The University of Richmond set records this year for the number of alumni donors who attended Richmond as undergraduates, the amount of money donated by all donors and attendance at alumni events.
In a year painted by penny-pinching after the start of a deep recession last fall, the total dollars given by all donors to the Annual Fund, nearly $6.75 million, beat the record set last year of $6.5 million. The number of alumni donors who attended Richmond as undergraduates, 7,977, re-set the 1997 record by one donor. The dollars that those donors contributed — although not a record — increased by $78,002, said Scott Peters, director of Annual Giving.
On one hand, Peters said, the number of undergraduate alumni donors has just been returning to what it had been during the mid-to-late-1990s, after a dip in 2000. On the other hand, the number of undergraduate alumni donors reflects record-setting growth during a year when the goal was to stay even.
“The thinking was: Flat was the new up,” Peters said, “and a lot of schools didn’t even get flat.”
The one-donor difference sounds contrived, Peters said, but by taking an upfront approach, Annual Fund volunteers enticed friends and former classmates with the chance to set a record. The final push in June alone — the fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30 — collected 2,200 donations from undergraduate alumni.
“When we asked people upfront to be a part of this, they did,” said Peters, who had taken his position, which had been vacant for nearly two years, only two months earlier. “We made it easy. We said, ‘Here’s the link and we need x amount of people [to set a record].’”
Online fundraising made the difference on both ends of the equation, Peters said. Volunteers sent 24,000 personalized e-mails in June alone, which likely exceeded the number sent during the previous 11 months combined. When one message toward the end of the month announced that only 247 donors were needed to set a record, that night, 170 alumni made donations online. Online credit card payments have almost quadrupled during the past two fiscal years.
Still, Peters kept Richmond’s progress in perspective. Undergraduate alumni participation totaled almost 27 percent, but peer schools usually average 35 to 40 percent, he said. Undergraduate alumni participation at Washington & Lee University, a small liberal arts college in Lexington, Va., was 42 percent this year, Emily Johnson, Washington & Lee director of Annual Giving, said, and that’s after falling four points from 2008.
Washington & Lee’s annual fund declined 5 percent this year, yet still had its second-best year ever after setting the school record in 2008. Its annual fund includes its law school and parents’ fund, too, which brings its numbers closer to those of Richmond’s undergraduate gram.
Peters, who has 18 years of experience in annual giving at universities across the country, explained the good giving news at Richmond and peer schools in light of the economy by pointing out that university graduates probably weren’t the worst hit. Richmond alumni, especially some of the bigger donors, may have given smaller gifts, but they still gave.
“People are more cautious with their money, but I think that the things people hold closest to themselves — whether it’s their church, the school they went to, a local charity — people are generally continuing to support these,” he said. “Philanthropy is one of the last things to go.”
Not only did more alumni give, but more attended alumni events as well, setting records for homecoming weekend in fall 2008, reunion weekend in spring 2009 and at regional events connecting Spiders around the country.
More alumni volunteers, student ambassadors, personalized class and school events and distinguished alumni awards have made the difference in attracting alumni to reunion weekend, held in five-year intervals for every undergraduate class before 2009, said Kristin Woods, assistant vice president for alumni relations. As the number of events during the past five years has doubled, so has reunion attendance. The class of 1929 even boasted 100 percent participation with its two living classmates present.
Online networking through the alumni office’s Web site, UR Online and Facebook mirrors the annual fund’s Web success. The alumni association also sent out more e-mail updates with Richmond news and coordinated more with the development office to include in those messages the importance of giving back, said Tripp Perrin, ’95, who was president of the Alumni Association during the records-setting year.
The alumni phone-a-thon also echoes Peters’ mantra that, “People give to people,” according to the observations of Laura Krajewski, ’99, assistant director of alumni campus events.
“‘Beverly, come down here!’” Krajewski said, imitating enthusiastic alumni phone-a-thon volunteers at the Jepson Alumni Center. “‘I’ve got Sue on the phone!’”
Other campus organizations joined the Alumni Relations Office in setting a record for attendance at homecoming, and 5,752 alumni registered for 145 regional events this year. The alumni figure is even modest because not all regional events require registration, Woods and Krajewski said.
Peters, Woods and Krajewski also credited President Edward L. Ayers and faculty members’ traveling to represent Richmond at alumni events around the country. Ayers traveled to 22 events during his first year for the Alumni Relations Office, and eight last year.
Distinguished alumni, including Tim Hightower, ’08, of the Arizona Cardinals, who spoke at a reception in Phoenix in June, have also encouraged staying involved.
Contact staff writer Maura Bogue at email@example.com