Centering strategy around education: A conversation with fundraising leaders from Florida A&M University

October 25, 2023
min read
Centering strategy around education: A conversation with fundraising leaders from Florida A&M University

As a public, historically Black university, Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) has a legacy of providing access to high-quality, affordable education with programs and services that guide students toward successfully achieving their dreams. This work is supported by the FAMU Foundation, whose lean staff raises critical funds to move the University’s mission forward.

Since partnering with FreeWill in June 2022, Florida A&M University has raised over $2.9 million in legacy gift commitments.

Below are highlights from a recent interview with Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud (Vice President of University Advancement, Executive Director of the FAMU Foundation, and Dean of the School of Business and Industry), Kimberly Hankerson (Assistant Vice President of Major & Principal Giving), and Audrey Simmons Smith (Director of Corporate Relations), who share the Foundation’s unique strategy to support student success.

FreeWill: Thank you for speaking with us today! We’re excited to dive into FAMU’s approach to planned giving. Can you start by telling us a little bit more about the Foundation and its role within the University?

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud: The Foundation is part of Florida A&M University’s Division of University Advancement. We fundraise on behalf of the University, with a goal to support student success initiatives, including faculty excellence opportunities, professorships, and other activities that can support the work of faculty, as well as raising funds to enhance academic and athletic facilities. We’re here to support the University and meet the needs of our students to ensure their success.

FreeWill: What led you to FreeWill?

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud: At the end of the day, we realized that we needed to diversify the ways in which our alumni were giving. And while annual giving is great, and endowment giving is great, we really wanted to make sure people see legacy giving and planned giving as a way to give not only today but well into the future.

Audrey Simmons Smith: We had initially started trying to reignite the program, but it was just a lot of moving parts. So when FreeWill reached out to us, we thought this would be a good opportunity to get it started. We did have another partner, but it was one that was touch and go. FreeWill has been really engaged in helping us to get the message out to our alums.

Kimberly Hankerson: We’d also realized that people were giving gifts to the University through FreeWill before we had an official agreement with you. And I think that was one of the most attractive points. As Audrey mentioned, the previous partnership never really took off. And for us to have gotten gifts through FreeWill without actually having had a conversation with you was a really big selling point.

FreeWill: And how has FreeWill fit into your overall mission?

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud: For the University, part of our mission is to ensure that we are serving the members of our communities where we live and work and to ensure that we are preparing our students to be the best that they can be as they leave us and move into the world of work. FreeWill’s mission of providing free access to estate planning tools gives people a way to say, “Hey, I can give back in this way!” And it's pretty painless in that there are no costs that they have to come up with upfront.

There's also the educational component to help guide you through the process through FreeWill’s tools. And it is helping us expose people in our community to this additional way of giving and diversifying how they give. In some cases, people think that you have to be at a certain level to give in this way. And I think this helps to educate people that you can start small but have a huge impact over time.

What we have realized is that it's the diversification of the ways in which people can give that will lead us to increase what we'll be able to bring in for the University for generations to come. And that's why this has been really important.

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud

FreeWill: That’s amazing. Now, you’ve been a FreeWill partner for a little over a year and have already raised over $2.9 million in legacy gift commitments. Can you tell us a little about your strategy and how you’re reaching donors?

Audrey Simmons Smith: The ages of our donors have been a mix, and the gift range has been from $100 to $150,000. So that has been significant for us as we begin to expand and reach out and see which areas we know other donors will come in. And we've worked with our Office of Communications in helping to get the message out. It's like a constant reminder to keep [planned giving] in the forefront.

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud: Our outreach really cuts across all demographics. We'd much rather cast a wider net because it's also as much about educating our constituents on this as a way of giving. And we can [educate] some of our younger alumni, who aren’t making as much money now, to help them start thinking about getting their plan together earlier. Then the University could potentially see greater returns on it in the future.

FreeWill: That’s fantastic how you’ve been able to deepen those relationships as a result of increased communication and education, as well as casting a wider net. Do you have any specific donor stories you’d like to share that have resulted from your outreach?

Audrey Simmons Smith: Well, for me, I know several couples on our mailing list, and one of them used to work here. Her husband worked in Central Florida, but she worked here. And it’s just surprising that they had made that level of commitment to FAMU.

FreeWill: So you wouldn't have originally thought to reach out to them in that way for this type of gift?

Audrey Simmons Smith: No, not at all. Not at all.

FreeWill: That's really amazing. And that's our hope — we're looking for those hand-raisers who are taking this opportunity and making that kind of commitment. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Audrey Simmons Smith: What FreeWill has done for us by writing a lot of the materials that we did not have the time to develop has been instrumental in launching and getting this program moving forward.

Kimberly Hankerson: The content is written for us. All we have to do is make edits, and it sounds like it’s coming from FAMU. We have a lot on our plates, and for FreeWill to make it so easy for us is really appreciated.

Dr. Shawnta Friday-Stroud: I just have to echo that. Having the content ready and for us to just edit — you all give us the base, which is usually the hardest part to get. But then we're able to edit it to sound like it is authentically from FAMU. And I think that is what has resonated most with our alumni and friend base. You all have made it turnkey for us to be able to do this because we are a lean staff. We have a very lean team, but what we have realized is that it's the diversification of the ways in which people can give that will lead us to increase what we'll be able to bring in for the University for generations to come. And that's why this has been really important.