The weathered, century-old stone statue of an angel stands atop a hill at the back of campus, reached only by a narrow, loose-gravel road. Beneath lie the graves of members of a 19th-century family that owned the surrounding land and ran it as a plantation.
A plaque on the statue honors Indiana Fletcher Williams, the last of the family’s line. Widowed by the 1890s and deeply grieving the death of her 16-year-old daughter from lung disease, Williams directed in her will that her vast land holdings be turned into an institution of higher learning for women. Sweet Briar College, whose cluster of brick buildings can be seen through a break in the hilltop’s trees, was created in 1901, the year after Williams died and almost two decades before women got the right to vote.
Another plaque is affixed to the statue, its metal untarnished by age or weather. “We Kept the Faith,” it reads. “College Saved. Vision Endured.” It honors thousands of alumnae who rallied when Sweet Briar’s president and board moved to close the college in the spring of 2015, citing fiscal troubles. National media put a spotlight on their legal battle; less well known is the campaign launched during that fight by as many as 40 alumnae, most of them professional fund raisers. They raised $21 million in unrestricted gifts and pledges in three months — this when the college typically netted about $2 million in such support annually.
The new plaque, while a fitting tribute, is perhaps premature in its declaration of victory. The battle to save Sweet Briar continues, as its finances and enrollment don’t yet promise long-term health. Small, liberal-arts colleges are a tough sell to today’s career-minded students, leaving some institutions starved for the tuition dollars they need to survive.
Still, the fund raisers are doubling down, extending a cash lifeline to Sweet Briar as it fashions a new identity that it hopes will attract students. Some of them have given up jobs, and a few have left their families and homes and now live on the remote campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” That’s the famous rallying cry of Rahm Emanuel, Chicago mayor and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama during the recession. Those words won’t replace Sweet Briar’s motto (“She who has earned the rose may bear it”), but they’re apropos for these fund raisers, who’ve netted a total of more than $44 million since the crisis began. Gifts now account for roughly half of the college’s budget — a remarkably large share that experts say is not sustainable in the long run.
The fund raisers’ challenge now is to keep the dollars flowing even as urgency fades and donor fatigue sets in. “We have had some criticism — ‘All you do is ask for money,’ ” says Claire Dennison Griffith, Class of 1980 graduate and senior director of alumnae relations and development. “And we say, ‘Well, hope is not a strategy, and it doesn’t pay many bills.’ ”
What’s more, some alumnae are balking at the college’s new direction, as it will bring significant change to the Sweet Briar they attended and the college they saved.
Mary Pope Maybank Hutson leads the college’s fund-raising effort, working out of an office steps from the quad where she received her diploma in 1983. A scholarship student, she studied international politics, became a nationally ranked tennis player, played basketball, worked as an admissions tour guide and athletics trainer, and drank deeply of the vision of Indiana Fletcher Williams.
After graduating, she built a distinguished career in politics, historic preservation, and land conservation. Upon a first meeting, she exhibits the personal qualities you’d expect of a top fund raiser — firm handshake and warm smile that can’t hide a competitive fire.
When the Sweet Briar crisis broke, Hutson was in her 13th year as a senior executive and fund raiser with the Land Trust Alliance. The group was winding down a $40-million campaign, and she was spearheading a Capitol Hill effort that would soon make permanent tax incentives for donations of conservation easements.
Now, as Sweet Briar’s chief of advancement, she has left her condo with its view of the Washington Monument and moved into a house on campus set aside for faculty or staff members. Griffith, who was Hutson’s tour guide when she was a prospective student, lives next door, having moved away from her home, husband, and aging spaniel in Atlanta to join the rescue operation. Clélie Steckel, director of annual giving, who grew up on campus as the daughter of a Sweet Briar staff member, lives just a few houses down. She quit her development job with a health group in nearby Lynchburg.
Hutson, a native of Charleston, S.C., lived as a child at two boys’ boarding schools where her father was a headmaster and administrator. “I have come full circle in my life,” she says.
News of Sweet Briar’s impending closure reached her when she was in Sacramento, about to speak before hundreds of officials from local and regional land-trust groups. Her phone was muted, but when the buzz of incoming emails and texts grew too incessant to ignore, she glanced at the screen to find messages from friends. “I felt like a cannonball had shot through my chest,” she remembers.
Within hours, during a flight layover in Phoenix, she was huddled with another Sweet Briar alumna at a Mexican restaurant, drinking margaritas and hatching a plan raise the money to save the college.
Unbeknownst to them, Brooke Linville, another alumna, was working on her computer in her kitchen in Boise, Idaho, creating a website to rally alumnae. She finished the site just after midnight, compete with a donate button. Within 48 hours, she had commitments for $1 million.
Anger fueled fund raising and the legal campaign, which both took formal shape in Saving Sweet Briar, a group that joined a legal effort to block the closure. Alumnae, who had been on rocky terms with administrators in recent years, felt betrayed. The president and board had argued that the college couldn’t make it financially — in part because enrollment was down, but officials also contended the donor base couldn’t adequately support the institution.
Two board members — both alumnae — wrote about their “impossibly difficult decision” in The News & Advance, of Lynchburg, Va., and said that a recent survey of donors indicated that even an emergency appeal would not have worked in the long run.
These claims, which angered alumnae, emerged as an issue in the legal fight. The college had never hinted at its financial struggles, alumnae say, much less asked for help. In a court hearing, graduates talked about how the development office — which was said to be leaderless for two years — sought only $250 gifts from even the wealthiest graduates. Major-gift officers courted alumnae who had arrived at the institution from well-off families, they contended, but ignored women who made their money after college.
“This college does not need to die,” one of the group’s lawyers argued. “This college does not need to commit suicide. This college only needs to do what a well-run college does.”
Following her margarita-fueled conversation in Phoenix, Hutson helped round up alumnae fund raisers to do what college officials said couldn’t be done: raise big money. They were armed with a crisis and a villain — the Sweet Briar leaders who wanted to close the college — but little else. No access to college donor records. No wealth-screening software. At first, before Saving Sweet Briar earned its tax-exempt status, they couldn’t even promise that gifts would be deductible.
Still, Hutson and her cohort built a traditional fund-raising structure for their makeshift campaign. To identify prospects, alumnae and students copied donor-roll lists from back issues of the alumnae magazine in the campus library. The fund raisers also found potential donors through their network of friends, as well as via LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. After building a gift pyramid, they hit the phones, updating one another on their progress in weekly conference calls.
The effort had so little formal infrastructure that the pledges of initial donors who gave through Linville’s website were recorded on a Google Doc. Yet by mid-April, about a month after the closure announcement, the group had collected $5 million in gifts and another $5 million in pledges.
Early the next month, David King, husband of a Sweet Briar alumna, threw his fund-raising consultancy, Alexander Haas, into the effort pro bono. The company gave the campaign a home base, with a mailing address and a dedicated phone line. With wealth screening, the firm helped identify 400 women for the alumnae fund raisers to call and another 50 to visit. It also mailed a no-frills appeal to 5,000 alums older than 55, with alumnae, their families, and even grandchildren coming to the firm’s Atlanta offices to stuff envelopes.
Linville, who had set up the Saving Sweet Briar website from her Boise kitchen, operated somewhat independently. She had enrolled at Sweet Briar in 2000 but transferred after two years, in part to pursue coursework elsewhere. Now she worried that she had, in some way, contributed to the college’s demise. “I was sad, but I wasn’t certain I was allowed to feel sad, because I had left.”
Nonetheless, she devoted herself full-time to the campaign, working so hard that fellow alumnae ordered meals for her family. A web-development and online-marketing consultant, Linville built fun crowdfunding gambits. The “latte challenge,” which raised $100,000 in pledges and donations, asked alumnae to donate in lieu of a Starbucks run. (This was a pointed dig at President James Jones; arguing that Sweet Briar was too remote to attract students, he had told one reporter, “We are 30 minutes from a Starbucks.”)
King says social media, and specifically Facebook, stoked the entire campaign. Women who didn’t know each other, and who came from different generations and different parts of the country, found each other, vented their anger, and then turned that anger into action.
“Nobody trusted the college anymore, or the information it was putting out,” he says. If it hadn’t been for Facebook, he adds, “the college would have closed.”
Eventually, Saving Sweet Briar raised more than $21 million in gifts and pledges from more than 7,000 donors. In June, college leaders agreed to settle the lawsuits; they resigned, and a new interim president, Phil Stone, was hired.
Hutson briefly joined the newly formed Board of Directors, but Stone says he pressed her into taking the job of chief development officer. She started in January 2016, and, with the fiscal year closing in six months, was asked to raise the $10 million needed simply to keep the college operating.
A Crisis-Fueled Spike
Giving to Sweet Briar
The two of them hit the road to court the biggest donor prospects. Stone had met none of them, Hutson only a few. “There’s no script for what we were doing,” he says. “We introduced ourselves and said, ‘I need you to give us $1 million. To be honest with you, we’re going to spend it all — this won’t go to buildings or endowed professorships. We’re going to spend it to stay alive.’ ”
Stone, who was president of Bridgewater College for 16 years, is a veteran fund raiser with an easy, gracious Southern charm. But that carried him only so far with alumnae who felt betrayed by the college’s previous leaders. Hutson, though, could point to her battle scars from the fight to save the college.
“She could say, ‘I vouch for him,’ ” Stone remembers.
Stone and Hutson asked 10 individuals for seven-figure gifts; only four declined, Hutson says. By the end of June, Sweet Briar had the $10 million it needed.
Stone stepped down from his interim post a year later, and he remembers his fund-raising duties during his time in office as a whirlwind of airports and rental cars. He logged perhaps a quarter-million miles, most of them with Hutson. She decided whom to visit and when, he says. As they drove, she cataloged donors’ personal details — birthdays, children, family illnesses, etc. — fired off emails, and wrote thank-you notes.
At the same time, Hutson set about reinvigorating the fund-raising operation. Within days of her start, the staff began assembling a monthlong series of giving days under the theme of “Sweet Briar Forever.” While colleges typically focus fund raising on the classes enjoying landmark five- and 10-year reunions, the annual-fund team asked members of every class to make the college their top priority. “We’re no longer focused on reunions as a rallying point; Sweet Briar’s future is our rallying point,” says Clélie Steckel, the annual-fund director.
Over time, the development office found ways to keep its newly invested supporters working for the college. Steckel recruits teams of alumnae to help drive fund raising in each class and encourages their creativity. Several class leaders create competitions to see which can raise the most money. In one challenge, a leader from the losing class had to spend the night in the Williams’s cemetery, which is said to be haunted.
The college also organizes summer workweeks in which alumnae paint, mulch, pull weeds, and do other maintenance, often sleeping in the dorms. “It’s like a big rolling reunion,” says Sarah Clement, one of the chairwomen of the now-defunct Saving Sweet Briar group. “But I like it better; it’s less formal.”
Perhaps most important, the college created an alumnae association that goes beyond traditional functions — hosting entertainment and fund-raising events, for instance — to advise the college on communications, fund raising, governance, admissions, and other operations. Professionals with expertise in those areas volunteer and often work closely with staff. Communications staff, for instance, talk weekly by phone with their alumnae counterparts.
Altogether, Sweet Briar has raised more than $44 million since the college moved to close. “I’m impressed by the continuing gifts,” says Kent John Chabotar, a former president of Guilford College who worked as a consultant on the fight to keep the institution alive. “This is the last year that I thought they’d survive, but obviously they’re doing better than anybody thought they would.”
Survival is still no sure thing. Stone had hoped to rebuild enrollment to 800 students, but this fall’s incoming class included just 81 first-year students and 14 transfers. Only 300 students are on campus, just 60 more than when it opened after the crisis two years ago. The college says it will adjust its budget and payroll to enrollment, whatever its size. But Chabotar says, “Trust me, that’s easier said than done.”
Fund-raising dollars give the college breathing room to sort out enrollment and financial issues. In the first year, contributions made up 82 percent of the budget. That’s not sustainable — individual donations for a small, non-elite liberal-arts college typically account for 10 percent of expenses or less, Chabotar says — but Hutson and her team know that a lot rides on every gift.
They aim to raise $13 million this year, just a million less than last year. They’re working to broaden the base of supporters beyond the alumnae who saved the college. “With smaller donors, who have given their heart and soul as well as their money over the past three years, donor fatigue is an issue,” says Griffith, who now serves as head of alumnae relations.
Those who helped save the college are keeping a close eye on campus matters. “They have a sense of ownership and an expectation that they will be kept intimately in the loop on everything that happens,” says King, who has continued to advise the college. “There’s also an expectation of transparency that’s different than even what you find at a public institution.”
Recently, some alumnae balked at the college’s announced academic restructuring. Under a plan created by the faculty and Meredith Woo, the new president and a former University of Virginia dean, Sweet Briar will drop general-education requirements and bundle most of its offerings under “centers of excellence” focused on engineering, science, and technology; the environment and sustainability; and creativity and the arts. It’s also rebuilding the academic calendar to include two three-week sessions where students will be able to pursue internships, research, or study abroad.
Woo, Hutson, and other college leaders promote this as the future of liberal-arts education. They believe Sweet Briar’s new model is more relevant and will set it apart from other colleges in the minds of high-school girls. But the elimination of traditional departments such as English and anthropology doesn’t sit well with some alumnae.
“That shook a whole bunch of people up,” Clement says. “When anything is announced from the president’s office, people start clamoring: ‘Is this the beginning of another closure?’ ”
Woo wrote a letter in December detailing the changes, but there was enough confusion and pushback — “Facebook is always ever present,” Hutson says — that she dispatched a second note just four days later to, as she wrote, provide “greater clarity.” Unlike the first letter, this note acknowledged that a dozen faculty members would lose their jobs under the restructuring.
Hutson and her fund raisers, meanwhile, continue to grind. Twelve people work in development, eight of them Sweet Briar graduates. They are focused in part on improving stewardship and connecting with a generation of alumnae whom they believe were neglected.
Sometime this year, the college will enter the quiet phase of a campaign. The fund raisers say donors like the idea that they are investing in the college’s future and a new, distinctive form of liberal arts.
Hutson recently returned from a week’s travel to five cities, and her schedule includes more of the same. “We’re not here to make our careers,” she says. Rather, they are the spiritual heirs of Indiana Fletcher Williams.
“Sweet Briar was created to produce women of consequence,” Hutson says. “We know we can do that.”
Drew Lindsay is a senior editor for The Chronicle of Philanthropy
Correction (3/14/2018, 10:20 a.m.): The original headline on this article referred to $41 million, but the correct amount is $44 million. The headline has been updated.