The Big Gift W&L’s 25th and 50th reunion classes consider their legacies as the milestone weekend approaches.
“What makes the 25th and 50th reunion gifts special is the opportunity for the classes to decide what their collective legacy is going to be to W&L,” says Jessica Cohen, W&L’s 25th reunion gift officer, who has overseen the 25th reunion gift campaign since 2006. She’s right — each class goes through a yearlong process of identifying and building their legacy.
The tradition of organized reunion gift campaigns began at W&L in 1986, when the classes of 1936 and 1961 were celebrating their 50th and 25th reunions. Today, gifts and payments made on reunion pledges are essential to W&L, accounting for about 65 percent of the total that undergraduate alumni give each year. Much of that giving supports the Annual Fund.
Gifts that alumni make in their 25th and 50th reunions, however, are different in that the classes decide on an area outside of the Annual Fund that they will focus on collectively. That’s where the legacy comes into play. These large reunion gifts often are instrumental in seeing a new building built or an endowment named.
This year, for the first time in at least a decade, both classes in the big reunion years — Class of 1992 and Class of 1967 — will be focusing their class gifts on students. It’s not only the gift area that brings character to the class gifts, though. The classes themselves, with their distinct personalities and different stages of life, always make the big reunions and the fundraising that surrounds them exciting.
Bob Priddy ’67, co-chair of the 50th Reunion Committee, was excited and somewhat surprised at the level of enthusiasm generated when a committee of class members met on campus in November 2016 to discuss their gift. Classmates, some of whom had been only acquaintances in college, became energized reminiscing with each other about W&L and what the school had done for them.
“As we discussed what the university and its students need and how we could make a difference, it became clear that offering scholarship support is a major need for students,” says Priddy. The cause is personal for this particular class. “Many of us came to W&L from public schools,” says co-chair Mac Holladay ’67. “Our families went the extra mile to see that we got the very best education. While W&L was all white and all male in 1963, we did represent a wide spectrum of socio-economic realities. When we came together 25 years ago, there was clear consensus that we wanted to do what we could to see that young men and women were given a similar chance to enjoy the privilege of attending W&L.” At their 25th reunion, the class created the Class of 1967 Scholarship. Now they intend to add $1 million to the scholarship in honor of their 50th reunion. If they succeed, theirs will be the largest class-funded scholarship at W&L today.
Similarly, the Class of 1992 25th Reunion Committee thought hard about a number of different areas before deciding on a student-focused gift. They created the Class of 1992 Summer Opportunities Fund, with a $500,000 goal. It will support students in summer pursuits that further their academic and professional interests. “The world has changed a lot since our time in Lexington,” comments co-chair Caroline Wight Donaldson ’92. “Real-world experience is no longer a ‘nice to have’ when finding your first job after college — it’s a requirement.” Like their fellow alumni from 1967, the Class of 1992 leaders felt it was important to support students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford these experiences. “We want students to find summer opportunities that further their academic and professional interests, without worrying about how they will cover their expenses,” says Donaldson.
While the classes in the two big reunions have similarities in the student focus of their reunion gifts, like all the 25th and 50th reunion classes before them, their journey leading up to Alumni Weekend is very different.
The 25th reunion is a high-energy, focused fundraising effort. The finish line — Alumni Weekend — creates a sense of urgency; typically 45 percent of the reunion gift is committed in the eight weeks preceding the big weekend. During an assembly in Lee Chapel on Saturday morning, the reunion co-chairs for each class present their gifts to the president. This can make for an intense final week; competitive donors have been known to up their pledges in the final days in order to hit the goal or break a record.
Although reunions are by nature backward-looking, the 25th reunion has a way of propelling each class forward in their relationship with W&L. Donaldson hopes that beyond the fun and reconnecting nature of the 25th reunion, it also will cause the class to “remember how much we took away from our time in Lexington — and to collectively recommit to W&L for the next 25 years and beyond.”
Co-chair Wali Bacdayan ’92 points out that though the class graduated in an era before the proliferation of communication technology, their gift speaks directly to the very different future that today’s and tomorrow’s W&L students must navigate. “The career and academic opportunities that I see students pursuing today seem far more impressive and unique than anything I can remember was available when I was at W&L,” he says. Support for summer opportunities is a need that didn’t exist in 1992, and the class is proud to meet it. “The impact of our gift will be personal and direct for individual students, across what we hope will be many classes to come,” continues Bacdayan.
If the 25th reunion is a lively salsa, the 50th reunion is a long waltz. “Many alumni start thinking about their 50th reunion as soon as the 45th passes,” says Ronni Gardner, the longtime W&L development officer who staffs the 50th reunion. W&L follows the typical practice of beginning to count gifts toward the 50th reunion in the five years leading up to it. “Sometimes it makes financial sense for the donor to make their gift before their 50th reunion year. We always want to be conscious of what is best for the donor, so we don’t ask them to delay their gift just because they want it to count in celebration of their 50th reunion.”
Many alumni approaching their 50th reunion have started individual scholarships or developed their own philanthropic passions at the university. For this reason, the 50th reunion class’s overall gift, in addition to including gifts to the Annual Fund and to a chosen project, usually includes a high ratio of gifts that classmates choose to make to other areas of campus. Planned gifts play a starring role, on average accounting for 47 percent of the 50th reunion gift. These can be personal and complex gifts, worked out between the donor and the university individually, sometimes over years.
This year’s 50th reunion class is unusual in that a high percentage of its members are the steady, consistent supporters that college administrators dream of. For the past decade they have swept W&L’s awards for the class with the highest percentage of members participating in the Annual Fund. Their participation rate has been known to top out at more than 80 percent. (By comparison, W&L’s overall alumni participation rate — among the highest of any college or university in the nation— claims 54.7 percent as its highest point ever.)
“Though many in our class may not have the resources for large annual gifts, we have been consistent in supporting the Annual Fund,” says Priddy, who has served as longtime class agent. That consistency is one reason the fundraising prognosis for their class scholarship is encouraging, for modest but consistent annual donors become stars in the planned giving arena. “We have learned how some can make significant gifts way beyond what we may have thought possible, and this will help the endowment continue to grow,” says Priddy.
While all reunions are nostalgic and reflective, the interplay of past and present surrounding the 50th reunion is perhaps sharpest. The perspective of 50th reunionists is a reminder of how small each one of us is, and yet how important our actions are. “In so many ways the Class of 1967 was innocent and protected when we came to W&L,” says Holladay. “We were both insulated and isolated in Lexington during those years. Many of us went on to military service immediately after graduation and saw a world we never knew existed. The global reality came quickly to us, and now it is a part of everyone’s life. This country needs committed and well-educated citizens, and our class believes that in some small way we can help one student at a time.”
In the end, that’s a fine legacy to leave.