As the university officially kicks off what it projects will be the largest fundraising initiative in university and SUNY history, UB’s new vice president of university advancement talks candidly about the thrills and challenges of steering a multiyear, comprehensive campaign to success, and what it means to be bold.
In a campus-wide celebration on April 30, President Satish K. Tripathi announced to an assembled crowd of students, faculty, staff and alumni from around the world tuning in via Facebook Live that the time had come to be bold. With the launch of the Boldly Buffalo campaign, a university-wide effort to raise $650 million to support students, faculty and the life-changing work they do for the region and the globe, President Tripathi noted the transformative potential to the university. At the time of launch, alumni, friends and community partners had committed more than two-thirds of the ambitious $650 million goal; now the university is looking to cross the finish line, in part by engaging the 255,000-plus UB alumni around the world.
For Rodney M. Grabowski, who started at UB late last year as vice president for university advancement, it’s all about personal engagement. “When alumni feel connected and a sense of ownership in UB’s success, they will seek opportunities to make personal investments,” he explains. “That’s what we’re looking to inspire. We want alumni, and others, to believe in the UB mission and to continually seek new ways to help UB advance. When this happens they have become owners of the university and they are investing for its continued greatness.”
A New York State native (he grew up just north of Syracuse), Grabowski is a highly accomplished fundraising professional who comes to UB with more than 25 years of higher education fundraising and campaign experience. Grabowski is acutely aware that inspiring greater philanthropic giving and alumni engagement means the difference between being a very good public research university and being in the highest tier of public research universities. His demonstrated record of exemplary leadership will help UB realize its ambitious and transformative goals. Plus, he believes passionately in the mission of higher education, crediting scholarships and financial aid—and hard work—with his own path to a college degree.
While part of his work will involve working with alumni and friends with the means to invest at transformative levels, Grabowski hopes the campaign will inspire all alumni to partner with the university at whatever level works for them, noting that it will only be through the collective generosity of the broader alumni community that UB will be able to realize its bold future.
At Buffalo sat down with Grabowski in April to talk about the campaign, its goals and alumni engagement.
AT BUFFALO: Could you start by giving an overview of why the Boldly Buffalo campaign is so important to UB and outline some of the broad goals?
ROD GRABOWSKI: For us, the campaign, first and foremost, is about raising awareness and creating a sense of urgency that our normal day-to-day activity does not engender. The campaign also forces us as an institution to thoughtfully think about the future, where we want to be in five, 10, even 15 years, and how we can best respond to our publics, our mission and our overarching goals. Philanthropic support is a critical way of ensuring that UB will have the resources it needs to do so; gifts from our alumni and friends are a game-changer for us.
That’s how the three overarching priority areas for our campaign—Our Students, Our Faculty and Our World—came together.
At UB, our students are at the very heart of everything we do. And we take great pride in their extraordinary achievements. By investing in them from the moment they apply to UB through graduation and beyond, we ensure that we are creating leaders who can navigate an increasingly complex world. The campaign will continue to elevate and support them as they lead the way toward a bolder, brighter future.
Support for our students comes in countless different forms. It could be anything from increased scholarship funds to experiential learning opportunities, modernizing our buildings, even the construction of the athletic field house, which is a lab for our student-athletes; it’s where they experiment and practice.
For our faculty, investments in research and scholarly activity will yield solutions to complex problems—unleashing new discoveries and creativity—and make our world a better place. Through endowed professorships and chairs in a specific discipline, or research funding, or money for the arts and humanities, our faculty are great teachers and even better thinkers. Watch the news on any given night and you’ll see a UB expert talking about something—just last night there was a faculty member who had developed a smartphone app that can help in early diagnosis of autism. That’s life-changing, and that’s what we’re investing in when we support our faculty.
The Our World bucket is focused on our outreach and impact across Western New York and beyond. Investments in UB help strengthen our partnership with the revitalized city of Buffalo and ensure that what we are learning and practicing here will lead to innovations that generate real, workable solutions to complex problems worldwide. Think of the impact our architecture and planning students have on revitalizing Buffalo; think of having the funds to send more students on service trips around the world for alternative spring break. The possibilities are endless.
Do you feel a momentum with this campaign, similar to and maybe connected to the momentum some say is accumulating around Western New York?
I do feel it. Being relatively new to Buffalo, it’s very noticeable to me that there’s a great energy around this university and the community. That’s partly what drew me to UB and this opportunity. The region, the university and the people here offer such great promise for the future. And I think that with the public launch of the campaign, we get to really catapult the energy that has been building to new, unprecedented levels.
Buffalo is more than a city. It’s a state of mind. And the University at Buffalo is more than a college campus. It’s a commitment to the region, the people in this city and to our future. The two are inextricably linked and drive the success of the other. For a public institution that connectedness is essential, and special. You don’t get that everywhere.
How is UB unique from other institutions?
I think every university is unique. UB is unique in being the flagship university in the public system here in New York and in being a member of the Association of American Universities [AAU]. I don’t know if the community or even the university completely understands how impressive that is, the rigor to get into that association in regard to your research, your faculty, the financial stability of the university … there are so many different factors. There are only two public universities in New York that are in the AAU, and that’s UB and Stony Brook. The privates: Cornell, NYU, Columbia and the University of Rochester. That’s it. I think often when you live in the neighborhood you take it for granted. Because you see it all the time, you don’t necessarily appreciate how impressive it is. UB is special. Our alumni have great pride in UB and often credit the university for the opportunities it gave them in life.
UB is as much a way as it is a place. It’s a way of seeing the world, engaging ideas, inspiring action and taking the lead. When we work together, and lift each other up, we will accomplish amazing things.
What makes the Boldly Buffalo campaign special?
We know that the future of UB is bright, but we still have big dreams, bold visions and much to accomplish in the years ahead. Our students are terrific—many of them are still the first in their families to pursue a college degree. UB’s professors are nationally and internationally renowned for their scholarship. They are dedicated teachers, mentors and researchers who share a commitment to problem-solving, making new discoveries and enhancing all of the communities we serve, all over the world. Throughout the city of Buffalo, you can see the impact UB is making, from the construction of new buildings and the creation of new jobs to programs and initiatives that ensure a brighter future for families throughout the region. The campaign showcases these opportunities and provides a road map for all of us to sustain the positive impact our university is having on the world. And it shows how UB is taking the lead and making a meaningful difference. The Boldly Buffalo campaign is our opportunity to work together to ensure that our advancements continue.
Beyond philanthropy, how does the university stay engaged with alumni and even cultivate current students to become engaged alumni once they graduate?
On the alumni side, we offer programming that draws people back into the university. It’s not about giving; it’s about being engaged in the life of the university. That could be drawing people back to Buffalo for homecoming or a UB Bulls game. It could be engaging our alumni in mentoring programs. It could be volunteer service on a UB board. It also could be participation in a regional alumni gathering or activity. We need to invite current students to be a part of the alumni engagement and philanthropic process as well, and that’s one of my priorities as we go forward over the next couple of years. I will go on record and say that we probably, for the first 20 years of SUNY’s existence, didn’t do a good job of this. I’ve recently hired two new associate vice presidents in the division, including a new AVP of alumni engagement and annual giving who has a long history of creating those engagement opportunities. Our priority moving forward is to provide meaningful and plentiful opportunities to get involved no matter where alumni are geographically or in life-stage. We want to know them, hear from them and be a part of their lives, and we want them to be a part of ours.
We read about large, seven-figure gifts in the media. What can you say to alumni who might think $10 won’t make a difference?
Think back to when you were in school. Sometimes $10 is the difference between a student going to class or having to go to work because they need money for food. That’s what I would say. Every donor matters. Every donor counts. Every dollar matters to the student. All you have to do is go down to 1Capen and start talking to students about their finances, and you’ll realize that it does matter.
What would you say to a potential donor who wants to give but isn’t sure how much or how to direct their giving?
First of all, I would want to understand what’s important to them. I don’t even want to talk about dollar amounts until I find out what’s important to the individual. It’s critical to ask questions and listen. What was their experience? Why are they interested in giving? Once we figure that out, then a prospective donor will almost always decide what’s meaningful. Because that’s what we want. We want them to give to something that’s meaningful to them. And then they’ll be able to determine a meaningful dollar amount based upon what they want to achieve.
There are so many different directions you can go here at UB. That’s what’s so powerful. You can help our faculty become better teachers. Or you can invest in public health initiatives, or in artificial intelligence research, or driverless car technology. I’ve sat across the table from people who became multimillion-dollar donors in the end, but in the beginning had no idea what they wanted to give to. They didn’t even know how to give money away. And to go on a journey with them in regard to that discovery is exciting. Philanthropic giving can be life-changing for our donors and understanding their personal motivations is key. Many want to pay it forward and help humanity. And UB offers so many opportunities for them to do this.
Do you think public universities across the country will have to rely more and more on philanthropy as state budgets get squeezed by things like the rising cost of health care?
I think that’s a given. It’s not just across the United States. It’s across the world that philanthropy is playing an increasingly important part in how universities, and nonprofits in general, deliver their mission. Universities cannot be stuck at the status quo. We always have to be assessing: How do we improve? What’s next? How do we make the experience better for our students? We’re on a journey that doesn’t have an end.
Why do you think UB will be successful in this effort?
I think UB will be successful because when we announced the campaign, we also announced that we have already raised nearly 70 percent of our total goal. More than $451 million dollars has been committed to this campaign, and upward of 10,000 people have raised their hand and said count me in, I am making my first gift to UB. And more than 100 individuals have committed gifts of over $1 million. That illustrates what I said earlier: It is people who are capable and willing to make gifts at all levels who are going to drive our success. We’ve already created more than 100 new scholarships and fellowships and added over a dozen new endowed chairs; these are faculty members we never could have brought to UB without support from our donors.
And the more I get to know UB alumni, and in fact our entire extended community, the more I know how much UB pride is out there. There is also a lot of faith in the leadership and vision at this university. We have the president and deans and a provost who are educational innovators, but are also incredibly committed to our students’ success and to ensuring that we are the kind of community partner that Buffalo and Western New York need right now.
And I have to note that we have more than 60 alumni volunteers who have stepped up and said to us: Let us help you connect with alumni and friends of the university who will help make this campaign a success. Led by alumni Dan and Gail Alexander, our campaign steering committee members are the ambassadors we need to go out and talk, in many cases from a very personal perspective or experience, about why UB is special. And why it’s worthy of investment.
Here, philanthropy is what I consider budget-enhancing; we’re not budget-balancing. It’s the perfect marriage of public and private investment, each leveraging the other.
What challenges are you and your team facing as you work to successfully finish this campaign?
As I said earlier, I think UB has not always done the best job of telling our story and keeping our alumni and community engaged with our work. Plus, it’s been nearly two decades since we have launched a campaign, so a lot of our alumni and friends don’t know what to expect in an undertaking like this. When we are looking to engender support and build meaningful relationships, all those things take time. I know from my conversations with our team, and the alumni I have been fortunate enough to meet, that there is a lot of UB pride among the alumni we know. Where we need to start building those new relationships is with those alumni who may not be attending our events or networking with other UB graduates, so we’ll be reaching out to them to learn their stories and talk about how we can build mutually beneficial relationships. None of these are challenges that are insurmountable, but it will take focus, hard work and the involvement of many to make this campaign successful.
What else would you like alumni readers to know about the campaign?
If you are already involved with UB, thank you. If you are not, take a chance, get involved. There are so many opportunities for alumni to be involved with UB and take an active role in ensuring that UB’s future is as bright as it can be. With your support, UB will be even greater, stronger and bolder than it is today. With your help, we will give more students life-changing scholarships. We will empower our faculty to think bigger and go further. With your help, we will continue to make life better for our neighbors in Buffalo and far beyond. I ask that you step forward and show the world what UB means to you. Think of all that the University at Buffalo is and all that it can be, and help shape the UB of the future. And then join me—join all of us—as champions of this great institution. Our campaign tag line says it all: This is our place, this is our way, and this is our future. Together, we are Boldly Buffalo!
UB’s volunteer campaign co-chairs have some very personal reasons for supporting UB, and championing others to do the same.
Dan Alexander (MD ’99, BA ’95) left UB in his junior year, at age 20, to become a Buffalo firefighter, the youngest in the city’s history. After seven years on the job, he helped treat a homeless man with an injured wrist. Before an ambulance took him to a hospital, the man grabbed Alexander by the collar and said, “You, sir, should be a doctor!”
The man’s words lit a fire in Alexander, who returned to UB, took night classes to finish his BA, then applied to the medical school. By this point, Dan was married to Gail (BS ’87), whom he had met at Alumni Arena, and they were starting a family. Getting accepted to medical school changed his life, says Alexander, noting that he grew up in Buffalo in a 600-square-foot house with seven siblings. “We were poor,” he recalls. “My mother didn’t give us material possessions, but I grew up with a lot of love, and she taught us the value of education.”
Dan became an orthopedic surgeon, and Gail, who holds a finance degree from UB, became practice manager of her husband’s business. The couple, co-chairs of the Boldly Buffalo campaign, are giving $1 million to endow a scholarship for medical students in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, particularly graduates of Buffalo public schools. “Our hope is that our scholarship will support inner-city kids in Buffalo—such as those from my alma mater, Hutch Tech—who want to become caring, compassionate physicians,” Alexander says. “I never forgot the chance this university gave me to succeed.”
– Mary Cochrane
UB’s Honorary campaign co-chairs are familiar and longstanding supporters—and promoters—of the university and its hometown.
Chair of the UB Council since 1998, Jeremy M. Jacobs has served UB for three decades. Jacobs, his wife, Peggy, and their family are among the university’s most generous benefactors. In 2015, they gave $30 million to support the medical school. In recognition of the families’ long-standing support, the university honored the family by naming the school the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. It was the first school naming in the university’s history.
“UB is the regional hub of artistic and cultural expression, the engine of Buffalo’s thriving medical industry and source of the city’s high-skilled workforce,” says Jacobs, who also chairs Delaware North, the global food service and hospitality company, and the board of governors of the National Hockey League (he owns the Boston Bruins). “With this campaign, we have the opportunity to magnify the university’s impact on Buffalo.”
As gifts to the campaign come in from every corner of the country, and in many different sizes and for countless different purposes, one recent alumnus reflects on what inspires him to contribute to UB’s future.
West Richter (MusB ’13, BS/MBA ’13) chose UB because it gave him exactly what he wanted: a place in the Honors College, and the ability to study music performance and business administration at the same time. “UB allowed me to pursue both my passions,” Richter says, “and ensured I had an enriching academic and extracurricular experience.”
And then it gave him even more. Transitioning to the BS/MBA program, says Richter, provided “a jump-start to graduate school and ultimately to the working world. All of that in an incredibly affordable package made it a win-win.”
Now a UB graduate, Richter is giving back in as many ways as he can.
He’s a leadership donor, an adjunct professor teaching technology management, a volunteer for the School of Management LeaderCORE program, even a singer at the school’s commencement ceremonies, where, he says, “I get to witness graduating students’ incredible talent while proudly singing the national anthem and alma mater.”
He does all this while working full time for M&T Bank and serving on the boards of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.
His hope is that his gifts will similarly inspire the next generation of graduates to make the world a better place. “I grew up on the age-old saying that we should leave things better than when we arrived,” Richter says. “That truly motivates me to continue my efforts to support UB, which has had a profound impact on my life. If it hadn’t been for the support of those who came before me and my peers, I am certain our UB experiences would not have been as rich as they were. We need to keep that legacy going.”
And for Richter and many other alumni like him, the Boldly Buffalo campaign provides an opportunity to do just that: come together and make a lasting and truly transformative impact on UB.
There is a certain expectation that comes from titling the most ambitious fundraising campaign in history Boldly Buffalo. And at UB, we start as we mean to go on. As President Tripathi kicked off the Boldly Buffalo campaign on April 30, he also announced the start of UB Giving Day 2018, a 24-hour blitz that asked members of the UB community near and far to celebrate the university’s bold future by making a gift to the university. Steaming toward a goal of 1,846 donors (in honor of UB’s founding year), challenges, matching gifts, chances for UB swag, and countless hashtags and likes later, UB Giving Day proved a smashing success and a pretty audacious start for the Boldly Buffalo campaign. Take a look at the impact: