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Class of '37 breaks fund-raising record

When President Gerhard Casper issued a challenge to get more alumni to donate to Stanford, 83-year-old Richard Bullis decided to do something about it.

A member of the Class of '37, Bullis has raised the level of giving among his classmates to "epic proportions," according to Keith Light, a staff member in the Development Office.

"Dick took the list of class members that we had and contacted every single member by telephone or letter or both," Light said. "Because of his sleuthing, he found the correct addresses for classmates whom we had been out of touch with."

A record-setting class

Bullis used his 60th-year reunion as a rallying point to encourage his classmates to give money to the university. His strategy, which included producing a bimonthly newsletter for class notes and memorials, proved extremely successful: 92 percent of his living classmates who were considered "solicitable" ­ that is, they hadn't made any special requests never to be solicited ­ donated $1,357,758 to the university.

Bullis contacted 322 members of the Class of '37 and 303 made contributions ranging from $5 to $600,000. In the process, they set a donor participation record that development officers predict will be difficult to match. The second highest record, 62 percent, was set by the Class of 1997.

In some cases, Bullis said, spouses or children donated money to honor an alumnus. And several people who entered with the class, but didn't graduate for one reason or another, also agreed to chip in.

Many of the people he called initially resisted the idea of donating to the university.

"A lot of people had negative responses at first," Bullis said. "I would tell them, 'Hey, this is for our class, the Wonder Class of 1937. This is a class gift to the university for the Stanford Fund.' People didn't know what it was, so I would explain it to them."

Oftentimes, his classmates would tell him that the check was in the mail. If a month would pass without receiving a contribution from them, Bullis would call back to remind them of their pledge.

"I just kept talking and calling and kept telling them what we were doing in each newsletter," he said. "We got a competitive feeling going, a feeling of pride in the class, and it just snowballed."

A demonstration project

Bullis says he took on Casper's challenge to prove a point: that a class-based approach toward fundraising, used by many Ivy League colleges such as Harvard and Princeton, can work well here, both in terms of raising money and cultivating life-long ties between alumni and the university.

Chris Ponce, director of the Stanford Fund for undergraduate education, said the class-based approach is gaining momentum: "I am convinced, as Dick is, that we can achieve the twin goals of fueling alumni participation and increasing giving for undergraduate education by taking a class-based approach whenever and wherever it makes sense."

Last spring, Ponce reorganized the Stanford Fund's personal solicitation program into a class-based program, with staff responsible for working with a 5-, 10- or 15-year span of classes. In previous years, the staff was organized along regional lines, for the most part, and along class lines for major reunion years.

At Reunion Homecoming Weekend, Casper presented Bullis with the Wilbur-Reynolds cup, a trophy given for the highest contribution rate of any class observing a reunion.

Bullis raised the silver trophy with one hand, pointed to the crowd with the other and shouted at the top of his lungs: "You can do it too!"

"This is all a demonstration project," he said, later. "We did it to show that it can be done."

Casper's challenge

Shortly after Casper arrived on campus in 1992, he learned that nine out of ten alumni have very positive feelings about the university. But only one alumnus out of five was doing something to support the university on an annual basis. That level of participation was 30 to 40 percent lower than at Stanford's chief competitors ­ Princeton, Harvard, Yale and MIT.

Although Stanford consistently has ranked among the top university fundraisers in the country in recent decades, it has done so in large part because of a few major donors. While large contributions are critical for the university, donors often place restrictions on their gifts to serve their philanthropic ideals.

The Stanford Fund for undergraduate education was created in 1994-95 to respond to these concerns. The fund encourages undergraduate alumni to give back to the university, regardless of the amount they can contribute. The message seems to be paying off: Undergraduate alumni participation has reached 34 percent, up from 24 percent in 1991-92.

Casper is particularly proud of the enthusiastic support generated by Bullis' class. "The Class of '37 has taken me more seriously than any other class and I am most appreciative," he said. "Stanford and its students thank the class for its exemplary support of the Stanford Fund."

Keeping in touch

Bullis says his "Wonder Class" has demonstrated that Stanford alumni are willing to support the university. The secret, he says, lies in keeping the lines of communication open between alumni and the university. For starters, he said, alumni records should be kept up-to-date and every class should produce alumni notes in each issue of Stanford magazine.

"I have talked to each and every living person in my class, with the exception of two, whom I can't find," he said. "My telephone bill has gone up $100 a month, but it's well worth it. There are some remarkable people out there. Many have clear minds and are sharp as the dickens. They want to tell their stories to someone."

As class secretary, Bullis produces the alumni notes for his class that appear in the magazine. "I am going to write 700 words on my class every issue of the magazine until I die," he said, adding that he will write as much as he can about the classes of 1917 to 1923 as well. Those classes no longer had their own secretaries, so Bullis recently decided to take them under his wing.

Last year, he also began to produce a bi-monthly newsletter from his home, which he distributes to his classmates during the months when the alumni magazine isn't published. Bullis calls himself the 'cub reporter' for the newsletter. He types up his notes with one finger and e-mails them to his classmate, Tro Harper, a writer living in Santa Rosa.

"In the last year, Tro and I have written more than 30,000 words about our classmates," Bullis said. "People like to read about themselves. They begin to remember friends and all of a sudden the class comes back together again."

On Halloween, close to 100 members of the Class of '37 and their relatives will gather at the Garden Court Hotel for a special 60th reunion. Members of the classes of 1917, 1922 and 1927 also have been invited to attend.

Bullis says he will use the event to begin rallying the Class of 1937 toward another goal: to become the first class ever to win the Wilbur-Reynolds cup two years in a row.

"We feel that if you can give one year, you can give the next year," he said. "Just wait and see."


By Marisa Cigarroa

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