August 9th, 2012

Alumni Participation: BU Bucks the Trends

Despite difficult economic times, BU alumni and friends are building a culture of participation

What does Boston University have going for it that many other U.S. universities don’t?

The answer is momentum—and that’s especially true in the important realm of alumni participation.

Here’s proof: The number of BU alumni donors is up, despite a nationwide downward trend in annual giving that has emerged over the last decade. And BU’s number is not just up; it has seen a healthy 12 percent increase, this year over last, as of June 11.

And that’s not the only compelling evidence. Alumni event and meeting attendance has increased, too—a whopping 25 percent to date over last year. Signature events, like Winterfest (overall attendance up 30 percent over 2011) and the Global Day of Service (with more than 3,500 participants), are engaging and inspiring ever-greater numbers of people.

What’s responsible for these great leaps forward? Steve Hall, vice president for alumni relations and annual giving, says it’s all about letting alumni get engaged with BU. “Thanks to President Brown’s embrace of alumni engagement,” he says, “we now have staff in place to provide our alumni with the encouragement and resources they need to become active donors and participants.”

“In effect,” he says, “we’re busy building a new tradition.”

For example: the BU Alumni Association’s award-winning Facebook page now brings together 48,000-plus alumni (and climbing) to network, reminisce, and access special offers. The BUAA’s Twitter feed provides information and fun facts to nearly 9,000 followers, while the association’s newly launched official LinkedIn group enables alumni to discuss professional issues and opportunities and to track each others’ career development.

Through these kinds of social support, and also through more active solicitation, BU is encouraging the emergence of a new culture of philanthropy among its alumni. And while the University may still be playing catch-up with many of its institutional peers in this critical realm, the numbers suggest that BU’s days of lagging behind may soon be over. One important key to annual giving, says Hall, is the spirit behind it: each and every gift counts, and donors have the freedom to support causes that are close to their hearts.

David Hollowell (ENG’69, ’72, GSM’74)—immediate past president of the BU Alumni Association, and co-chair with his wife, Kathleen (GRS’71, SED’77), of the Annual Giving Campaign—agrees, adding that philanthropy on the part of current students and young alumni has become more important than ever. “Early engagement is key to instilling a sense of commitment to give back to your university,” he says. “It is understood that most young people just starting out can’t afford to make large gifts, but getting in the habit of giving what they can afford and being a regular donor is important to the future of any university—particularly for BU, where alumni participation in giving has not been up to the level of our peers.”

BU students and alumni are answering the call. This year’s graduating class surpassed last year’s record-breaking Class Gift participation rate. Alumni giving has been up for the past two years—and again this year, thanks in part to the Slatkin Challenge: Alumnus Ed Slatkin (SMG’77) challenged BU alumni to increase donor participation (with a gift of any amount), pledging that if 3,000 more alumni give this fiscal year than last, he will donate $1 million to Boston University. BU’s donors rose to the challenge, and then some. “With Ed Slatkin’s timely help,” says Daniel Allenby, assistant vice president for annual giving, “we set another new participation record.”

Record-setting alumni participation is not only good for the bottom line, and a good portent for the future, but it’s also good for rankings. College and university rankings in U.S. News & World Report, for example, factor in alumni participation as one of seven key ranking criteria. And even though 40 percent of BU graduates have given back to the University during their lifetime, the University’s annual alumni giving rate has lagged behind other prestigious schools. But these longstanding gaps have begun to close in recent years and are expected to continue to do so during the impending comprehensive Campaign for Boston University.

Even without a consistently strong track record in alumni giving, BU can boast of some notable trendsetters. For example: Annual Giving Campaign co-chairs David and Kathleen Hollowell have a 42-year-long unbroken record of giving to BU. And then there are Peter Pochi (MED’55) and Robert Slocum (CAS’44, ’46). Since the 1950s, neither has missed a single year of giving to BU, making them the donors with the longest records of consecutive yearly gifts in BU’s documented history. So with enthusiasm, activity, and connectivity all increasing, today’s momentum points toward record-breaking growth in alumni participation—and says good things for BU’s future.


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