Courting alumni – Focus on people

By Todd Cohen

DAVIDSON, N.C. — Every Wednesday morning, Robert Vagt, president of Davidson College, meets for an hour or more with the school’s senior fundraisers.

The goal is to share enthusiasm, he says, and talk about donors he should visit and how to connect their interests to Davidson’s needs.

People, not fundraising mechanics, lie at the heart of Davidson’s effort to raise $250 million in its biggest capital campaign ever, says Kristin Hills Bradberry, vice president for college relations.

“Our strategy is to look at people who we know love Davidson and are capable of making a significant gift, and giving them as much personal attention as possible,” she says.

The campaign, which launched its public phase six months ahead of schedule in October 2000, already has raised $142 million – and aims to exceed its goal by at least $10 million, possibly ahead of schedule.

Bradberry says Davidson, unlike many other liberal-arts schools, counts heavily on alumni donations of $100,000 or more – rather than on a handful of multi-million-dollar gifts.

“The more often we can talk to people who care about Davidson and in particular what is needed, the more successful we’ll be,” she says.

The school has scheduled 70 campaign events throughout the U.S. through June 2005 – and Vagt will attend all of them.

A 1969 Davidson grad who earned a graduate divinity degree at Duke and worked as a prison warden, municipal fiscal-crisis manager and oil-and-gas executive, Vagt spends a third or more of his time campaigning – almost always on the road.

He’s been known to fly to three cities in a day — Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta one time, New York, Chicago and Denver another — to visit prospective donors.

“There really is no end,” he says. “There’s no call that one would make that has marginal value.”

Cultivating donors is critical, Bradberry says.

In the fiscal year ended June 30, 55.2 percent of Davidson’s 16,000 living alumni contributed $5.8 million to the school’s annual fund – higher levels than 99 percent of U.S. colleges and universities.

Davidson aims to raise $40 million in the annual fund during the seven-year campaign, increasing annual alumni giving to $6 million and the percentage of alumni donors to 60 percent by June 2005.

And by relying heavily on Vagt, alumni volunteers and key trustees, the development staff aims to run a lean campaign.

Davidson’s development office plans to spend less than 10 cents for every dollar it raises, compared to more than 25 cents on average spent by college development offices nationally, says Kevin McCarthy, campaign director.

And despite the slow economy and Sept. 11 attacks, the campaign is ahead of schedule, with 19 percent of alumni contributing so far this fiscal year, up from 13 percent a year ago.

“There are more people stretching to make it work than in a lot of colleges and universities,” says Bradberry.

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