The $1,935,000 lesson every school can learn from Tennessee Temple University

Tennessee-Temple-University-closedIt’s weird to get the news that your alma mater is shutting down. In March of 2015, Tennessee Temple University announced that it was in its final semester, and would merge with Piedmont International University (another Christian college nearby). I studied marketing and management (and a good bit of Bible!) at TTU, and I was sad to hear the news.

I was sadder to read a letter from Temple’s president Dr. Steve Echols explaining why. TTU was planning to relocate their campus to another local spot; however, the move was delayed, which cost TTU more than $1.5 million they weren’t planning on spending. You can read the whole letter online, but this is the part that jumped out at me.

Our Bridge to the Future campaign to raise two million dollars to support the construction of our new campus was unsuccessful. Apart from current trustees, TTU raised less than $65,000 from its alumni. Unfortunately, less than one percent of our alumni responded with gifts after more than 17,000 brochures and 17,000 letters were mailed out to the alumni community.

Dr. Echols also cites real estate deals that didn’t pan out and relocation delays as reasons the school couldn’t relocate. However, the failed fundraising campaign was the number one blow. A $1,935,000 blow.

Why didn’t it work? Tennessee Temple made a huge effort, and there are plenty of alumni out there. Why didn’t we come through for our alma mater?

The more than 99 percent of TTU alumni have their diverse reasons for not donating (I’ll share mine below). And all of them point to one meta-reason: Tennessee Temple University didn’t have a healthy alumni list.

If there’s one thing any school can learn from TTU’s closure, it’s the importance of keeping healthy contact lists.

Let’s look at why. But first, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page when I talk about “healthy lists.”

What is a healthy list?

A list of contacts is healthy when it meets the following two criteria:

1. The information on the list is accurate.

You could have the most loyal alumni in the world. You could have a list of generous folks willing to write seven-figure checks whenever you want. But if you can’t get in touch with them, that list won’t do you any good.

2. The people on the list want to hear from you.

Who loves getting calls from telemarketers? Who loves junk mail? Who loves spam in their email inbox? Not me, not you, and not the people you’re asking for support. A healthy list isn’t just accurate: it’s a list of people who actually want to hear from you.

Of course, there are many ways to measure these criteria in the print and digital worlds (delivery rates, click-through rates, etc.). But in this post we just need to focus on why a healthy list is so important.

How an unhealthy list hurt Tennessee Temple University

When we talk about healthy lists, we’re not just spouting ideal statistics. Your list’s health has a huge influence on the bottom line for your school.

In Tennessee Temple’s case, an unhealthy list was the difference between a $2 million goal and the $65,000 result. That’s a $1,935,000 difference—all because for whatever reason, fewer than 170 alumni (one percent of 17,000) responded to the direct mail campaign.

Some of those alumni didn’t donate because they thought the school had deviated from their original mission. Some alumni didn’t donate because they thought the school wasn’t progressive enough. Some just didn’t have the funds. (The school’s prize alumni are pastors and missionaries—not exactly a loaded demographic!)

But you know why I didn’t donate? Because I never heard from them.

I didn’t get an email. I didn’t get a brochure. I didn’t get anything in the mail.

Was I intentionally left out? Probably not. I graduated on pretty good terms with the mail room.

That means that, at least in my case, TTU’s list of alumni contact information wasn’t accurate. And I bet I wasn’t the only one left out of the system.

But my experience is just a tiny, tiny fraction of this case study. When you send mail to 17,000 people and less than one percent responds, your list is in bad shape.

Did Tennessee Temple know their alumni list was unhealthy? Probably not. I seriously doubt anyone would plan to raise two million bucks off a mailing list they know is unresponsive. In fact, I would wager that their unawareness of their list’s health set them up for this closure. (I probably shouldn’t say that, because gambling could probably still get me demerits from that school!)

To illustrate, imagine you are Dr. Echols, the president of TTU. You need to raise two million dollars. Your alumni development specialist walks into your office and says, “We have the mailing addresses for 17,000 alumni! We can send them all a brochure and they’ll generously donate out of gratitude and loyalty.” Doesn’t that sound like great news? Why, if every one of those people donates a measly $117, you’re covered! This is how you’ll raise that money.

Now let’s try a different scenario. You’re still Dr. Echols. You still need to raise two million dollars. Your alumni development specialist walks into your office and says, “We have 17,000 mailing addresses for alumni. However, we’re not sure how many of them are current. Plus, many of our graduates from TTU’s heyday feel like the changes we’ve made in school policy over the last decade are a sign of betraying the school’s original mission. And the graduates from the last ten years are starting their own families.” Would you still send a letter to the list? Probably. Would you make that direct mail campaign your central fundraising effort? Absolutely not!

I don’t know all the ins and outs. I wasn’t there when this campaign was planned. I’m sure it seemed like a good decision at the time. But it’s clear that TTU would have benefited from a healthier list—or at least the knowledge that their list is unhealthy.

What does this mean for you?

Any school can get two major takeaways from this case study:

1. Test your lists.

Find the appropriate sample size for your list. (I use The Survey System’s calculator.) Then send a letter or email (or both) to each of them with a call to action you can measure: ask them to go to a certain Web page, give them a gift card to redeem, or even ask them to call up the head of the department they graduated from.

This will give you a general idea of how accurate the information on your list is (and whether or not those people want to hear from you). It’s also a lot less risky than just hoping a massive send will go through!

2. Keep in touch.

Nobody likes the guy who only talks to people when he has a favor to ask of them. Don’t be that guy. Whether you have a direct mailing list, an email list, or both, do the work of keeping in touch. Send a letter from the President twice a year (graduation and Christmas), and letters from department heads to graduates from their departments in between. Send good news. Brag on alumni. Invite local grads to important sports events. Introduce new professors and programs.

You want these people to be excited to hear from you, right? So lead with great stories and good news. It will keep alumni from becoming disillusioned, and prime them for the times you need to ask them for donations.

Conclusion

I won’t pretend to know everything that played into Tennessee Temple’s decision to merge. But if the president cites an unresponsive list as the number one reason the school couldn’t afford the transition it needed, that should signal something to everyone in the Christian education space: keep your contact lists healthy!

And hey, if you’d like me and the GradLime team to help you audit your list health, let me know! Shoot me an email at Jeffrey@gradlime.com.

 

Jeffrey Kranz
Jeffrey Kranz is a founder of GradLime and an inbound marketing consultant for educational institutions. He's especially keen on training admissions and marketing staff to focus on the right audiences to attract more students.

27 Comments

  1. Other than the fact that there has been significant turnover there over the years, there was no excuse for them not to know the poor health of their alumni network. I’ve been communicating with the various alumni directors there over the last 20 years there, and I made it very clear that their communication to us alumni was pitiful and gave them lot’s of ideas on how to improve. I’d get assurances that it was going to change. I saw a couple of glossy newsletters over the years, but nothing sustained. I think TTU had always been fed by IFB churches and had just assumed that formula would keep working for them. Churches are more fickle than alumni–so when the churches heard of changes at TTU that they didn’t like, they just looked to another school. (On top of that, the IFB churches started their decline as well.) However, if TTU had started building that alumni network, making the connection before the student even graduated, they probably would have had more loyal, future developmental support. Alumni will tolerate changes to their school–especially if they see it as a survival necessity. Alumni have a vested interested in seeing the alma mater survive. Some of their identity is tied to their alma mater. Not so with the old supporting churches.

  2. I never received anything from Temple regarding the Bridge to the Future campaign. I am a 1978 grad — whose address has changed multiple times since then, so an excuse could be made for that. However, I also took an online grad school course in 2011 — and my address for that was current. Were the online students on that list? Bottom line — I can only remember one time since 1978 that I was ever contacted by the alumni association — and I don’t think it was actually Temple, but a marketing firm that had been contracted to do a directory of former grads as a fund raising effort . This was probably in the mid-90s. I remember paying $50 for it, and thinking it was a great investment; it gave me the opportunity to contact some old friends with whom I had lost touch. I don’t think the alumni association ever had a real mission — probably because the school never saw a value in cultivating the alumni personally outside of the relationship with the local churches (Dr. Roberson preaching in a church pastored by the Temple grad). I wonder if I will ever hear from Piedmont International University. I sincerely hope that PIU views the Temple alumni with a bit more respect than Temple did. It would good for them to cultivate that relationship. I, for one, would love to hear about the merger of the 2 institutions, and would not be adverse to putting my money where my mouth is.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Patty! For what it’s worth, I took some online courses and never heard anything either.

      I’ve received a little communication from PIU since the announcement. I hope it’s a sign on better things to come!

  3. Great article…I am in total agreement! I was never contacted by the school either, neither was my father, who was also an alumni of their doctoral program. I would have been happy to make a donation, had I known about the campaign.
    The letter announcing the merger felt very blaming. TTU’s lack of effective communication does not make their failure the alumni’s fault. However, I can’t say I am surprised with the tone of the letter. In typical Baptist fashion the school is blaming someone else for its failures, in lieu of owning their mistakes.

    1. Woah there Rachel, how about cutting back a bit on the whole Baptist-bashing attitude. I was with you all the way until the unfair generalization.

    2. Glad you enjoyed the article, Rachel. I never met Dr. Echols, and I have no idea what he was told about us alumni (in the way of giving). I wouldn’t label Baptists this way, but I think I understand where you’re coming from.

      1. Jeff, I empathize with Rachel above. I attended TTU for 2 years and found the academics sub par so much so that I transferred to Trinity College (Deerfield Illinois). After meeting with Dr. Lockery, the Admission director at the time, he required that I had to write an essay on “why” I wished to leave TTU and stated he would consider my transcript move. The high school friend that I attended with had his transcript frozen and was never able to leave. The overall manner in which alumni and students were treated in this way is the primary reason few wish to give to the University. I suspect this is the actual reason the University failed. 14,000 did receive the request yes? And almost none gave to TTU. That is perspective/culture problem, not a communications issue. I routinely give to Trinity College, my Alma Mater, with great yearly anticipation.

  4. Great post Jeffery! I am 2013 grad at age 60 and was told about the fundraising project. I am also a 2009 graduate of LU. There is a night and day difference between how LU communicates with their alums and TTU. I believe LU was one of the beneficiaries of the internal struggle at TTU over the last twenty years i.e, ultra conservative vs. progressive alumnus. Jerry Falwell spoke at my Bible college in 1972. He laid out his vision for a world class Christian University that would rival Notre Dame. Falwell was way ahead of his time. He understood the importance of gaining Regional Accreditation. He surrounded himself with leaders who understood cultural changes and adapted. I pray that this merger will make both schools stronger and they would seek RA. This would go along way into attracting students!

    1. Thanks, Dr. Shanlian! I too would love to see PIU emerge as a stronger institution after all this (hopefully learning from everything that went down at Temple), and would especially love to see them get RA. =)

  5. As I mentioned in an unofficial alumni Facebook group:
    I graduated in 89 and then taught there until Dec 93. I often half-jokingly said that I must have been put on a disavowed list for leaving mid-year because we probably went 12-15 years without getting a single piece of communication from the university. However, a couple of years ago I was talking to another alumnus who graduated about the same time who said this: “I made the commitment to send $25 every time TTU asked for money. Do you know how much money I’ve sent in 25 years? One check for $25.”
    I personally don’t think that you can ignore alumni for decades and then expect them to come running when the school was placed on life support… So, not terribly surprised that only 1% responded to the final plea.

  6. I dont think the lack of responses was as much a poor list as it was that several generations watched it die a necessary death. Many recovering, confused Alumna have been healing from the hurts of over zealous isolationism and biblical dogmatists who taught us to measure our successes (“world’s largest training union?!) in terms of numbers amd adherence to lists. We can all still quote the confession of faith and even sing “Behold, He Comes!” which many of us embrace to this day. But it was how they invented culturally irrelevant rules and tactics as the safeguard from becoming worldly, doing so by transposing biblical mandates as “standards” which replaced a conscience of love and obedience to a Person. By defining these “distinctively Christian standards” and preaching separation from the world we confused this as godliness (the absence of temptations) and lost our influence where light must comingle with darkness and be empowered by faith in the Person of Jesus. Instead of demonstrating how Christ’s love breaks through the barriers of sin and shame we became irrelevent to the dark corners of the world that desparately needed the presence of Jesus through our lives. We left the school and realized that the world wasn’t exactly like what they said. Many wonderful, faithful faculty and students alike had the best of intentions but were taught observance to rules as the gauge to measure the genuineness of our faith. The evidence is 75 years worth of no-shows after a plea for help and is inherently more than just a bad list; the list is the symptom of the greater problem. Watching TTU and HPBC self-destruct was like watching an old family pet be put down due to being decrepid, unhealthy and weak. A new generation rises out of the ashes and unites under a new banner of humility, love and grace and a dependence on obedience to His clear commands as the catalyst for yearning for a deeper faith. I do not say this with glee or joy but with sorrow that such a mighty vision died for such ignoble reasons as legalism, people-worship and fear of saying “I don’t know.” I’m sure it’s true that the list was bad, but let’s not lose sight of what really happened.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Chris. You raise some good points on the fundamentalist movement (and the decline thereof).

      Just a reminder, though: this post isn’t about why TTU had to close up shop in Chattanooga and merge with PIU—that would be a far longer post, and I don’t know enough to write it at the moment! Rather, this post is about a lesson other schools can learn from TTU’s Bridge to the Future campaign.

      Granted, in the cases of those who feel the way you do, a healthier list can result from graduating “healthier” alumni: people who are equipped to serve in the “real world.” =)

      Thanks again!

    2. A germane and poignant observation Chris. I remember our time at University. TTU failed for a much broader array of reasons than attention to an alumni list. Such a list is a single dimension in the minds-idea of a University. The alumni list represents real lives of real value endeared by Heaven as infinitely valuable. I cannot help but believe it was viewed by TTU’s administration as a means for procuring God’s will as was the un-biblical culture of University strictures. Well stated. XAPIC KAI EIPHNH.

  7. When you’re school fails to keep in touch with you (except for the very occasional news letter, I mean like less than 10 in 22 years), and then you get a letter begging for money, you ignore it. I threw mine in the garbage.

  8. I just came across this article interestingly enough because I am presently a PhD at candidate at PIU (formerly TTU) doing research on a paper. Unfortunately, I got caught in the middle of this merger, I am too far vested in my education to make a switch to another school.

    I believe the focus on low donations is a poor, mis-directed excuse of what went wrong. Higher education is a business just like any other. Contributions should serve to enrich an organization, not sustain it. The mis-management of TTU caught everyone by surprise, including the students. I found out when the general public did. I am two courses away from completing my course work and finishing my dissertation. The bottom line is that some time in 2016 I will receive a doctorate from an institution I never heard of and applied to. Yikes!

  9. My dad was a 1969 Graduate of TTU. My opinion from talking to Dad would be TTU stopped listening to its Alumni after Dr. Roberson Resigned. They changed their philosophy of ministry. Alumni wrote then about the concerns. The new leadership refused to listen to the Alumni, hence the Alumni, feeling slighted just let things go as the new leadership wanted. Dr. Roberson left the ministry well funded. This is not a failure of the original leader ship rather a failure to hold to the Philosophy of ministry Thousands of alumni had been trained to follow. Therefore the many of the Alumni just refused to support any longer. A large portion of my childhood was spent at HPBC and TTU it is a sad moment for me.

  10. I was raised in an IFB church in Chattanooga that was a strong supporter of HPBC and Temple Schools. My grandparents were life-long members of Highland Park. Though not a member, and never a student at Temple, I would often go there to hear Dr. Roberson preach.

    I also had a number of friends who did go to to Temple whose families were often in leadership positions at the school and church so I got some of the behind the scene news of what was happening but also had distance from it all. Here’s my take on its decline and closing:

    I like what you have written about Temple not keeping in touch with their alumni but you have to keep in mind that Temple never had a long-term plan for institutional continuance due to its priority of the 2nd Coming of Christ, the rise of The Anti-Christ and the Tribulation period.

    So how does such a strong, apocalyptic emphasis affect the leadership’s focus on building towards the schools’ future? It doesn’t. Such a heavy apocalyptic emphasis negates it. There was no need for Dr. Roberson, or those those who followed him, to focus on long-term institutional maintenance and they didn’t. In Dr. Roberson’s view, most of the students at Temple, and the members of Highland Park, would soon be raptured away and the buildings would be empty! Remember, for years Dr. Roberson said he did not even had a burial plot because he expected The Rapture to happen before he would physically die!

    I later learned first-hand about this neglect in 2010 when I went to Temple’s then “new” alumni office in order to try to locate an old friend who had gone there in the early 70s.. The gentleman in charge said they had no record of her every going to Temple even though her name and picture were in the Yearbook!

    He then admitted that Temple had not kept records of their past students and they were now trying to remedy that. He went on to say that though tens of thousands of people had been to Temple, they only had the addresses of several thousand! He went on to explain that his job was to try to locate these former students and build alumni support for the school. I was shocked.

    My family and church had urged me to go to Temple but I knew even back in the 70s that it was not accredited and I thought their rules were ridiculous. I instead went to the fully accredited Lee College (later University) in Cleveland, Tennessee. From the time I left Lee in 1980, I received an alumni magazine several times a year and no matter where I moved, they always found me with letters asking to donate! Lee has a very strong alumni program and over the course of the years they have raised millions from their former students. Temple finally put out its first alumni directory in 2013! Too late to save the sinking ship.

    So, what I’m saying is that the strength of Temple was its rigid, separatist and exciting apocalyptic hope but the world was changing. The Rapture did not take place. The Anti-Christ never showed up. The world kept on humming along. Apocalyptic expectation diminished and conservative Christians switched from focusing on soul-winning to trying to win at the ballot box as a way to preserve their “Christian” country.

    I hope someone will write a complete history of the school. It reflected the unique southern, religious ethos of post-WWII America and the economic and social forces that its leadership could not adjust to which caused its decline and end.

    PS: Another issue I think people overlook about Temple’s decline: the decline of Chattanooga’s heavy manufacturing industries. Through the 50s, 60s and 70s Chattanooga offered Temple students plenty of above-average pay working in its factories which enabled them to work their way through school. By the late 1980s and early 90s, most of these industries had closed and left the area which meant that working one’s way through college at Temple was going to be more difficult. This economic decline of Chattanooga itself left Temple students with more difficult challenges to attending school and supporting themselves.

  11. Grief here at hearing of the demise of TTU I am a grad ( B.A. 1985) I could see much decline even then. There is no success without having groomed a successor. All of us must deal with the reality of our own mortality. Every thing (rises and) falls on leadership. Let’s tell the whole truth. My experience as Temple was almost all positive, with just a dash of cynicism. Through the years I received NO communication from my alma mater. I would have given in appreciation for what I was given but, to be candid, I may have resented gimme, gimme gimme mail after decades of silence. I do resent the childish finger pointing of non response from alum. This attitude explains a lot. Students as well as graduates are worthy of the respect that all humans are due.
    The moral rot evidenced in Temple’s death spasms may have interfered with the willingness of the small segment of grads who actually were contacted and were of the “old school” to give to their alma mater.
    Even corporate management is cognizant of the inevitability of change and commits significant resources to managing that which they cannot avoid. When we fail to adapt to change, we often will be changed by the change, sometimes with catastrophic consequences.
    Sometimes there is very little joy in having been right.

  12. I am a graduate of TTU (class of 2002), and I have something to say about the comments regarding the rules at the school. While there were many I thought were ludicrous, like the rule that you couldn’t go to the movies (even it was a good film), I must say that the strictness of the rules there did a lot to prepare me for dealing with the strictness of military life. Of course not everything we learned at TTU was relevant, but a lot of it was, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I did receive the donation request, but was not in a financial position to contribute. Since leaving TTU I spent a number of years in the Army, and earned my Master’s from another school. I have also taught at the high school and college level, including at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas. At TJC I am a member of the Adjunct Faculty, which means I get paid by the class, not as a salaried member of faculty. With the economy being bad in recent years, however, the enrollment numbers have been down, which means fewer classes, which means no work for the adjuncts. That’s brings me to another thing that cannot be ignored, and that is the effect of the overall national economy on the closure of TTU. Our school is not the only one that has had to close its doors in recent years. Even schools that have stayed open, and even public colleges and universities, have been affected by the economic slump, as I experienced with my adjunct job. With the high levels of unemployment, combined with the fact that most of the touted new jobs created in the past years as part of the recovery have been low-paying part-time jobs, it is little wonder that many alumni who have been contacted have simply not been in a financial position to help even when we wanted to do so.

  13. It was all very sad to see Highland Park Baptist Church, Camp Joy, and Tennessee Temple close down in the space of a few years. For five years, I was very involved in all three institutions. I graduated from the high school and the college, worked at Camp Joy for three summers, and my family were members of the church for 20 years.

    I believe they stopped trusting God and began to do things in their own strength. Everything they tried to do toward the end failed because God was not in it. Very sad!

  14. I can’t tell you how much I love Temple. I am so saddened that it is not here today. I had sooooo much fun there. I didn’t mind the rules. I loved the chapel services and the lifelong friends I made. I graduated in 1983 and soon after that I saw that things were slowly, but surely changing. Much later it seemed that the emphasis was only on sports and not the gospel. I was extremely upset with a video placed on their website called “The Running Man.” After the guy fell down in the video, tracts were thrown on his face. It was crazy. All I could think of were the hours spent passing out tracts on Saturdays trying to win souls to the Lord. An interview was also done on the website and it seemed no one knew why they were even on the campus as a student. I could not believe it!! I sent an e-mail to the school about the videos but no one responded.
    I will forever remember the lessons learned in Joy Club from Bro. Abb Thomas and the Bus Ministry with Bro. Sexton and all those chapel services. Temple should not be a memory. I should still be able to go there and see 1000s of students learning about Christ!!!

  15. I enjoyed my experience there, but the business office did not treat people well. I had moved off campus because it was the only way I could afford to stay. Then, in order to get people to stay in dorms, they changed the age to live off campus to 26, and informed me that I would have to move back. When I said I could not afford that (I had already lost grants because I was working 60 hours/week), the dean of students said, well I guess you’ll have to leave.”. So I accepted what scholarships I could still access from my previous offers at Ole Miss and went back home. Ole Miss made an error in accepting my credits, but notified me later that they would accept them since I had done well in subsequent classes for which I took prerequisites at TTU. I have lifelong friends from there, but never looked back to support the school because, frankly, the administration didn’t care to support me. I hate that it closed, but they lost their vision and lost focus on the students. The healthy list is important…it means having alumni that actually have a good image of the school…people need to feel that the school helped them reach their success. For many, it impeded it, particularly in regard to accreditation.

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