Be True to Your School

The University of Hawaii Foundation makes a (school) spirited climb up the Top 250

August, 2005

If University of Hawaii Foundation (UHF) president and chief executive officer Donna Vuchinich has her way, some day in the future, when Island residents ask each other what school they graduated from, they’ll be talking about college and not high school. Hawaii people are famous for their allegiance to and identity with their high schools. However, when it comes to the University of Hawaii, the strength of those bonds may fluctuate with the success of the school’s various sports teams.

This lack of school spirit is curious considering that the University of Hawaii is the Islands’ only state university and the flagship Manoa campus and its nine other schools dominate the Islands’ higher education world. According to the UHF officials, a staggering 10 percent of Hawaii residents have attended one of the schools in the UH system. But it’s a penetration into the community that may actually be working against the school system. Familiarity breeds contempt as the old saying goes. In addition, since historically UH has received such strong support from the state government, alumni outreach was unnecessary from a financial standpoint.

According to Vuchinich, even though the Foundation is 50 years old, its first capital campaign was initiated in 1998. In comparison, UCLA has been conducting its capital campaigns since the 1960s.

“We are building the fundamentals of loyalty with our alumns. Certainly the private high schools have it here and the private colleges do an excellent job, too,” says Vuchinich. “Alumni relations were taken for granted at UH. Why do we have to do that, our alumni are already here? But you do. Education is a business. Just because you’re the only game in town doesn’t mean that you don’t take care of your customers.”

Vuchinich and her staff’s customer care has been paying off dividends of late. Last year, the Foundation’s gross revenues grew to $48 million from $22 million in 2003, a 118. 2 percent increase, which led all companies on Hawaii Business’ Top 250 list. The revenue growth pushed the organization 80 places up the list, from No. 230 to No. 150.

Much of the organization’s recent revenue boost is the result of a new, more sophisticated and diversified investment portfolio that earned $17.6 million, a 17.7 percent increase from 2003.

“Our return was solid, much better than average,” says Bill King, vice president for administration and chief financial officer. “We designed the portfolio to generate consistent returns but also to reduce volatility. We had good timing, and we got the best of both worlds.”

But fundraising outpaced even those impressive – and unexpected – results. In 2004, the Foundation’s fundraising increased 18 percent from $22 million in 2003 to $25.9 million. Vuchinich projects that funds raised in 2005 will increase an additional 31 percent. That’s approximately 30,000 new gifts totaling between $33 million to $35 million.

These ever-growing contributions are partly the result of four major initiatives launched by the University’s Alumni Relations Office. The $350,000 effort includes the publication of an alumni print directory and the creation of an online alumni community, an e-newsletter called Nupepa and travel study programs, which take UH faithful to Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

“We’re starting from scratch, so we decided to construct an alumni network through technology,” says Lori Abe, UHF’s associate vice president for communications and marketing. “We’re having to build allegiance, customer loyalty and product loyalty with our alumns in a different way.”

According to Abe, this high-tech outreach has been more effective than expected. For instance, more than 60,000 graduates have agreed to be listed in the inaugural print directory, a higher participation rate than the industry average. UHF officials had projected selling 6,000 of the books, which will be published later this year. So far sales have topped 10,000. In addition, more than $200,000 has been donated through a revamped online-giving Web page. That’s nearly 10 times of the $26,000 given via the Internet in 2004. Moreover, the Foundation’s annual giving department exceeded $1 million in donations for the first time. Each donation averages from between $5 to $10.

But much of the success of this outreach effort cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Vuchinich says that the new initiatives allow the Foundation to fulfill one of its main core functions. That is supporting the community and especially its graduates who are in various stages of their careers. “What do are graduates need and how do we gather those networks?” says Vuchinich. “How can we help them grow their businesses with professional connections? We can ask and answer those questions now.”

Vuchinich says that a large portion of the Foundation’s fundraising is provided by corporations, which is pretty typical of organizations new to the giving game as UHF is. But she is confident that six- and seven-figure donations from alumni will be forthcoming. The University has considerable assets, many of which are under appreciated by its local residents. In addition, Vuchinich believes that UH’s high number of multi-generational graduates within many Island families is an untapped resource.

“Many people don’t realize the pride of the UH alumni who live and work in Asia. It’s amazing. Many of these people hold prestigious positions in their respective countries,” says Vuchinich. “But there is a lot potential here. We have many families who have a long and deep connection to the university. They go back several generations. They’ve always wanted to express their pride and support of their school, but until recently didn’t have much of an opportunity to do it.”

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David K. Choo