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UNLV Preps for New Era of Philanthropic Growth

UNLV's vice president for philanthropy on the reasons behind our record-breaking $93 million fundraising year.

Campus News  |  Aug 1, 2017  |  By Stacy Willis
Scott Roberts speaks at a podium

Scott Roberts, vice president for philanthropy and alumni engagement and president of the UNLV Foundation. (Josh Hawkins/UNLV Creative Services)

From the launch of the new medical school to plans for the state-of-the-art Fertitta Football Complex — there are plenty strong indicators that UNLV is hitting a new growth era.

But such growth would not be possible without the help of private gifts from individuals and businesses. It’s the job of the UNLV Foundation, the university’s private, nonprofit fundraising arm, to foster connections between UNLV and donors.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2017, the foundation raised more than $93 million in donations and pledges from more than 10,100 donors, setting a new annual record for philanthropic giving at UNLV.

Contributions included a $25 million investment in the UNLV School of Medicine from an anonymous donor, and $22 million to athletics, including a $10 million commitment from brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta for the planned Fertitta Football Complex. Many more philanthropic investments will benefit students, faculty, research, and facilities at this pivotal time in UNLV history.

So as the record-ending year ends and the new one begins, the foundation is gearing up for Top Tier goal-setting. Scott Roberts, vice president for philanthropy and alumni engagement and president of the UNLV Foundation, talks about plans.

What is the focus of the foundation at this stage of UNLV’s growth?

The key role for development is to be proactive, to build lifelong relationships, and to think long-term. How is this place going to look in 30 or 40 years? How are we going to position ourselves as an institution to be one of the top institutions in the country? What resources does UNLV need to see our Top Tier goals come to be? How can UNLV advance the community? Philanthropy is always going to have a major role in achieving our goals.

Historically, how has the foundation gotten the community involved in supporting the university?

When the university was founded 60 years ago, we obviously didn’t have alumni, so it had to come from the community. We saw that, for example, with Parry Thomas and Jerome Mack who acquired land for the university [and provided it at cost]. Over the years, some of our largest gifts have come from people who are not alumni. If you think of Boyd School of Law, Lee Business School, Greenspun College of Urban Affairs — these named colleges and schools came from gifts that weren’t from alumni. These leaders chose to invest in us because they believed in what UNLV could do for this community and they believed in the power of education.

And today?

We still have incredible support from the community and local corporations but now with over 100,000 alumni we also are beginning to see an infusion of giving from alumni. Nearly half of all our gifts come from alumni.

We want to reach out to people with a positive message. No one is going to give to this university who isn’t connected to us, if they don’t feel a sense of loyalty and passion for this institution.

Historically, if you look at our major donors, many came in through the front door of athletics and later made a gift to a school or program. Athletics has the ability to put us on the national and international map very quickly.

But the community also interacts through fine arts, through the Barrick Lecture series and the Black Mountain Institute’s events. And more and more, we’re doing a good job of engaging industry leaders in our academic programs. Alumni and community members have the opportunity to serve on the advisory boards for colleges and schools or to be judges in student competitions.

Really it’s a matter of showing how UNLV’s programs and research align with their personal goals. Take the School of Medicine, for example. We’ve got some incredible, dynamic leaders in the community who want to expand health care options in Southern Nevada, or whose own lives have been impacted by a health crisis. They are leveraging their wealth and influence to help ensure the success of our new School of Medicine.

Do you find that people who are able to give above the six figure level have a different reason for giving than those who give at much smaller levels?

Whether it’s a $10 gift or $10 million, all the gifts matter; they’re all going to make a difference. While their specific reasons for giving might be different, ultimately it’s about trust in organization and believing in the mission they are giving to, and changing the lives of students who attend UNLV.

How do you develop long-term philanthropic relationships with alumni and current students?

Philanthropy has to be taught. It has to start with the day that students set foot on campus. Many of them received scholarships of some kind. So we work to ensure they know that happened because someone decided to make a donation, because maybe they were a struggling student once. We have to illustrate that philanthropy, and share with them that one day we hope they pay it forward.

I want our students to have a sense that they are a part of a network of over 100,000 UNLV alumni who have power, who have influence that can help them with their career growth.

For our graduates, there are many ways to utilize their expertise to contribute — whether it’s speak in classes, recruit our students, providing internship opportunities at their companies, or mentor our students. There are so many ways we can utilize leaders to make this institution better that doesn’t require them to give us a penny.

Over time, when they see the progress we’re making together, they may want to invest in us with their money as well.

How do state schools compare to private schools when it comes to developing strong philanthropic relationships?

The private schools have obviously been doing it better. The public schools have relied too heavily on the state over the years so they’re decades behind the private institutions in the sophistication of their fundraising and engagement operation. Now, all institutions realize that philanthropy is the only way to make up that gap from good to great. We’re on our way.

You recently began restructuring the division. What’s the plan?

People get nervous about change. But I’ve always seen change as an opportunity to get better. I believe in the next year we’ll see some huge leaps in sophistication and complexity as an organization, as a division. The new structure that President (Len) Jessup has created by making us the Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement is really about uniting our teams. We need each other to move the needle forward.

We’ve made two game-changing hires with Margo Wolanin in the new position of senior associate vice president for development, and Chad Warren [in the new position of senior associate vice president for alumni engagement and annual giving. They both bring tremendous experience — Margo with University of Georgia System and Arizona State and Chad with Ohio State and Florida State. Our next key hire will be in communications.

We are almost at the point where the leadership team is fully in place and now we can begin thinking strategically about each area and implement programming and initiatives that will elevate UNLV even further.

Another major step is the merger of the annual giving team with the alumni engagement team. We have an excellent group of alumni volunteers who love this institution and want to have a role in promoting us throughout the community — this change will help us achieve that. This will allow us to reach out to more alumni and build up regional networks that encourage alumni to stay connected to the university and with each other.

What inspires you to improve the work the foundation is doing?

Ultimately what moves me and keeps me going every single day is the relationships. It’s meeting people who have a genuine passion for changing lives. It’s knowing that one single gift can create a ripple effect in someone’s family tree forever. The feeling that people get by engaging in philanthropy is so powerful, and I am fortunate enough to be able to see how good it makes them feel to give a gift.