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From holding community garage sales to private house parties, business schools across Canada are recognizing the value of a grassroots approach to raising scholarship money.

With more than 90,000 charities in Canada, people have no shortage of options to which to pledge their donation dollars. That’s why organizations in the know treat fundraising as a primarily relationship-based business, says professional fundraiser Laura Mikuska.

“Universities are pretty good at keeping in touch with alumni, their parents and grandparents, and can raise millions of dollars. But you still need to foster a relationship. If you pop up every 10 years asking for a big gift, alumni will go, ‘But you didn’t even talk to me all those years in between,’” says Ms. Mikuska, president of the Winnipeg-based Mikuska Group Inc.

“If you can connect emotionally with donors at a more intimate event or community gathering, people feel much more connected to the cause. It becomes personalized, heartwarming, and giving you what we call ‘the feels.’”

Below are examples of how five business schools are tapping into their communities in small yet powerful ways.

1,000 Hats

Josh Wong, left, and Tiffany Jing are among Rotman MBA graduates who have embraced the school’s 1,000 Hats Campaign, in which donors buy a $100 cap and post selfies of themselves wearing it.

Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and a boat in Shanghai. What do all these locales have in common? They’re some of the places Rotman School of Management grads have snapped a selfie of themselves while wearing a hat from their alma mater.

For $100, donors to the University of Toronto’s business school get a limited-edition grey or black baseball cap; they’re then encouraged to get creative and post a photo with it on social media. Since the 1,000 Hats Campaign launched last November, they’ve appeared on people ranging from alumni of decades past to a three-month-old baby. Most significantly, the school has already experienced a 23-per-cent jump in the number of new donors.

“This is the first campaign of its kind for us,” says Justyna Jonca, Rotman’s director of development. “Keeping it simple and fun allows a large community spread out all over the world to come together. It also gives a grassroots feel to the business school.”

Funds from the campaign, which runs until the end of April or when the last hat is sold, goes toward scholarships and student programming.

Buy a tile

For $2,000, HEC Montréal alumni can be immortalized by getting their names stenciled on the floor of one of the school’s buildings.Handout

Walk into the Côte-Sainte-Catherine building on the HEC Montréal campus, and you step directly on the names of some of the largest power brokers in Quebec. From former premier Jacques Parizeau to business tycoon Hélène Desmarais, more than 1,300 alumni have engraved their names onto ceramic tiles embedded into the floor.

Each tile may be purchased for $2,000 (and paid for in monthly installments if needed). Since the idea was first proposed 20 years ago as an innovative way to raise money for the school, demand has risen so much that floor space has been made available in another building.

“Our EMBA class all pitched in to engrave a tile with the year of our graduation, and then many of us decided to engrave our own individual tiles around it,” says Emilie Rondeau, a 2013 alumna and director of mass solicitation at HEC.

“I once had a couple who were both alumni decide to engrave their tiles next to each other, while proud parents might offer a tile as a graduation gift. Seeing your names next to each other in the hallway is powerful. It’s a way to demonstrate your attachment to your alma mater and leave your mark for generations to come.”

Money raised goes into a fund supporting student scholarships and learning experiences, research and innovation, and campus spaces.


Anil Patel has donated enough funds to create a new annual scholarship for SFU students with a demonstrated interest in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.Benoit Tessier/Reuters

While working as an MBA student recruiter, Anil Patel noticed a school offering a scholarship to the student accepted into their program with the lowest grade point average (GPA).

“I thought that was fantastic,” says Mr. Patel, who managed concert tours for international artists in Australia before moving to Vancouver to pursue an MBA at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business.

“It’s another way to attract people into our programs who might not otherwise consider it.”

He’s carried that innovative thinking forward. Mr. Patel now works in the cryptocurrency space and recently gave back to his alma mater – in Bitcoin. He’s donated enough funds to create a new annual scholarship for students with a demonstrated interest in cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.

“The goal is to encourage people with that in-demand skill set to come back to pursue their master degree, exposing other students in the classroom to it, too,” he says.

Since SFU began accepting Bitcoin for textbook purchases in 2015, it already had the infrastructure in place to facilitate this kind of donation, says Simone Le Blanc, Beedie’s director of advancement and alumni engagement.

“In order to attract donations, you have to be willing to be innovative and accommodate the donor’s goals. One of our values is to develop innovative and socially responsive business leaders with a global perspective - and a Bitcoin donation is definitely innovative.”

Garage sale

The Glebe Garage Sale is an Ottawa tradition that the University of Otttawa’s MBA Alumni Association has been participating in since 2012.Handout

Every fourth Saturday in May, a garage sale on steroids spills out onto the driveways, porches and sidewalks of the Glebe, an upscale Ottawa neighbourhood. While the Great Glebe Garage Sale has been happening since 1986, the University of Ottawa’s Telfer MBA Alumni Association is in its sixth year of participation – and going strong.

“We wanted to raise enough money for a $1,000 scholarship that recognizes the exceptional work of an MBA student or a group of students who exhibit social responsibility, sustainable development, social innovation, or ethics and governance,” says association president Christyne Auger.

“Everyone does spring cleaning, so this idea worked out very well.”

The association raises between $1,400 and $1,600 in profit from the one-day sale, thanks to donated items ranging from books and DVDs to antique furniture, paintings and china. Both current students and alumni man the Telfer tables at a rented space outdoors.

“We get to promote the MBA program in the community and also meet alumni who are excited to see us there and even give us donations without buying anything,” says Ms. Auger.

“Our presence gets bigger and bigger every year.”

Oscar-winning entertainment

Colton Lewis, left, with friend and fellow fundraiser, Wyatt Norn, welcomes guests to The Bucking Horse Bash, a fundraiser in his backyard on the Elbow River in Calgary.Handout

After spending three days in a coma, Colton Lewis woke up in the hospital only to find out his best friend had died. Both students at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business, Mr. Lewis and Brett Wiese were victims of a 2013 stabbing attack at a house party.

To put a positive spin on a traumatizing experience while building a lifelong legacy for his friend, Mr. Lewis created the Brett Wiese Memorial Scholarship Endowment. While he’s helped raise more than $300,000 so far from multiple avenues, the goal is to get to $1-million – and an Oscar- and Grammy-winning country singer named Ryan Bingham just might help him get there.

Last summer, Mr. Bingham, whose song The Weary Kind for the film Crazy Heart won a 2010 Oscar, played live at a small Calgary Stampede-themed party Mr. Lewis hosted at his home. More than 175 people attended the Bucking Horse Bash, raising over $56,000 in one evening. Mr. Lewis plans to make it an annual, invitation-only event.

“It took us a few avenues to get in touch with Ryan – he doesn’t typically do private events but we sent him some information that resonated with him and he was excited to come. He got to met Brett’s family, and he’s coming back again this year,” says Mr. Lewis, who graduated from Haskayne in 2014 and is now the vice-president of business development at Cleo Energy, a junior oil and gas firm.

“So far we’ve had four recipients of a one-year $10,000 scholarship. But the hope is that we can get a full-ride, four-year scholarship so that every year, one student will graduate in Brett’s name.”