.  Some see their role as policing.  Eventually, not all of this energy could exist in the same place and individuals created conversations and pages.  Just as there are those who might have a chat on their way to class or over the phone in private, social media provided a place where the dialogue of saving Sweet Briar reached a fever pitch. Having received invitations to the majority of the groups formed, I can say we needed everyone and every group to get to a successful conclusion.  Also just as in any group, stereotyping of these groups also took place in addition to not understanding and pointing fingers.  There isn’t one group of which I was a part where I agreed with everything, but I felt I was of more use being there than not.

The question is now, do we still need those groups?  I think we do.  The question for your institution may be, to what degree do you allow and foster the organic energy of your constituents — or do you try to control all channels of social media?

Future Engagement

As I write this post, students are driving to campus and faculty and staff are there to welcome them.  Each day, smiling faces of returning students are shared.  Colleges released coaches and faculty from contracts so that they could return.  Colleges released students from enrollment contracts so that Sweet Briar could welcome them home.  These acts of friendship will be long remembered  from Hollins College, Agnes Scott and many others.

The College announces “appointments” for staff positions on a regular basis.  In order to open its doors, positions had to be filled quickly.  The leadership evidently feels that there is not time for national searches (which can take weeks and months in some institutions of higher education).   A combination of volunteers and appointed staff fill key roles in Admissions, Development and administration.  These roles are temporary, according to President Stone, and in time there will be national searches to secure permanent professionals for the long term.  Some of these interim candidates will become tomorrow’s internal ones and their service may be longer than a short-term assignment.

Just as in the early days of Saving Sweet Briar, there were no rules or a playbook to follow.  These are unprecedented times for the College.  Those closest to those in leadership know what the needs are and who is available to get in their car, take residence in one of the homes on campus and get to work.  Those further afield stand back to see what role they may play for the future – or not.

Life does and will rush in to fill the time that alumnae gave to Sweet Briar.  Formal positions are not going to be available for all.  Volunteer positions may also not be available either as the Colleges shifts into more traditional Board Committee structures.

Yet, there are signs that the engagement will continue.  One of the first Admissions positions held by much-admired Marcia Thom Kaley directly focuses on the role alumnae will play in the future.  From an Alumnae Admissions posting:

Dear AARs – We will be up and running shortly – I so very much look forward to working with you as the new Director of Alumnae Admissions Relations! It is a title I covet – be gentle with me to begin with – we are still actively working hard on the incoming classes of 2015-2016 – we will VERY soon slam into action with regard to our recruiting schedule for 2016-2017 – home run, my friends – home run!!!

It remains to be seen whether returning faculty will be as open to alumnae engagement in their respective fields.  Faculty members do not usually have a team of professionals wishing to advise, revamp, change, etc.  Yet, there are hundreds involved in key areas such as STEM and other fields.  Perhaps Sweet Briar will adopt a Program Advisory Model that some Universities employ.  One thing is for sure, everything at Sweet Briar will change and the curricula must as well.

For me, I’ve spent the last few weeks confirming pledges.  All of the different gift accounting processes and procedures needed to be firmed up to hand over the most accurate records to the College.  I counted up one afternoon 188 phone, email and in-person contacts on the list assigned to me.  The final settlement agreement payment is slated for September 1 and the efforts are on track to make it.  I must admit to feeling a bit bereft as the tide ebbs back from this high level of engagement and dedication.

I am incredibly proud of Sweet Briar.  We have made the national news and overturned a decision some thought was fatal.  It has been an honor to serve alongside volunteers working so hard.  Some volunteers around me are tapped for staff roles, board roles or other official duties. My role along with many alumnae is uncertain.

The keys have been handed over.  A new President is at the helm.  A new Board leads.  What is the role for alumnae?  That is for the future to decide and bold leadership to craft.  In the meantime, President Stone’s comment probably sums it up:

At Sweet Briar, “impossible” is just another problem to solve.

SAVED! This photo was taken of me from a crowd that assembled during "the last" Reunion for a rousing cheer for the future.
SAVED! This photo was taken of me from a crowd that assembled during “the last” Reunion for a rousing cheer for the future.

Stacey Sickels Locke, CFRE, is a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, Class of 1988.  She served as an employee of the College in the early 1990s working on the $25 million Campaign.  During that time, she solicited many leadership gifts which make up the current endowment. Since then, she has spent her career building support for higher education and the nonprofit community as a staff member and consultant for boards.  As a volunteer, she has served Sweet Briar since graduation as a fundraiser, admissions ambassador and now advocate for the #saveSweetBriar movement. She raises funds for Saving Sweet Briar, a charitable organization committed to the future of the College  She is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), is affiliated (through the University of Maryland) with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and holds a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) certification from CFRE International.

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2 thoughts on “Saving Sweet Briar: A Story of Alumnae Engagement (Part I of ???)”

  1. Another great blog, Stacey! I can’t wait to see what comes next and to read Part 2. It’s been so good getting to know you, my friend! Amazing work has been done and amazing friendships have been forged in the process. Holla Holla Holla!

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