Fundraising professionals at UT-Austin Dell Medical School are navigating new territory, but working with the community, they’re crafting new ways to engage more people in giving. The medical school, which just welcomed its second class of students this year, can’t rely on the traditional sources of donors yet. It lacks a vast network of alumni most university fundraisers usually tap, and even though students provide medical care, the new school lacks a history of “grateful patients” who become donors.
“We don’t have volunteer opportunities, people just can’t join our board,” said Courtney Manuel, executive director of development for Dell Medical School, describing the usual way nonprofits build a pipeline for donations. “So our challenge was to create engagement opportunities for the community that aren’t $1 million gifts,” she said.
Last fall, Manuel launched a membership organization called the Society for Health and Business to offer the Austin business community a way to learn about the school and support it. Members are asked to give $2,500 a year. The success of that organization has led to two new societies, the Society for Health and Women, with members asked to give $2,500 a year, and the Society for Health and Wellness, with members asked to give $10,000 a year.
Society members are invited to events held six times a year to hear from faculty and staff about projects, innovations and ideas. On August 23, for example, the Society for Health and Wellness heard from Larry Speck of Page, the architectural design firm that designed the school’s Health Learning Building. “The idea is to bring a group of like-minded people together around these really interesting topics,” said Manuel. Most of the money contributed by members fund scholarships and health services for patients.
Adam Blum, a private investment professional and one of the founding members of the Health and Business Society, says members enjoy learning about the school but also feel empowered to represent community concerns.
“Those first few years after the school broke ground, I didn’t feel like there was a real chance for people who are interested in what’s going and but not necessarily be able to write a $1 million check,” said Blum. “So we thought about how we can engage business leaders and keep the medical school accountable because we are taxpayers and concerned citizens.”
“The societies are a way for people who aren’t ingrained in the medical school to still understand it and be a part of it,” said Blum.
Manuel says society members also become ambassadors for the school. So much of fundraising for the school, she says, requires educating donors about Dell Medical School in particular as well as medical school in general. When society members understand the school and its mission, she says, “they turn into our advocates and open more doors for us.”