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Igniting Change on a Shoestring Budget

My daughter, Kaitlin, a 2008 ‘Nova graduate, received a letter recently from the Villanova Young Alumni Circle soliciting a gift to the alumni fund. The letter talked about giving back so that others could experience the type of change that Villanova ignited in her own life. A table was included that suggested a contribution of $100 for a 2011 graduate, progressing $100 for each year since graduation to $1,000 for members of the Class of 2002.

As I read that letter, I reflected on my own history of giving to Villanova. I made my first contribution the year I graduated, a modest $25 back in 1977. I contributed every year since, increasing the amount of my gift each year and arranging for a matching gift by my employer. At the age of 32, my annual contribution had grown to $250, one-quarter of the amount Villanova now considers appropriate for alumni ten years removed from graduation.

I felt no shame then for giving only $250. I had a wife and two kids to support, a big mortgage, minimal savings, and graduate school tuition to pay. When I checked Villanova’s annual giving report, I saw few of my old classmates on the list, and only a handful giving more than $250. As I progressed in my career, I continued to ratchet up my giving, eventually reaching the President’s Club status, a level of giving I have maintained ever since.

I can’t help thinking that Villanova’s approach to soliciting funds is well-intentioned but misguided. Instead of suggesting unrealistic giving levels, wouldn't Villanova be better served by fostering a habit of annual giving among young graduates at whatever level they can afford, with the hope that they increase their giving over time commensurate with their means? Instead, I suspect that many graduates react as Kaitlin did, contributing nothing rather face the embarrassment of making a gift that is considered inadequate. With each additional year removed from graduation, the habit of not giving becomes more engrained and difficult to change.

Notre Dame boasts an average alumni giving rate of 50%, while Georgetown and Providence receive support from 28% and 26% of their graduates, respectively. By comparison, only 19% of Villanova graduates contributed in 2010.

While one of every five alumni supporting Villanova is not too shabby (most Big East schools can only wish they enjoyed that level of participation), Villanova is hurt by its comparatively small alumni base, which translates into modest annual contribution revenues and, by extension, an undersized endowment fund ($300 million in 2010, or $28 thousand per student).

The table below shows how Villanova’s endowment balance in 2010 compares with other Big East member schools (current and future), including Notre Dame with its massive $6.8 billion fund, good for a #14 ranking among U.S. universities (Harvard has a stranglehold on #1 with a $32 billion endowment).

More than most universities, Villanova faces huge demands on its financial resources in the years ahead, a challenge made even more daunting by its modest endowment. Igniting the heart, inspiring the mind and illuminating the spirit doesn't come cheaply. The University’s Strategic Plan calls for renovations of the library and Tolentine Hall, upgraded landscaping, introduction of new programs, and increased student aid. No longer the commuter school it was when I attended in the 70s, Villanova also plans to transform the two mall-scale parking lots on Lancaster Avenue into a "Gothic gateway" to the campus that includes two residence halls, a parking garage, and a performing-arts center. Of even greater importance to VUHoops readers, maintaining relevance in sports will require massive investment in athletic programs and facilities, particularly those used by the football and basketball teams. Whether this can all be achieved is heavily dependent on Fr. Donohue's success in leveraging his considerable charisma to ignite change in both the number of alumni who give and the the depth of their collective generosity.

What should Villanova do differently to increase alumni financial support and realize the promise of its strategic plan? What would inspire you to give, or if you already give, to give more? Tell us what you think, and we will share your thoughts with Mike O'Neill, Vice President of University Development.