The University of the Virgin Islands (an HBCU with campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix US Virgin Islands) saw their alumni giving rate increase from 13% to 42% in the past year during the institution’s “50 for 50 Campaign” celebrating UVI’s 50th anniversary. What is especially noteworthy about this jump in giving rate is how UVI did it: rather than relying heavily on reunion, other on-campus events, or even alumni events in other locations to boost giving rate, UVI reached out to alumni at 30 local community events and festivals throughout the year.
Rather than just bring alumni back to UVI, their annual giving and alumni affairs staff and volunteers went out into the community to find their alumni — where their alumni were already gathering.
Intrigued by UVI’s ambitious (and effective) alumni outreach, we interviewed Linda Smith, UVI’s director of annual giving and alumni affairs, and Nanyamka Farrelly, UVI’s public relations officer, to learn more about UVI’s approach in the past year. Here is what they shared with us.
Academic Impressions (AI): Linda, Nanyamka, thank you for joining me for this conversation. I am fascinated by your approach. What did your participation at these community events look like?
Linda Smith (LS): We participated in 30 events throughout the US and UK Virgin Islands, the US mainland, and the eastern Caribbean. Two examples:
- An annual agricultural food fair held on one of the islands. UVI sponsored the fair, and it coincided with our anniversary for becoming a land grant institution. Both events were celebrated over a three-day period, with participation from thousands of Caribbean community members. This was high visibility and easily the largest of our events.
- The second largest was the annual festival on the British Virgin Islands, a celebration during the early summer months. We have a high concentration of alums there.
Because we were so visible, one thing we found was that when we were out in the community promoting the campaign at community events, with our banners up and our promotional literature and volunteers there to inform people about the anniversary and celebration, when one alum would stop there, others would also. A crowd would gather. Alumni wanted to be recognized at the event as alums of UVI.
AI. Did you notify alumni ahead of time that you would be present at the events?
LS. We did, through 3 modes of communication:
- Note writing (this was more informal than letter writing) to request the support of notable alumni.
- Telephone notification.
- Social media notification.
AI. Can you talk a little about your alumni volunteers and how you organized this outreach?
We really relied on facilitating an ambitious corps of volunteers. We did our “50 for 50” class challenge, for which each class designated a volunteer leader or, in a few cases, a committee. These leaders then took responsibility for assisting and gathering their classmates — sharing information out on Facebook pages, personal email blasts, texting contacts, etc. This worked very well, and decentralized the effort. Class leaders assisted in identifying the community events we should be prioritizing for outreach.
Our core approach was to empower alumni volunteer leaders to take personal ownership for the campaign and its success.
In fact, it became very competitive. As class leaders customized their ask, they began holding subcommittee meetings, groups of volunteers who would meet within each class on a regularly, weekly basis to look at strategy, because each class wanted to be the leader in this challenge.
AI. Linda, how did you train or coach the alumni leaders to make the ask?
LS. We had two co-chairs for the “50 for 50” class challenge who were designated to handle all queries and all calls from the alumni class leaders. Our central office scripted out the goals and the timeline needed to achieve the campaign. Once this was scripted, we allowed for feedback and recommendations from the class leaders.
Then what ensured momentum and effectiveness was regular meetings with class leaders to provide ongoing coaching and address challenges or concerns. When a leader experienced a challenge and brought it forward, other leaders shared their experiences and advice. Regular, structured meetings really enabled peer mentorship and peer problem-solving between class leaders.
We also ensured that class leaders had 24/7 access to the campaign’s co-chairs. This was very important to us.
AI. What trends did you see in engagement immediately following these events?
Nanyamka Farrelly (NF). Overall, the feeling of alumni pride was ever-present throughout the jubilee year, because of the recurrent presence thoroughout the year and because alumni had opportunity to meet other alumni at each community event. Having left an event where you met the UVI team, not only did you have the experience of that community event, but you also left with the experience of feeling more connected with your alma mater and with other alumni. Later, you went to another event and connected with alumni again. So this campaign became part of the tone of the whole year and was reinforced throughout the year, rather than at a one-time event.
Reunions are a vital part of your strategy for energizing alumni and keeping them connected to your institution; yet, many colleges and universities follow the same reunion outline year after year. With a few small adjustments and a bit of customization, your reunion can become the social event of the year, with more alumni returning to campus, volunteering, and giving to their alma mater.
AI. What are your plans for follow-up and stewardship with any new donors?
LS. We reached out to each and every one of these alums, whether they made a contribution or not, to thank them for the opportunity to meet with them and hear their stories. This was a laborious labor of love, this personal outreach. But as a result, at later events, alumni who had been to a previous event would approach us and then make a contribution, or would bring other alums with them to make contributions.
We devoted resources to a “thank-a-thon,” similar to an annual fund phonathon. This was student volunteers calling alums to thank them for their support — whether to thank them for a gift or to thank them for the opportunity to dialogue with them.
We also did a pre-thank-a-thon prior to the start of the year. We thanked each donor who had given in the past 10 years. We thanked them for their gift, verified their contact information, and updated our records. Then we followed up with the thank-a-thon at the end of the year.
It’s so important to do more than just the traditional thank you note and gift receipting. We intend to maintain stewardship throughout this coming year, too, to ensure renewal.
AI. In the piece he wrote on the success of the campaign, UVI President David Hall suggested that “development activities must replicate the strategies of holiday merchants.” Could you offer some more specific insight into this approach? What did you do at the events that was similar to the strategies of holiday merchants? Were you able to take credit card payments on-site at the events?
LS. Yes, we did have real-time credit-card processing during the events. No matter where we went, we were able to process credit cards and debit cards.
NF. When people go out to holiday or festival events, they are in a mood of spending. So when we created the experience of nostalgia, the experience of connection with the university, and alumni were already seeking an experience where they knew they would spend money (i.e., at a community, holiday event), it was easier to make the ask – people were already in the mood to have fun, spend, and give. That’s the moment when they are ready to connect or reconnect with the institution, both emotionally and financially.
We also made it our standard to follow up with a phone call within 12 hours, rather than a few days later.
AI. Linda, Nanyamka, thanks so much for sharing the story of what you set out to do and how you did it. Congratulations on the success of this past year and best of luck for the next.