March 31, 2023

Case study: Funded today, funders tomorrow?

How can those who benefit from a nonprofit’s programmes drive its long-term funding? A closer look at FFE's alumni engagement efforts reveals more.


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11 min read
This is the fourth article in a 5-part series supported by the ATE Chandra Foundation. One of ATECF’s focus areas is social sector capacity building, and as a part of this effort, this series will highlight the power of investing in a nonprofit’s core capabilities. ATECF is also an anchor partner of the PWIT (Pay What It Takes) India Initiative that aims to address the chronic underfunding of NGOs and build a stronger and more resilient NGO sector in India.

View the entire series here.

When we think of the landscape of potential nonprofit donors, we typically think of grant-making foundations, corporations, and high-net-worth individuals. But could the individuals that benefit from a nonprofit’s programmes be the driving force of its long-term funding? If so, how can they be encouraged to give back? To explore these questions, this case study looks at the Foundation for Excellence (FFE) and their extensive alumni engagement efforts.

FFE provides scholarships for college degrees to bright students with financial constraints. The selected scholars are generally those who show great promise in engineering, medical, pharmacy or law programmes (some of the most expensive higher education programmes in India). In addition to scholarship funds, the scholars are provided with skills training for employability and regular mentorship by professionals in their field. Once the scholars graduate, they become FFE’s alumni.

In 2010–11, FFE received donations amounting to INR 21 lakh from 195 alumni. Since then, the share of alumni donations has increased significantly, amounting to INR 4.2 crore (including alumni-driven matching donations and CSR funds) from 1,538 alumni in 2021–22.

But what inspired FFE to adopt the alumni engagement approach? And how have they optimised it?

Where was FFE in its organisational life stage before deciding to engage alumni?

Ever since FFE was established in 1994, the students selected for scholarships would pledge to pay it forward whenever they were able to by supporting the education of at least two other students. However, in the organisation’s early years, the executive director and board were based in the US. The India team largely comprised volunteers, and they were focused on identifying students who would qualify for the scholarships offered. As a result, following up with the scholars once they graduated was not a priority. Additionally, the organisation’s alumni database was skeletal at best. Their only way of hearing from alumni was through physical letters that some of them wrote to the organisation.

Once the FFE India Trust was established in 2003, it paved the way for alumni to make donations in India. They were initially made aware of the trust through FFE’s volunteer base—by virtue of working closely with the community to publicise the scholarship and identify students who would qualify for it, these volunteers developed a relationship with alumni that they then leveraged to encourage donations.

FFE’s managing trustee, Sudha Kidao, said that they slowly started building out an alumni database around 2011. “Before that, we operated under the belief that we should not be approaching alumni to donate, as they would do so themselves whenever they are able to. But after I started interacting with alumni, I just felt like there’s nothing wrong in reaching out to them and encouraging them to donate. After all, they may have a lot of competing priorities and FFE may not be on their radar.”

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Donors must adopt a long-term view when it comes to getting a return on their investment. | Picture courtesy: Canva pro

Engaging alumni: The challenges

Having recognised that their alumni base is an untapped resource that could lead to more donations, FFE decided to engage with them actively and dedicated more resources to this task. FFE’s founder, Dr Prabhu Goel, was a firm believer in this approach because of which he provided funds for them to hire an alumni engagement team. His unrestricted grant played an integral role in making their alumni programme work.

The early years were challenging; the alumni information in FFE’s database was often incomplete, outdated, or incorrect. So, during 2010–11, the FFE team reached out to volunteers and alumni families to gather information about them. Over time, alumni began to respond and donate in small numbers and in small amounts. Simultaneously, FFE requested alumni to participate in other ways, such as creating awareness about the organisation’s programmes in local communities, helping identify other students who could benefit from their scholarships, and asking for assistance with technology needs and fundraising. The idea here was to increase their engagement with alumni and not focus solely on soliciting donations. As such, the FFE team began to slowly build out a comprehensive alumni database.

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“I communicated a lot with the alumni offices, but what I found out was that they were not really successful.”

In addition, since several of FFE’s board members belonged to premier academic institutions, they were able to look into how the alumni networks of these institutions functioned. This closer look presented them with a challenge. Sudha says, “I communicated a lot with the alumni offices, but what I found out was that they were not really successful. It was rather a few individuals from different batches who remained engaged and encouraged their fellow batchmates to do something for the institute. But these students had a common history—they belonged to that campus and were often classmates. Our students did not. They all went to 200+ colleges and had either never interacted or had limited interaction with each other. The only commonality was their FFE scholarship.” The institutional model, which primarily relied on alumni encouraging their fellow batchmates to give back, would thus not work for FFE.

As a result, FFE set out to create a web portal for its alumni, thinking that it would enable them to interact with each other and engender a sense of community. Through a generous unrestricted grant, FFE launched a student association web portal, but it did not result in the increased traction or engagement that was expected. By then, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media platforms had started becoming popular and an additional portal to access FFE and alumni information was not an effective or attractive lever. As such, FFE began to seek out alternate models of alumni engagement.

Finding success gradually

1. Learning from international institutions

Prabhu subsequently introduced Sudha to the alumni office at Stanford University. They emphasised the importance of regular calls to alumni to facilitate a more personal interaction with them. Importantly, during her conversations with the Stanford team, Sudha learned that some alumni may not be inclined to donate as they think that their donations—although significant to them—may be dwarfed by those given by much wealthier alumni. This insight helped FFE understand that they should highlight the significance of a donation (regardless of its monetary value) when engaging with alumni.

FFE consequently adopted the model where they would make regular calls to their alumni. While this was resource-intensive and required significant follow-up through the year, it was the most effective strategy FFE had found. Initially, the organisation started with a team of 1.5 people whose focus was to stay engaged with alumni through telephone calls, WhatsApp messages, donation campaigns, etc. Today that team has five full-time people.

The strategy was simple but also required staying up to date with where the alumni were in their professional journey. FFE would reach out to them, congratulate them on their success, and remind them of the pledge they once took. However, this method had its challenges as well. While some alumni would ignore their calls entirely, others even responded with anger or indicated that they didn’t feel ready to donate. Fortunately, a growing number of alumni were happy to hear from FFE and willing to donate.

2. Implementing matching grants

Sudha also mentions matching grants as an important source of funding for FFE. “I spoke to Amit (Chandra), who was very fascinated with our alumni programme, and he wanted to know how he could make his grant go even further.” As a result, FFE began to encourage funders such as Amit and Prabhu to match alumni donations. The alumni found these matching grants to be especially appealing and were willing to donate higher amounts knowing that their donations were effectively being multiplied.

The success of the grant-matching endeavour inspired them to approach Cognizant, who pledged to match up to INR 50 lakh in donations each year. The initial iteration of the FFE–Cognizant partnership funded a batch of 250 students (where 50 percent of the scholarship amount came from FFE alumni and 50 percent from Cognizant), and more batches have been funded through matching grants since then.

In 2016–17, FFE had begun conversations with their alumni to check if the companies that they worked at also engaged in grant matching. While the number of companies doing this were small, as more students graduated and gained employment in diverse companies covering different sectors, FFE’s recent inquiries (from FY 2020–21) revealed that several multinational companies were willing to match the donations provided by their employees.

3. Making the most of social media

FFE leverages social media to reach out to alumni, celebrate their contributions, publicise events, connect alumni to peers and scholars, and run campaigns. LinkedIn in particular has helped the organisation to reach out to alumni they may have lost contact with and keep track of their professional journeys. In the event that alumni do not respond to FFE’s calls or e-mails, they are now able to use their database to identify other alumni who attended the same university at around the same time to check if they can reach out to FFE’s alumni on the organisation’s behalf.

FFE has also leveraged social media to enable interactions with companies to conduct training, webinars, and more for FFE’s scholars; post job openings for students and alumni; and enlist alumni to volunteer as mentors and facilitators (facilitators are alumni who help FFE complete the verification process for scholarship applicants).

4. Using technology as a lever

Around 2016, the organisation recognised that they needed to improve how they utilised technology as part of their daily operations. Sudha says, “It was very clear that the management information system we were using was not robust, and a lot of our data was duplicated or inaccurate. We realised that if we wanted to scale, we needed to make an investment in technology immediately. Our COO at the time evaluated our systems and subsequently recommended an investment in Salesforce (a CRM software), and our board fortunately agreed. Today, all of our systems have been integrated into Salesforce.”

Investing in technology has been extremely beneficial for the organisation, especially in terms of enabling scale.

FFE’s entire scholarship programme and mentorship/training programme have been integrated into Salesforce. Additionally, it is used for keeping track of scholars transitioning to alumni and generating alumni reports. Investing in technology has thus been extremely beneficial for the organisation, especially in terms of enabling scale. Sudha says, “If we were to receive a significant grant that would require us to give scholarships to 25,000 students, I know we can do it. We may have to put in some money to enhance our current features on Salesforce, but I can say with confidence that the system will work and we will deliver.”

Although FFE itself was fortunate enough to have on board a few engineers who were proficient in operating Salesforce, they needed more engineering partners and expertise to fully utilise the capabilities of the software. This is where Cognizant stepped in. Cognizant offered FFE pro-bono time from their senior team—which would have otherwise cost them INR 50 lakh—to help them optimise their use of Salesforce. (It helped significantly that more than 75 FFE alumni were employed at Cognizant.)

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The early years were challenging; the alumni information in FFE’s database was often incomplete, outdated, or incorrect. | Picture courtesy: Pexels

Remembering that everyone can be a fundraiser

Unlike most other nonprofits, FFE does not have a dedicated fundraising team. But their lack of dedicated staff has not impacted the quantity and size of donations they receive.

Sudha mentions that the organisation has made a concerted effort to engender the philosophy that all employees are fundraisers. “I often get asked how many people are in FFE’s fundraising team. We have no such team. I always say that our team produces such good work that it speaks for itself.” The organisation thus places confidence in the team’s ability to deliver, and their continued success in running their programmes has positively impacted their fundraising efforts without having to rely on a separate fundraising team.

FFE’s board members in India and the US—along with their management team, the donor relations team, and the alumni team—have helped in fundraising; the concerted and collaborative approach to fundraising has yielded results.

When organisations approach FFE to congratulate or thank them on the impact they’ve had, the organisation uses it as an opportunity to encourage them to tell others about the work they are doing. This also opens up additional opportunities for funding or collaboration.

On the other hand, when FFE approaches its alumni for help, they suggest five or more ways in which they can contribute. In addition to direct donations, they inquire if the alumni can ask their employers to donate through CSR funds/matching grants, if their friends or professional networks can donate, if they can help identify students for the scholarship programme, if they can participate in the background verification process as facilitators, or if they can mentor the students who are currently in the scholarship programme. Sudha notes that this approach offers alumni the opportunity to help in a manner that suits them best at that particular stage in their life. “How can you say no to everything?” she says.

Advice for nonprofits

1. Think of your programme recipients as potential donors

The FFE team operates with the knowledge that a bright student they aid today could become donors to the organisation tomorrow. By viewing the recipients of their scholarships as changemakers and donors, the organisation accords them the respect that is often missing when nonprofits view communities as only recipients. The organisation thus also seeks to inculcate a culture of giving among its scholars. Sudha emphasised how critical it is to make students understand the importance of giving. “I always tell them (the students) that somebody who didn’t know you believed in you and was willing to invest in you. Can you do that for somebody else?” she says.

The view that those who receive help could be potential donors would only be feasible for nonprofits working on specific types of programmes and with groups that would have the capacity to give in the future. Nevertheless, it is salient advice for the large number of nonprofits that work in the livelihoods and education space.

“A lot of organisations say that they have skilled 25,000 people, but do they know where those people are today? How are they doing?” Sudha says. In the past five years, FFE has engaged with students all year round (through skills training, leadership and technical training, seminars/webinars, and mentoring). This has resulted in building a stronger relationship with students as compared to previous years. The bond with alumni has unlocked a sustainable source of funding for them and enhances the support they are able to provide to their current scholars.

In addition, some alumni have been inducted into FFE’s board as special invitees. By positioning those who have been through their programmes into leadership roles, the organisation ensures that the community we serve are represented at the decision-making level.

2. Do not be afraid to ask for help

Since FFE already does the work of engendering a culture of giving among students, they are able to effectively tap into the students’ desire to give back once they become alumni. But individuals may not always be proactive about giving back despite harbouring a desire to help. This is one of the many reasons why the act of asking is an integral component of FFE’s model.

Sudha says, “The alumni programme did not work effectively in the early years because we never asked (for their help).” Sudha also notes that rejection is obviously a distinct possibility, stating, “I constantly face rejection (with regard to donations), but I am not one to give up easily. Earlier, I would take rejection quite personally, but now I remind myself that this is not for me, it’s for the organisation. So I’m not hesitant in seeking help.”

Outlining multiple ways in which individuals/organisations can help is important.

Outlining multiple ways in which individuals/organisations can help is also important. As mentioned earlier, FFE is able to receive different types of support because they do not simply seek donations when approaching alumni or organisations for help. When alumni or organisations assist with mentorship or training, it helps FFE save on cost-intensive endeavours while simultaneously offering the party that provides support with the opportunity to positively impact the lives of FFE’s scholars. 

Advice for donors

1. Understand that impact takes time

Donors must adopt a long-term view when it comes to getting a return on their investment. Given that many organisations are working on improving the conditions of their communities over the long term, it is impractical for donors to expect immediate results. Sudha says, “If you believe in the organisation and the cause, you should trust them to do what they think can best work for them.”

2. Invest in people, processes, and technology

Donors typically want to fund programme costs, but organisations need funds to hire and train talent as well. Sudha says, “No organisation can do this job without the right people. And if you’re doing important work, why do you have to take a pay cut?” Besides having the right talent on board, organisations also need to optimise their processes, which may involve investments in suitable technology. The alumni engagement model that FFE adopted required them to build out a comprehensive alumni database and make regular calls to them. The alumni engagement programme itself was then integrated into Salesforce to further enhance operations. Without grants to support the alumni team, the alumni engagement model would not have worked. It takes people, processes, technology, and time to see results.

3. Award unrestricted grants and trust the organisation to use it effectively

Unrestricted grants are essential for an organisation’s growth and building resilience and human capital, and allows the flexibility to experiment, as seen in FFE’s alumni programme. Strictly programmatic funds would have hampered FFE’s chances of developing these processes and adopting the right strategy and technology. This is where unrestricted grants helped them tremendously. Visionary donors have the capacity to provide unrestricted funds to nonprofits, and this could help scale impact in meaningful ways. Other nonprofits may similarly benefit from the flexibility afforded by unrestricted grants, as it will offer them the security to devise a long-term strategy that can help their organisation develop into a sustainable force for good.

About Sudha

Sudha Kidao is the honorary managing trustee of the Foundation For Excellence (FFE) India Trust since February 2011. She is also a board member of FFE-USA, and has been involved with the organisation since 2005 when she began to volunteer her time for FFE’s fundraising efforts in California. Sudha has a PhD in Biology (specialisation in immunology) from the University of Texas at Austin and BSc and MSc degrees in Zoology from the University of Madras.

Know more

  • Read this guide on how nonprofits can leverage technology better.
  • Read this case study on how nonprofits can build their fundraising muscle.

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Derrek Xavier

Derrek Xavier is an editorial associate at IDR, where he is responsible for writing, editing, and publishing content. He previously worked in editorial positions at Cactus Communications and Firstpost. He holds an MA in Media Studies from the University of Amsterdam and a BA in Sociology and Anthropology from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.