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Soaring Student Debt, Declining Affinity: How Advancement Leaders Are Addressing the Challenges Ahead

Part three of our 5-part webinar series on #TheGivingEquation was a discussion around some of today’s fundraising challenges, plus a […]

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Part three of our 5-part webinar series on #TheGivingEquation was a discussion around some of today’s fundraising challenges, plus a look at how the Nova Network (their PeopleGrove platform) is key to facing those challenges.

For the entire webinar series, we are focusing on a simple equation to re-frame how we think about alumni engagement and university advancement:

The Giving Equation PeopleGrove

PeopleGrove has pioneered the changing face of alumni relations with our alumni success solution, as demonstrated by our work with Villanova and the Nova Network platform. Villanova is not only providing alumni with compelling value, but also addressing institutional priorities around career advancement for all constituents.

The webinar dove into some of the challenges to driving giving and philanthropy today, aligning engagement and fundraising, and how Villanova has leveraged the Nova Network to support its advancement goals.

We were joined by Heather Potts Brown, Associate Vice President for Development at Villanova, in conversation with Matt Kelly, Business Development Manager at PeopleGrove and former Associate Director of Alumni Career Services at Georgetown University.

In 2018, Villanova concluded a fund-raising campaign called “For the Greater Great: The Villanova Campaign to Ignite Change” with a goal of raising $600 million. Not only did they raise $759 million before their deadline — surpassing their goal by 27% — but they increased the number of individual alumni who participated.

Brown said that getting support on all levels — no matter how big or small the gift — was important for this campaign to work.

“We all know that larger gifts drive the campaign,” she said. “But we wanted to include everyone. We had well over 78,000 donors and nearly half of them were first-time donors to the university. We were really proud about that and it distinguished this campaign from others.”

As part of the fundraising goal, Villanova wanted to reserve $250 million for the university endowment. Through the endowment fund, they were able to secure 295 endowment scholarships.

“Beyond increasing financial aid for students, the endowment also helps students find internship opportunities,” Brown said. “We help students identify areas early on that they are interested in for their careers, and we make sure we have strong mentors and alumni that can help them make sure they are getting placed in a job early on.”

Brown said there is a strong need to continue the relationship beyond graduation, and that is something that continues to be important university-wide.

“There’s a catchphrase among alumni, ‘Villanovans helping Villanovans’ and it’s something that’s certainly ran true throughout and beyond the campaign.”


Since the campaign concluded, more Villanova alumni started considering fellow graduates for internships and career opportunities, even in places that typically pull from ivy league universities.

Beyond the dollar amount goal, Brown said Villanova wanted to increase their participation rate, moving it from 16% to 30%. To achieve this impressive goal, Villanova utilized a robust volunteer structure, which fueled alumni participation. They also worked to debunk myths surrounding donation dollar amounts.

“We wanted to help people understand how small gifts really do help — all gifts matter,” Brown said. “There are a lot of opportunities to engage and give back to several worthy causes, but investing in your alma mater fuels current students and research to become the next great leaders and to develop the next great thing.”

At Villanova, tuition and related costs are approximately $70,000 annually. Because of this, Brown said many alumni didn’t feel their gift would make an impact, even if it was $1,000. This is one of the challenges all universities face — to show everyone the positive impact they can make, regardless of their giving level.

“We’ve really tried to make people understand that tuition dollars and room-and-board cover the bare minimum, which includes faculty members teaching our students in the classroom, that students have dorms to live in, and meals to eat in the dining hall,” Brown said. “But the added value of that private, philanthropic support is really what is fueling those opportunities that make a Villanova education unique. Education beyond the classroom such as internship support and study abroad programs require philanthropic support.”

The other challenge is that many students are graduating with high levels of student debt, and on a small beginning salary, they likely feel like they’re already paying the university, which makes giving less of a priority for them.

The key to tackling this, Brown said, is to find alignment between engagement and giving, and making sure those efforts are fully integrated and showing graduates the value they can offer.

Villanova’s Alumni Association partners with the Career Center to offer meaningful events, engagement activities, and even virtual opportunities for graduates. For many of these events, Villanova’s President, deans, faculty members, and guest speakers join to create networking opportunities.

Brown said they track the engagement at these events, which helps the Alumni Association stay informed about potential giving.

“If we know that people are only coming to regional events and not coming back to campus, thinking about if their local club has a scholarship fund might be more attractive for them to think about giving back to than giving to the school of business. So, we’re using a lot of different data points as much as we can to help inform those decisions.”

Brown said one of the most important things any university can do is make sure they are creating a meaningful connection and a longstanding relationship with people.

“It’s not just about getting your diploma, your cap and gown, and you walk away from Villanova,” Brown said. “We want to make sure they are seeing the opportunities that we are providing for them as alumni.”

Many alumni may find that they need career assistance years after graduating, as they are making new decisions about their career that may be different from the degree they earned.

“One of the ways we’ve invested is really looking at alumni career services, whether it’s getting that first job or helping with a career transition,” Brown said. “Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have thought to offer these programs, but we really see that need to make sure our alumni feel engaged and that they see opportunities from their alma mater and not from somewhere else.”

To increase the value offered to their alumni community, they launched the Nova Network 18 months ago. Currently, it has 17,000 active users and is growing quickly because of the work of the Alumni Association.

Nova Network has 40 different groups where alumni can self-identify and connect with people who have similar interests. Popular groups include Nova Women Lead, Villanova Veterans, and the Villanova Public Policy Society.

The university has used these groups as a way to target individuals for their annual day of giving, 1842 Day. Because of these targeting efforts, 117 members from the Nova Women Lead group donated more than $12,600 to the McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership within 24 hours. Another group on the network — the Center for Access, Success, and Achievement — gave more than $6,000 from 88 donors, and the Villanova Athletes group had 903 donors give $185,000 to support athletics.

Nova Network will be at the center of a new campaign — Nova Network November — which will be a series of 30+ online and on-campus events dedicated to enhancing the professional development of Villanova alumni, graduates and students in the College of Professional Studies. Brown is hoping these efforts will help people become more familiar with the platform and all of the ways they can become engaged.

“One of the things that drew us to the PeopleGrove platform is being able to target our graduate students,” Brown said. “It has been really positive because we can track who’s fully utilizing the network, and better inform them about future programming. If there’s a group that looks like they’re not fully utilizing the platform, we can create targeted messaging to make that connection a little bit stronger. It’s all about that connection and developing a lifelong relationship between Villanova and our alumni.”

Part four of our five-part webinar series is Thursday, October 17 at 11am PT: “The True Measure of Success: It’s Not Just About Clicks – How to Measure the Value of Alumni Connections” featuring Bridget Holmes, Senior Director of Career & Regional Initiatives at Georgetown University to discuss how Georgetown sets clear goals and measures ongoing success for Hoya Gateway.

Register today!