On Raising and Spending Money

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Development and Fundraising

On Raising and Spending Money

Tips and tricks for supporting undergraduates


Steve Feller, Professor of Physics, Coe College in Cedar Rapids, IA, Recipient of the 2012 Sigma Pi Sigma Worth Seagondollar Award

Sigma Pi Sigma Development, Connecting donors to student programs treeFundraising is an important part of being a professor, as is the responsibility of spending the received funds wisely. I have found that with a reasonably strong will and a thought-out strategy, this part of a professor’s life can be very successful. My stories, I should mention, are based on my experiences at a liberal arts school in Iowa. Some generalizations may be made, but the details of the funding levels will vary from school to school, depending on circumstances. Some schools may have less resources to tap and some more.

I believe, based on my experience, that colleges are more forthcoming with their resources if their commitments can be augmented by or parlayed through the acquisition of matching funds. Thus, when we knew we wanted to bring a large group of students to the Sigma Pi Sigma congress, I approached the president of Coe College to begin a chain reaction of funding. He pledged several thousand dollars toward the almost $30,000 needed to allow us to bring, ultimately, nearly 30 students to the congress.

I made it a point to talk to him a year and a half before the event. This allowed the president to commit funds from the next year, not the current fiscal year—a key consideration. After this our SPS chapter approached the Coe College Student Senate for additional funds, based in part on the commitment of the college made by the president. The senate contributed several thousand dollars, on the condition that each student make a personal commitment of $400.

We now had almost $20,000, half of which would need to come from the students. With this in hand, we approached our vice president for student affairs with a request for several hundred dollars. We also used part of our National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant to supplement students who presented research posters at the conference.

Once we realized that nearly 30 people would be able to go on the trip, I again approached the president of our college for a few thousand more to “top off” and allow more students to go. He agreed to the sum. Thus we reached the required total for the congress, and a small cadre of Coe students were ready to go to Florida.

As we worked to raise money, we also looked for ways to be economical about our expenses. We asked United Airlines for a group rate, which saved us a few thousand dollars. (Before that I had actually considered chartering a small plane!) The group rate also made it easy to secure passage for the whole group on the same flights.

“...fundraising is essential for building and sustaining a thriving program.”

Each hotel room had 4 or 5 students. Those students were responsible for cab/shuttle rides to and from the airport, as well as for food not provided by the congress. Thus each student had to pay about $500 in personal expenses but was subsidized a like amount.

The result was a fantastic, memorable trip that the students are still buzzing over. The camaraderie that resulted from the trip was priceless. We are already thinking about 2016.

We have begun the same process for our next adventure—a research conference on borate glasses in the Czech Republic that begins June 29, 2014. Already, we have a commitment from the president of Coe College for the first $5,000. As this is being written, an NSF proposal for additional funding is nearly ready to be submitted. We will approach the Student Senate in a month. I should note that this model also worked for other conferences attended by Coe students in Bulgaria (1999), Italy (2005), Japan (2008), and Canada (2011).

Let me address a few ancillary issues as well. It is important that our SPS chapter be a registered club at Coe College. We receive generous annual funds from the Student Senate, as we are one of the most active academic clubs on campus. Thus the request for funds for Orlando was based on a history of high-level activity on behalf of our students. We try to incorporate nonphysics students whenever possible. Our trip to Orlando included a gender studies student who wanted to meet Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and talk to her for a school project! It also included one other nonmajor—a math student.

Public relations is very important. I believe it is important to use funds for activities that benefit not only the students but the college as a whole. Thus photos and information need to be sent to the college’s public relations department as soon as possible after an event.

I’d like to close with another story of fundraising. A few years ago the NSF established a one-time program for building renovation, its response to the stimulus programs that were then taking place. The goal was to renovate research space. We had an older facility, built in 1968, and a very active research program (over 50 stay per summer with over half in physics). We thought we were the poster child for a small school for this grant opportunity.

We applied for and received $4.7 million and were able to parlay that into nearly $14 million for the total renovation of our building. This project was just completed after 3 years of work.

I wrote a supplemental grant proposal to send students to collaborating labs during the one summer our building was shut. We described this as an opportunity for our students and faculty to continue their research while construction was ongoing. This, too, was funded, and we sent over a dozen students around the world. I learned a lot about construction, an area in which I was ignorant. On the other hand, I had to submit thousands of pages of data in over 60 required reports to the NSF! This was the most difficult project I ever took on as a principal investigator.

Overall, fundraising is essential for building and sustaining a thriving program. It is not easy, but it certainly makes the outcomes more rewarding. I urge you forward!

The work reported here was supported by the NSF under grants 0904615, 1262315, and 0963113.

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