“How I Helped My University Raise 7x More in My Region”: One Donor’s Story

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Established alumni gathering

You can sense it in the air. No, it’s not the approach of fall or the scent of tailgate barbecues.

It’s capital campaign season!

For better or worse, huge university capital campaigns are the new normal. Your school is probably wrapping up, planning, or in the midst of one. According to the Council for Aid to Education’s Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey, in 2017 alone, colleges and universities raised $43.6 billion.

In the constant cycle of these campaigns, the pressure university fundraisers are under often goes unacknowledged. Since ALUMinate was founded by donors for donors, we understand the complexity and tough challenges of higher education philanthropy from.

Recently, I sat down with ALUMinate president Bob Fealy to pick his brain about how he went from being an untapped, disconnected regional alumni to a dedicated regional leader and major donor for his alma mater, a large, tier-one national research university.

What is amazing about Bob’s story is that it sounds like an anomaly, but it isn’t! There are alumni in your major regions just waiting to be engaged–alumni leaders and donors who could be game-changers for your institution.

We want to help you find them.

Read Bob’s story and learn the top four things major donor prospects want university fundraisers to know when trying to engage them!

1) Stay with me. Yes, for years.

“When I was in my late 30s, I was a member of the alumni association, but not very engaged,” Bob told me. “Then I got a call from a development officer who wanted to come visit me. He knew a bit about me, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. What he didn’t yet know was huge.


An iceberg, mostly submerged
An iceberg, mostly submerged

Before his 40s, Bob, who grew up on a farm in rural Ohio, was already a senior officer at a Fortune 500 company. He had the potential to give a major gift to the institution. They couldn’t have predicted how Bob was going to shape the future of his alma mater.

When they first met, that development officer wanted something from Bob, but it wasn’t a gift.

He wanted to know Bob’s story–what Bob’s passions and goals were–to figure out how Bob best fit in the university’s future. To bridge the gap between Bob’s passions and the university’s needs and objectives, this development officer had to invest the time.

As Bob explained, “This development officer would visit me every few months for several years.”

According to CASE (the Council for Advancement and Support of Education), “the cultivation of prospects to the point of solicitation can be a long process and may not come to fruition until 18 months to three years after the process begins.”

After getting to know Bob better, the development officer invited him to a meeting of UC alumni business leaders in Chicago. In turn, Bob was ready to make his first considerable gift.

But that was just the beginning of what Bob could do for the university.  

The development officer saw the importance of having a regional strategy, and how the life stages and milestones of alumni (see our chart below) will impact how and why they give back to the university.

ALUMinate Alumni Lifecycle Chart
ALUMinate Alumni Lifecycle Chart

Read our full post on how to use this chart.

Did you know we’ve spent years researching the lifecycle of alumni and how to design the best regional engagement strategy for institutions just like yours?

2) Create a path for me to follow AND show me the way.

This development officer also recognized Bob as a potential alumni leader in Chicago. In the early 2000s, he asked Bob to serve as a regional co-chair for the capital campaign and help organize in Chicago, where they’d never raised significant money before.

Bob sponsored a kickoff gala in Chicago, and, with the help of an assistant, he took on the challenges of identifying and organizing newly formed alumni leadership. They began organizing local events and meetings. Perhaps most importantly, Bob created a core group of about 20 accomplished alumni who had a genuine passion for the university, even though most had lost touch with the school. This core group began to lead regional efforts in Chicago. They are still active to this day.

Over the following years, this core group planned events, brought university leaders and faculty to the region, and expanded the alumni group across all age groups and demographics.

Creating and supporting these core regional groups (at a fraction of the usual cost!) is exactly what ALUMinate can help you do. Find out how.

In the end, Bob helped the university achieve their regional goal for the campaign, at least seven times the amount of what had been raised there before! Today, the structure Bob helped create is the model for how his alma mater organizes in regions during capital campaigns.

The development officer did two essential things: 1) he identified Bob as someone with the resources and drive to organize and motivate other alumni and 2) he helped Bob envision a way to be a regional alumni leader and set him on the path to success.

3) You’ve got my passions and interests all wrong.

“While I was in undergrad, I studied business and engineering. But I’m also really passionate about music,” Bob told me. “Unless they have the right people and the right data, how would my university know that?”

It is easy enough to identify basic information about your alumni, like what they studied or their current industry. But how do you figure out the causes that ignite them?  

Perhaps more importantly, when organizing a campaign, how do you ensure that the objectives are relevant and important to the donors?

As Bob pointed out, you need to ask the right questions and have the best data. That is why we’ve partnered with Uprising Tech, whose advanced technology delivers holistic donor prospect profiles, which enables fundraisers to ask the right questions of their alumni and identify their real passions. See the platform yourself:

4) We’re ready to give; but nobody asks.

Bob was poised for this leadership role. But what if his alma mater hadn’t been there?

The company Bob worked for at the time was very civic-minded and charitable.

As Bob explained, “As a senior officer at my company, I was expected to give back and help my community. There are a lot of alumni out there who are expected to be leaders. But they’re busy people. They’d love for their university to step in and present them with an opportunity and plan.”

His business background enabled him to excel in his role as a regional leader. He also saw that he didn’t need to do it alone. There were other alumni business leaders in Chicago who wanted to expand their networks.

These business leaders and accomplished alumni understood that being part of that core regional leadership group would not only benefit the university, but also provide a great opportunity for them. In addition, for some people, recognition by their college or university is a big motivator itself.

We believe that every institution has alumni and supporters like Bob. You may not see them, but they’re there, just waiting to be asked.

Bob told me, “After seeing how many passionate alumni there are in Chicago, I think these kinds of people exist everywhere, for every institution! I think the real issue is that the old methods of finding and reaching those people aren’t working anymore.”

“Alumni may think what you’re asking will be too much work and time, so you have to lay it out for them and provide the framework. You can show them the path to leadership.”

An important factor in this success is also having the local logistical support to schedule calls, maintain contact information for alumni and volunteers, and keep the communication flowing. Creating a sustainable pipeline of volunteers and donors, assigning not-too-burdensome responsibilities to volunteers, and celebrating the achievements of local alumni and friends are also critical.

We believe in creating and igniting the power of core groups of accomplished alumni leaders.

We believe it is time to go beyond the typical game-watch gatherings at local bars and design programs that appeal to the varied interests of alumni and friends. The momentum created from these activities enhances alumni affinity for the school, which leads to more successful and sustainable fundraising results.


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