Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have struggled to engage their alumni in a manner that induces graduates to make annual financial contributions. Many, the University of the Virgin Islands (UVI) included, find themselves able to persuade less than 10 percent of their graduates to contribute on an annual basis. When I arrived in 2009, the institution’s alumni giving rate was a mere 6 percent.
A liberal arts, land-grant institution, UVI is the only university in the Virgin Islands and the only HBCU outside of the U.S. mainland. With a student body numbering approximately 2,500, the university has close to 5,500 reachable alumni. Through a concerted effort, the university was able to more than double the percentage of alumni givers―from 6 percent to 13 percent―from 2009 to 2011. We achieved an even more dramatic increase during this past year, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of our institution.
A 50th Anniversary Stretch Goal
Toward the end of FY11, during a meeting of UVI’s board of trustees’ development committee, our vice president of institutional advancement, Dionne V. Jackson, proposed a goal to increase alumni participation to 16 percent—a respectable level compared to that of many peers. A committee member suggested that we strive for at least 20 percent, since the 50th anniversary would likely resonate with our graduates.
I then suggested a 50 for 50 Campaign for 2012. Our goal: to convince at least 50 percent of our graduates to give back to the university during its 50th anniversary year. Our director of annual giving and alumni affairs, Linda Smith, responded to the challenge enthusiastically. We knew that no other HBCU had reached this level, and we wanted UVI to make history by getting there first.
What occurred during the next 12 months was truly extraordinary. The slogan “50 for 50” became a mantra that we promoted at every 50th anniversary event and through numerous communications to the public. Our alumni seemed emboldened by the prospect of making history.
Fixated on Success Factors
While we fell slightly short of our ambitious goal, our near-victory came about because of three primary actions:
- Establishing a special challenge or goal. Being the first to achieve something significant was a concept that tapped into the pride dormant in many graduates, who are proud of the institution because they know they received an education comparable or better than that of many of their colleagues. The anniversary campaign gave them a way to express this pride in a meaningful way.
- Going beyond traditional approaches. Our development staff knew that outreach had to expand beyond the standard solicitations and phone efforts, and they implemented a wide-reaching calling program, with alumni following up at frequent intervals. Fortunately, too, a large percentage of our alumni resides on one of our three islands (St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John), where traditional community events are popular. Staff, alumni, and students attended many such gatherings and solicited campaign contributions.
- Supplementing a small staff. We raised significant funds with just one full-time staff person in our annual giving and alumni affairs office―and a large contingent of motivated individuals. The entire institutional advancement component, which includes public relations and the Reichhold Center for the Arts, made the 50 for 50 Campaign part of their priority activities, as did alumni class leaders and other individuals on campus.
Our FY12 books closed on September 30, with 42 percent of our alumni contributing to their alma mater. While we were not the first HBCU to secure a 50 percent alumni contribution level, we are the first to raise the alumni contribution percentage from 13 percent to 42 percent in one year. With the wind from this experience at its back, UVI continues on the path to accomplishing similar feats in other significant areas of higher education leadership.
SUBMITTED BY David Hall, president, the University of the Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands