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Boston University reaches for a billion dollars and stronger connections

Posted by Your Town  October 1, 2012 08:35 AM

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BOSTON — One billion dollars.

At current rates, it’s enough to pay for an entire undergraduate class to attend Boston University, from freshman to senior year, and then some.

While BU, as a private institution, may not have decided to provide free education for its students, it has decided to improve it. To do so, the university has undertaken the first comprehensive fundraising campaign in its 173-year history, officially launched during this year’s alumni weekend in late September, with an ambitious goal of $1 billion over the next five years.

Asking people for money is not easy, and it’s even harder now, when critical issues — tax rates and lack of jobs — driving the upcoming presidential election are related to money. The key, according to university officials, is building connections.

“Contact is the most important thing. A campaign isn’t a hit-and-run,” said Kenneth Feld, chairman of the campaign, Board of Trustees member and alumnus, in a phone interview. “That’s really the key to the campaign — engaging people to contribute to things that they love and that they want to see grow. It’s important for alumni to be able to give in whatever capacity they can so that people can get the same kind of education that they got,” Feld said.

Although not an alumnus himself, media magnate Sumner Redstone has fathered one and instructed many. The former faculty member’s sense of connection to BU recently prompted him to donate $18 million to the School of Law.

“Boston is my hometown and the city where I received my education — a wonderful foundation that has served me so well throughout my life. I hope the new Sumner M. Redstone Building serves students for generations to come and that they, too, will be able to face challenges and opportunities of life with a world-class legal education from Boston University,” he said in an emailed statement.

The campaign aims to target everyone associated with BU — not only wealthy donors like Redstone, but also those with a smaller capacity to give.

The Student Philanthropy Center successfully receives numerous pledges for the university’s Annual Fund, but callers often encounter alumni who decline to give due to financial reasons.

“It is something that we do hear on the phone, especially with recent graduates. They explain that they haven’t found a job yet, so that is a refusal that we do get,” said Kelsey Chambliss, one of the center’s on-site managers.

Ask amounts are determined by an extensive formula put together by a data team, which considers, among other things, the average income in the alumni’s zip codes and their previous gift amounts, according to Chambliss.

During work hours, the suite on the seventh floor of the School of Management that houses the Student Philanthropy Center buzzes with incessant chatter. The walls are adorned with international flags and banners that cultivate school spirit (“Get your red and white on!”) and motivation for the callers (“Focus: Be assumptive!”) Some callers sit at their desks, while others pace around with headsets. Each conversation with an alumnus follows a basic script with few variations.

“What was your favorite memory from BU?”

“When was the last time you visited campus?”

“Have you heard about Marciano Commons, the new dining hall?”

The request for a donation doesn’t come until after at least a few minutes of casual banter.

“A big step of our phone call is relationship building,” said Chambliss. “We want to keep the alums updated, so that’s a really exciting point that we do get to share with them.”

Despite concerns over the nation’s economy, alumni giving has increased in the past year, a survey by Council for Aid to Education reported. BU has followed this trend by improving alumni relations and making a larger effort to reach out overseas, according to Feld. Just recently, alumnus Rajen Kilachand, a global entrepreneur who is based in Dubai, added $10 million to his previously pledged $25 million donation — the largest gift in the university’s history.

With all donations, however big or small, the university hopes to instill a stronger sense of community.

“What [the campaign] is looking for is a long-term connection with people that have spent a period of time in their life — and hopefully, the best time of their life, or a part of it — at BU,” said Feld. “There is hope that everyone will give something. If they can afford money, that’s great. Or they can afford time and become part of the alumni group that reaches out to alumni and future students. Everyone should become an ambassador and it’s not just measured in dollars.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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