Reports & Commentaries
Client Stories

‘Hokie Family’ Fuels Virginia Tech’s Campaign

July 10, 2009

Drive almost anywhere in America’s mid-Atlantic region, and you will see so many displays of the distinctive orange-and-maroon colors of Virginia Tech, so many stylized logos and defiant Hokie emblems that the thought inevitably arises: There can’t be that many Tech alumni, that many parents of Tech alumni. There can’t be even that many Tech football fans, though the Hokies have the fourth longest bowl streak in the U.S., participating in bowl games in each of the past 15 seasons, playing in, but losing, the national championship in the 2000 Sugar Bowl.

So, who are all these people displaying the colors, flying the flags and putting Hokie decals in their car windows?

They are members of what is called the “Hokie Family” or even “Hokie Nation,” a close-knit, steadily growing and remarkably generous community of Virginia Tech loyalists. It’s this passionately loyal community—carefully cultivated over a period of decades—that has enabled the Blacksburg, VA, university to conduct a remarkably successful and ambitious fundraising campaign. As of late May, “Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future,” designed to reach a $1 billion goal, had raised nearly $793 million.

It is also the Hokie Spirit that has enabled the university to move forward with confidence not only through a worldwide economic recession but also through one of the darkest days in the history of American higher education. No university fundraising campaign has ever been launched under more sobering circumstances.

On April 16, 2007, less than two weeks before Virginia Tech was to formally announce the fund drive, 32 people were killed and many others wounded on the Virginia Tech campus. The peace of the university community was shattered, but its remarkably resilient character became immediately apparent to millions who, until that morning, barely knew of its existence.

When tragedy struck, plans were well underway for the public phase of the campaign to begin. Some 1,500 acceptances to the announcement event had been received. Needless to say, the announcement was delayed and did not take place for another six months. When it did, Virginia Tech’s development officers found that this remarkable community of supporters, drawn together as never before, was as committed to moving forward as the university, its students and its faculty were.

To those intimately familiar with Virginia Tech, this commitment, while encouraging, came as no surprise. To understand why, it is necessary to know something of the institution’s character, which is rooted in its unique history. While not as old or as celebrated as Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia (UVA), Virginia Tech is as secure in its own sense of identity as its better-known Charlottesville neighbor. Even before April 2007, when, for a moment, people the world over felt like Hokies, Tech had developed a kind of cult following, with legions of fans throughout Virginia and beyond.

Although, as a “public Ivy,” UVA has enjoyed national prestige for almost 200 years, Virginia Tech quietly developed a personality and pride of its own. “There is a different dynamic at Tech,” says Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Flanagan, its vice president for development and university relations. “I worked in the development office at UVA for 10 years, and I did my graduate work there, so I know both places.”

Flanagan traces this “different dynamic” to geography and history. Blacksburg is a town in the Appalachian Mountains, far removed from the aristocratic plantations and Civil War battlefields (and theme parks) of Virginia’s Tidewater. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” Flanagan says. “And in the 1800s, these really were pioneers who settled this area, and that pioneer spirit lives on. The attitude is, ‘Let’s take a risk, let’s try it, we will conquer all.’ In the early days, we had a huge number of students who were the first in their families to go to college. That’s less true now, but the can-do attitude of these first-generation college-goers lives on. The feelings people develop for this institution are extremely strong, especially after April 2007. This is a campus where the students really do wear their school colors—orange and maroon—every day.”

John Cash, a Marts & Lundy senior consultant, sees a similar spirit in the wider Virginia Tech community. “When I first got involved with Virginia Tech, I learned that this is very much an institution of strivers, of people who looked up the road to the ‘aristocracy’ of UVA and decided they weren’t going to pretend to be anything other than what they were. They began to take pride in their pioneer past and the fact that they worked for everything they had. I had one alumnus tell me that he’d have been a dirt farmer if it weren’t for Virginia Tech and the opportunities it made available to him. Virginia Tech made it possible for a young man of his background to go to college in the first place. This experience, repeated over decades, instills an attitude of extraordinary gratitude and intense loyalty in its graduates. To whatever extent they feel well prepared for success in their lives, they attribute it to Virginia Tech.”

All these factors contribute to the intense loyalty that made it possible for the university to maintain its fundraising momentum throughout the recent economic downturn and to bounce back so remarkably from the events of April 2007. “I was one of the many who watched and marveled as the now-legendary ‘Hokie identity’ enabled Virginia Tech to come together and emerge even stronger after this tragedy,” Cash recalls. “This Hokie identity became a rallying point and a cause for celebration, and enabled this great institution to remember its past but stay focused on its future. That, to me, is the real lesson of this remarkable campaign.”

Historically, large public colleges have not had as much contact with their alumni as private colleges, in large part because—being publicly funded—they have not needed to rely on the gifts of generations of graduates. But in the 1980s, a time of cutbacks in funding for public higher education, this changed. As Cash has written in a Marts & Lundy study, “Private Fundraising for Public Higher Education”:
Except for athletics, public universities neglected individual donors during the period of significant state funding. This was especially true with alumni. The public university never felt the need to treat its alumni differently from the way it treated citizens of the state that provided the bulk of its support through their tax dollars. This contrasted dramatically with the attitude toward alumni in private institutions where alumni support and intergenerational alumni relationships proved to be central to institutional stability and funding. Public universities had no place for legacy admissions. As a result, nearly all public universities developed independent alumni associations where individual alumni, interested in building networks and relationships, established associations outside the framework of their universities. These associations rarely engaged in any fundraising beyond the need to support their operations.
But in significant ways, Virginia Tech has bucked this trend, again in large part in recognition of its alumni’s strong attachment to the institution. “Dr. Flanagan and her team have been acutely aware of the tremendous resource they have in the large and growing community of Tech’s loyalists,” Cash says. “And these loyalists aren’t confined to the alumni themselves. They include not only their families but also a great number of people who are just Tech fans, and not just football fans.”

The Hokie Nation or Hokie Family is a very strong force on the East Coast and, increasingly, throughout the country. “At some institutions,” Flanagan says, “if you’re not an alumnus, you’re never really part of the family. But that’s not the case at Tech. At Tech, it’s different. If you love it, it loves you back. And we have seen this, over and over, in our fundraising. Fully 56% of our first-year parents—the parents of students who are the first in their families to attend Tech—give philanthropically, even if we don’t ask them to. And this is even more remarkable: 30% of our gifts—and some years it is higher than that—come from non-alumni.”

This is not to suggest that Virginia Tech has not actively and systematically cultivated such relationships. In this, it has taken a more rigorous and more individualized approach than most of its peers. With most state colleges and universities, up to 60% of gifts resulting from fundraising campaigns come from institutions rather than individuals. “But Virginia Tech by contrast has emphasized individual giving,” Cash says. “Focusing on alumni and other donors is difficult. It involves lots of shoe leather and cold calls, but Tech’s experience has demonstrated that when you put in the effort, it pays off significantly in new donors. With a strong vision and articulate advocates, you find donors for life and donors who leave bequests.”

One of 12 public universities engaged in campaigns to raise 10-figure sums, Virginia Tech has bold plans for the funds it is raising through its “Invent the Future” campaign. These include strengthening academics, enriching the undergraduate experience, expanding research facilities, involving Tech more deeply in the Blacksburg community, and increasing the President’s “discovery fund.” One notable project is the construction of a performing arts center to complement the institution’s strength in the sciences and engineering.

Enthusiasm for these plans was evident from the start. By the time the public phase of the campaign was announced in October 2007, 58% of the $1 billion goal—well above the standard 40% to 45%—had already been committed.

This significant achievement was made possible in part, Flanagan says, by her office’s determination to secure a 7% gift reinvestment fee. For this, she credits Marts & Lundy. “We didn’t know this was going to be a $1 billion campaign,” she recalls. “Originally, it was to be only $800 million. Because about 85% of our university development office budget goes to fundraising, we knew we’d need $10 million just to get started. So we had to get that money from somewhere, and you can’t use public funds for fundraising. So, with John’s help, we were committed to this goal, and we managed to get everyone on board with the 7% assessment on contributions. This is something that he was familiar with from his work on the West Coast but has not been done in the Midwest or on the East Coast. John helped us make that case, and we succeeded as a result.”

Marts & Lundy has been instrumental to the campaign’s success, not least because it helped it get off to a solid start. “They were hugely helpful as objective outsiders who were able to make our people believe not only in the desirability of the 7% gift reinvestment, but feel that it could be done,” she says.

Cash, for his part, gives due credit to Virginia Tech. “Doctor Flanagan’s office sets and adheres to the highest performance standards of any university I work with,” he says. The standard number of out-of-office visits for most university development teams is 15 per month, but Virginia Tech staff is required to make 22 such visits, which is 50% higher than normal. The university also had set a rigorous schedule for regionally based appeals. The first, in the Roanoke Valley, had taken place as a trial run before the April 2007 tragedy. Others have followed, in Atlanta, in San Francisco, in the Virginia Tidewater region, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

Throughout the campaign, which will continue through 2010, Flanagan’s staff has remained determined to find new donors, which by all evidence represents a sound strategy for future growth. “Our students have great confidence in Virginia Tech, and that’s partly because it shows such confidence in them,” she says. “Some schools keep their students at a distance, but we make every effort to involve them in decision making. We have an undergraduate representative and grad student representative on the Board of Visitors. We value what they say, which is one reason why we have such a strong rapport with our alumni and why, in this economic downturn, they are still there for us.”

Flanagan says she has no doubt that they will continue to give philanthropically just as they have in more robust economies. “We have a 1% pledge default rate,” she notes. “We are getting a lot of deferred gifts these days, and that is a good thing. It means that the donor trusts this institution and believes its leadership will be strong for the next 10 and 20 years and beyond.”


John M. Cash, Ph.D.

Chair of the Board of Directors
Senior Consultant & Principal

Belmont, California