Asking alumni for donations is nothing new at VCU. In fact, it’s expected, especially in the age of the budget crunch. But getting in touch with alumni can be a challenge and convincing them to donate is harder still.
Email campaigns can be ineffective and mailings can get pricey when trying to contact the 166,877 living VCU graduates at last count, according to the VCU Office of Development and Alumni Relations. Last fall, VCU tapped students to take to the phones on behalf of the university through a new program called Goldline. The initiative hires current VCU students to call alumni directly and encourage them to donate.
“Students talking to former students is the best methodology for engaging alums,” said Ike Tucker, director of annual giving operations.
Students working at VCU’s new Goldline call center have made more than 297,000 phone calls to try to reach alumni since the center opened last September.
Goldline has secured more than 3,400 approved gifts and pledges since September totalling more than $500,000. Officials warned, however, that only about 70 percent of pledges are fulfilled at a public school like VCU. With $347,084 pledged right now, about $243,000 over the next three years, plus the $167,000 already gifted can be expected. The money will go to the unrestricted annual funds of VCU’s academic units for deans to use to fund scholarships, buy equipment or cover emergency costs.
“It’s not just about raising money, even though that’s what we do. It’s about engaging alums, about getting them involved in the process,” Tucker said.
While the callers seek small, recurring annual donations, Tucker said they are often met with offers from alumni to get involved by doing seminars for students, offering internships and even connecting with some of the callers personally.
Christina Taylor, a freshman psychology major who works at Goldline, said reactions vary. She said some alumni are skeptical about a call from VCU asking for alumni to dig deep, but many are excited to hear from the university and enjoy the chance to talk to current students. She said that after one phone call, she was offered a letter of recommendation from a former medical student who now runs a free clinic in Florida.
“He was like, ‘You’re an exceptional young lady. It’s like a breath of fresh air to hear something like that coming from the school that I went to,’” Taylor said.
This isn’t the first time VCU has used current students to connect with alumni. The university had a centralized outreach call center program called The Link more than a decade ago, but budget cuts forced VCU to close the program in 2003. Some of the academic units within the university contracted with outside vendors to maintain connections to their alumni, while those without the resources to contract independently lost touch with some alumni.
During the spring of last year, the administration decided that they wanted to get those donors back — VCU has lost $63.5 million in state funding since 2008, so bringing more money into the unrestricted funds of the academic departments was critical. In addition, alumni participation is an important metric in determining university rankings such as those from U.S. News and World Report.
“If (VCU’s) alumni are happy and engaged and doing well in the community, that makes the value of VCU’s degree stronger than it was if they’re not participating,” said Melanie Seiler, the senior director of development and alumni communications. Alumni giving rates are below average at VCU. Only 10.8 percent of alumni gave to VCU in the last fiscal year, below the nationwide average of 13 percent as calculated by U.S. News and World Report.
To drum up alumni support, the university disbursed funds to allow more of the university’s academic units to contract call centers, which increased giving rates by a full percentage point. This led to 11 independent units now holding 11 different contracts with outside vendors, and the Office of Development and Alumni Relations recognized that it would be more efficient to centralize calling once again. Mike Andrews, VCU’s director of annual giving strategy, said centralizing had the added benefit of making it possible to bring in actual VCU students to man the phones.
“In the past, we fudged it in a way that somebody would say, ‘Hi, I’m a student (because most of the time they were) calling as a representative on behalf of the School of Medicine’ and then what will come out of that, there always had to be a disclaimer on the follow-up correspondence that said ‘VCU has contracted a third party to do the fundraising,’” Andrews said. “Now we don’t have to do that … VCU students are making phone calls in support of VCU.”
The Goldline center recently had a record-breaking night of calling, garnering 73 pledges totalling more than $14,000 in one three-and-a-half hour shift, and the operation is still growing. The center just added two more calling stations to allow more students to work during each shift and supervisors expect more students to be hired by the end of the semester to build the staff, which currently stands at 56 student callers. Tucker said the relationships the center is building now could one day have a major impact on the university.
“What we’re doing is extremely important to the future of VCU,” he said. “VCU is a very young institution. … We only started fundraising in 1986, so we haven’t even scratched the surface.”