Laying the Foundation
How the UW Alumni Association paved the way for private giving to the UW

Very few public universities reached out to alumni for donations in the early 1960s. It was a radical idea at the time, but the University of Washington has always been a forward-thinking institution.

Enrollment had reached record numbers by the 1960s, but state support for the University’s general fund had been declining for years. Campus leaders recognized the UW could benefit from organized fundraising, but this would be a major culture change for the University.

Who was going to step up and lead this daunting task?

The Alderbrook Congress

The UW Alumni Association played a key role in getting these early efforts off the ground. In 1964, a select group of 85 UWAA officers and trustees, presidents of regional alumni clubs, and UW representatives were invited to the Alderbrook Inn on Hood Canal for a special three-day retreat.

What became known as the “Alderbrook Congress” solidified the UWAA’s mission to support higher education at the University of Washington and, ultimately, ushered in the modern era of private support for the UW.

On the heels of the Alderbrook Congress, the Alumni Association established the Washington Alumni Fund in 1966. This innovative approach to fundraising tapped alumni for private gifts rather than relying on corporations, foundations and other organizations that had traditionally given large gifts to the University. Both the UW and UWAA would be forever changed.

Paid membership in the Alumni Association tripled during the 1960s and backing for the Alumni Fund grew from initial skepticism to enthusiastic support. In 1967, $38,000 was raised for the Alumni Fund, representing less than one percent of the $4.7 million in total private gifts to the University that year.

Just a decade later in 1977, support for the Alumni Fund (renamed the Annual Fund in 1973) reached $2.7 million—an impressive 22 percent of the UW’s total private support.

The message was clear: alumni wanted to give back.

The Alumni Fund

UW President Charles Odegaard in 1962 tapped Robert (Bob) Waldo, ‘47, to head the new Office of Planning and Development. Waldo was influential in organizing the Alderbrook Congress and outlined its agenda; namely, what is the Alumni Association and why does it matter?

After three fruitful days of discussion, participants agreed that a priority function of the UWAA was to “promote scholarships and other fundraising to benefit the University and its students.” The meeting generated so much momentum for change, in fact, that the UWAA printed a brochure titled “Why Alumni?” and mailed it to all 48,000 graduates for whom the Association had a current address.

This brochure highlighted four ways alumni could get involved: join the UWAA and pay membership dues to support it; help locate former students whose addresses were not in the Association’s files; become active in regional alumni clubs; and volunteer for UWAA programs and events.

The call to volunteer gave birth to the Alumni Fund itself—a joint effort by the UW and UWAA to develop an organized fundraising program. To get the fund off the ground, the Alumni Association combined direct mail appeals with personal contacts by more than 300 volunteers in regional alumni groups. The UWAA also launched a marketing campaign that included newspaper ads, public service announcements on local radio stations and during Husky football games, and articles in the alumni magazine.

Visionary Leadership

Initially, the Alumni Fund generated both support and confusion among graduates. There was a clear lack of understanding about why the UW needed private support at all.

John F. Behnke, ’50, was the first chair of the volunteer Alumni Fund Board, and the entire Behnke family played a huge role in the UWAA’s early efforts to build momentum and raise money. In addition to John Behnke, who also served as UWAA president from 1970-71, his brother Robert Behnke, ’43, was UWAA president from 1962-64. Bob’s wife, Sally, ’44, was a stalwart in supporting the UW and UWAA. Their work helped establish the UW Foundation in 1988, which supports student scholarships and other critical efforts at the UW. The UW Foundation ranks as one of the most successful fundraising organizations in the nation.

It all began with the Alumni Fund, but even that wasn’t the UWAA’s first attempt at fundraising. Husky “crew drives” that began in the 1920s raised money to buy equipment and send the senior and junior varsity crews to national and regional competitions. They were highly organized three-day efforts.

In 1958, the UWAA mounted one of its most aggressive fund drives to send the crew team to the prestigious Royal Henley Regatta in England. The Huskies lost that race to a powerhouse Soviet team, but then went on to Moscow as part of a pre-arranged cultural exchange. They were the first American team to go behind the Iron Curtain, and they beat the Soviets in a race that was broadcast live, by radio, back to Seattle. John Bisset, ’58, was coxswain of that historic championship team.

Bisset, along with classmates and friends Chuck Alm, ’58, and Artie Buerk, ’58, were catalysts for the UWAA’s resurgence in the 1960s and 70s. By the time Bisset left as UWAA director in 1979, membership had tripled to 22,500 and the UWAA had established a host of lifelong learning opportunities.

Buerk, who took over the Alumni Fund in 1968, used grassroots organizing to build the foundation for the UW’s modern fundraising success. He created a legitimate business plan, and among other initiatives organized local phone-a-thons in which alumni from various cities would call other grads in their area to ask for support. Buerk launched the Planned Giving program and several donor recognition clubs, most notably The President’s Club.

When Buerk left the UW in 1977 to pursue other career paths, total private support for the UW was $15 million—three times what it had been a decade earlier. Buerk continued to volunteer for the UW and served as UWAA president from 1988-89. He was a founding director of the UW Foundation.

Modern Philanthropy

Today, the UWAA comprises 55,000 members—making it one of the largest dues-paying alumni associations in the country. Since its founding in 1889, the same year Washington became a state, the UWAA has helped give alumni and friends the opportunity to give back. The UW received its first gift for an endowed chair in 1979: $1 million from former regent Dorothy S. Bullitt for the Scott and Dorothy Bullitt Chair of American History. The second endowed chair soon followed, with gifts from hundreds of donors honoring Dr. Robert Williams of the School of Medicine.

In 1980, The Boeing Company gave $500,000 to create the Boeing Endowment for Excellence—a momentous statement of support from the private sector that reflected confidence in the University. The UW in 1989 publicly launched its first major fund drive, the Campaign for Washington, providing a vehicle for thousands of alumni to engage with the University. In 2008, the UW concluded its second major fund drive, Campaign UW: Creating Futures, which raised an astonishing $2.68 billion. In both cases, alumni support was outstanding.

A lot has changed in the 125 years since the UW Alumni Association got its start, but one thing has remained the same: alumni have helped make the University of Washington the world-class institution it has become.

Derek Belt, ’04, ’11, is a frequent contributor to Columns. UW Historian Antoinette Willis, ’75, provided the historical research for this article.

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