When Seton Claggett was an undergraduate majoring in hydrology at the University of Arizona, he never imagined one day becoming a donor. Claggett went on to earn a master’s degree in hydrology and graduated from the UA's McGuire Center for Entrepreneurship program, then launched Tucson-based triathlon store TriSports.com. He began giving back despite also paying off school debt.
“I quickly realized that I was very fortunate with my business success, and I could easily tie this back to certain programs at the UA,” Claggett said.
Today there are more than 250,000 UA alumni, and Claggett is one of about 11,000 who are also donors. He said giving back is about building sustainability, the same philosophy that embodies his business.
The value of alumni generosity
As state funding to public universities decreases, alumni giving grows in importance. In fiscal year 2012, alumni giving through the UA Foundation totaled $23.5 million. The overall amount of private giving was $180.3 million.
Alumni may not understand the case for private support to public universities, according to James Moore, president and CEO of the UA Foundation
, which manages donations and endowments made to the University and helps steward relationships with donors.
“Alumni at public universities historically have felt less obligated to give back,” Moore said. “In any given year, only about 6 percent support the University. However, when they do give, they tend to make significant contributions.”
“Many alumni who give are interested in seeing students succeed, and their generosity reflects that. They also value and appreciate tradition and want current students to experience the same living and learning opportunities they enjoyed during their time on campus.”
The same vision guided Susan Vos, a Tucson-based certified public accountant who credits her success to her UA degree.
“I’m the first college graduate in my family,” she said about her decision to give back to her alma mater. “I’m hopeful that by supporting the UA, I can help to provide others with an opportunity for a quality education.”
Angela Roberts, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration, echoed that motivation: “My degree opened up doors for me,” Roberts said. “Without it, I wouldn’t have the life I have now. I give back to help someone else discover the life they want.”
Moore said helping alumni to establish a life-long relationship with their alma mater will better position the university to address future challenges and opportunities.
“We work closely with the Alumni Association to create a culture that understands the value of staying engaged,” Moore said. “It is important for students to understand that the high quality of their education today is a result of alumni and friends who came before them.”
A lifetime of commitment
“We are advancing the UA by connecting, engaging and nurturing our Wildcats for life, said Melinda Burke, president and executive director of the UA Alumni Association. “Life-long relationships, pride in the institution, alumni connections – they all help foster a culture of philanthropy.”
A network of more than 50 chapters and clubs around the country includes groups such as the “BeachCats” in San Diego or the “BayCats” in the Bay Area. Alumni groups nationwide last year raised more than $1 million for UA scholarships.
“The members come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they all share a strong commitment to the UA,” said Burke.
Wildcats supporting Wildcats
“Outreach and engagement are core principles of the UA’s land-grant mission, and alumni play an integral part,” Burke added. “Alumni share their expertise with students through mentoring, speaking engagements, or by opening doors in their respective professional fields.”
Some of the most valuable and mutually beneficial relationships begin when alumni stay involved. For example, alumni who invite student groups to visit their businesses in return may begin building relationships with potential interns or employees. Other times, professionals return to campus for speaking engagements or professional mentoring.
“Hundreds of UA graduates have given back in this way,” Burke said. “Often, this leads to creating transformational programs on campus and opportunities for students, including opening doors to future careers.”
“We want to make sure our alumni understand how they can contribute,” said Lynn Johnson Engel, who graduated in 1976 and holds the current chair of the Alumni Association's national board. The daughter of distinguished UA alumnus Marvin D. “Swede” Johnson, who advanced to director of the Alumni Association and later vice president for university relations, grew up steeped in Wildcat spirit.
“Some people give in-kind, or of their time, or in some other meaningful way,” Engel said, “and all of those are valuable and amazing, and we want to make sure that keeps happening.
She added: “I have never seen anything like the love of our alumni for a university. Wherever I go, I see Wildcats wearing the colors. All it takes is a ‘Bear Down’ to feel Wildcat pride.”