Behind the Curtain of BU’s Fundraising Campaign

The science and art of seeking alumni support

| From BU Today | By Rich Barlow

Scott Nichols leads BU's much-enhanced alumni outreach efforts.

During his student career, PSY lingered just a semester at BU. But that’s enough so that the South Korean rapper, whose “Gangnam Style” video has been viewed more than 480 million times (and climbing) on YouTube, can expect to hear at some point from the University, or its energetic South Korean alumni, about BU’s first comprehensive fundraising campaign, says Scott Nichols.

BU’s senior vice president for development and alumni relations, Nichols is among the leaders who must answer a simple question: having made the case for a $1 billion campaign, how exactly do we get the money? Here, from Nichols and Steven Hall, vice president for alumni relations, is a primer.

Step 1: If you don’t talk to your alumni, start.

“If you’re the Home for Little Wanderers or trying to eradicate polio, you must fundraise with the public in general, and you’re competing with all sorts of other causes,” says Nichols. “We feel fortunate to be at a university, where you have a natural constituency—people who already care.” That natural constituency includes 300,000 alumni around the globe, but until President Robert A. Brown took office in 2005, BU hadn’t built much of a communication network.

“We started building it the day Bob Brown arrived as president. One of the key things that was missing was the engagement of our alumni,” says Hall. “Most successful fundraising campaigns are built on a history of strong alumni engagement. None of that existed at Boston University prior to Bob Brown’s administration.”

A core staff of 17 workers now oversees alumni relations, and they’ve boosted alumni outreach. At the start of the Brown years, 7,000 alumni attended BU events around the world annually; last year, that figure was 52,000, says Nichols, reaching from Dubai to Dedham and ranging from volunteer meetings to Alumni Weekend.

“My favorite factoid,” says Nichols, is that when Hall arrived at his job, “we were having about three alumni events a week. We’re now up to three a day, worldwide, on average.” Building this alumni network also required realizing what you’re good at: knowing that a comprehensive campaign was in the offing, Nichols wanted to focus his office on fundraising. It had handled communication as well—Bostonia was based there—but Development and Alumni Relations handed the alumni magazine off to the University’s Marketing and Communications, Nichols says.

Step 2: Now that you’ve primed the pump, find out who’s got the money.

That, says Hall, “is a very scientific endeavor—who’s got the capacity to make a really big gift? We have a full-time research department that all day, every day tries to identify successful alumni, alumni of means—like PSY,” whose BU connection the researchers unearthed only in mid-September, after hearing “urban lore among the students.” They confirmed the connection from Korean alumni, among other sources.

A dozen researchers do such work, probing alumni backgrounds. “We may find out from the people sitting at their computers, ‘Oh, this person just became a CEO, or just won the lottery, or had a great invention,’” he says. “That’s a whole lot different than getting out there and going to see” these maybe donors. So—

Step 3: Visit. Visit. Visit.

At least 50 University employees, from Brown and Nichols down, hit the road at various times to meet possible donors face-to-face. In fiscal year 2011, they conducted 3,439 visits; the following year, that jumped to 5,624. Every donation, no matter how small, matters, says Nichols: the biggest donors (the campaign has 76 commitments of $1 million or more so far) “desperately care that everybody is doing their part, whether it’s the $100 check or the $10 check. That has a big influence on them.” If large numbers of alumni affirm BU’s worth with their donations of any amount, it can encourage some big donors to give even more to “a winning cause,” he says.

Step 4: Personal contacts are important. So is the mail.

A 36-page case statement, outlining the rationale for the campaign and its timetable, leadership, and overall goals, will be mailed in early October to those who attended the recent kickoff celebration in Boston. The remaining alumni will receive the same information in a variety of forms, including electronically, in the coming weeks.

“Classic fundraising theory” holds that big donors will need 15 to 20 contacts over at least two years—“they come to an event, they have lunch with the president, they receive one of us in their office”—before making a gift, says Nichols. BU makes that many contacts in just a year.

Having followed these steps over the past two years (the campaign’s “quiet” period), the results thus far have been “so much better than anyone predicted,” Nichols says, with $420 million of the $1 billion campaign target announced as of the official campaign kickoff. The University trustees and overseers contributed more than $130 million of that $420 million.

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