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Opening Doors

UVU's development chief says donors like what they see

By Jay Wamsley | Photography by

Even though Utah Valley University can point to 76 years of existence, when it comes to fundraising, those involved in that endeavor at the university find themselves facing a unique challenge: the pool of most-likely donors didn't graduate from here.

Scott Cooksey, UVU vice president of development and alumni relations, describes the perfect donor this way: "From a fundraising standpoint, our best demographic, those we are looking for, are an alumnus who graduated from here, with a four-year degree, and is over 50 years old."

But, he points out, that donor really doesn't exist.

"Right now, for traditional alumni," Cooksey says, "people who went here from the ages of 18-24 and got a four-year degree, none of those people have turned 50 yet. They are all young. So, our major supporters don't have degrees from here."

But, he says, that doesn't stop the effort.

"We've got alumni from the '60s and '70s and '80s, but those alumni got a certificate or a two-year degree and went on to somewhere else," Cooksey explains. "If they got a four-year degree, they got it from somewhere else. Affinity is normally where you got your bachelor's degree. Our first four-year alumnus didn't graduate until 1992 or '93, and there were very few of them.

"Many of our donors may have a degree from another school, but they like what they see here. Their kids, their grandkids are here. The university is providing them employees, educating the population, so we are very fortunate on that end ... It's a challenge for us, but 20 years from now, it will be a different story."
Gaining university status marked a significant shift in development efforts, Cooksey says, taking fundraising from around $5 million or less annually to $25 million, and much more is expected.

"Like everything at UVU, development and alumni relations are going through a culture change , starting 10 years ago when we became a university," he says. "It's a coming-of-age thing ... When I first got here, I asked my leadership team, 'Who do you consider to be our peers?' The answers I got included many of the smaller institutions in Utah. My response, 'Let's start thinking differently: BYU and Utah and Utah State.' There were some gasps, but we're there. We've still got a way to go, but we are our own unique place with unique successes. As we continue to mature and grow, we're entering into the same fundraising club as these long-ago established universities. We really are fortunate to have a lot of support."

Cooksey says he is grateful that the thousands of more-recent graduates who are energetic and engaged "and they love this place."

"We just need them to continue to be successful in their careers and life," he says. "We must keep them engaged and they'll support UVU. Helping students and helping our community — that's the fun part of my job. Getting donors to support us with their dollars is fun and exciting, but it's really about what we are doing with those dollars that counts. Money is just a tool. You can have the best pen in the world, but it's not the pen that's of value — it's what you write with the pen."

The decisions behind where fundraising efforts are directed usually flow in line with the university's mission and priorities, Cooksey says. He said efforts are made to match up donors who might have an interest in current university priorities. Scholarships, he notes, are often the "easiest sell" because everyone enjoys helping students.

Cooksey says current efforts include funding a new building for the Woodbury School of Business, funding the Center for Constitutional Studies, and a final $3.5 million to finish the Noorda Center for the Performing Arts, noting that the latter is nearing completion, "so failure is not an option."

"That's where a lot of our effort is right now," he says. "But we always ask ourselves, 'Where does the donor want their money to go?' It's not just a business transaction. When a donor makes a gift, everybody wins. Donors often say, 'Thank you for doing what you do with my money.' That's pretty cool."

Cooksey says he believes President Holland has been a great asset to development activities because of his vision, personality and charisma, as well as something deeper.

"President Holland is always strategizing," he says, "and he's always very strategic in his thinking. He's always thinking about what's next. It's the same in dealing with our donors and supporters— always thinking how to get people involved. He communicates the university's mission and vision with great skill and energy."

Cooksey says he has spent a lot of time with President Holland — "you get to know someone pretty well when you travel a lot with them," — and he enjoys the attributes the president possesses. "He's genuine. He opens a lot of doors."

He says UVU is on a "great trajectory right now" and believes the next president will be able to "put their arms around it and give it their own flavor." He says he has full faith the university is on, and will continue to be on, the right track.

"We have so much momentum going, it's like a battleship. You're not to going to stop or turn this institution quickly. The momentum is strong. Of the six current vice presidents, President Holland hired five of us. We are all on board. We are cohesive and dedicated. We are going to stay on track and on task."