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Postcard from Puebla

A student-led program in Mexico is raising awareness and millions of dollars

By Norma Aburto Lugo

One of the most gratifying things about working for a university is the opportunity to discover every day how wonderful our students are and what they are capable of doing. In fact, one student inspired our successful annual fund campaign that last year raised more than $1 million for scholarships.

It all began five years ago in the summer of 2003, when the Universidad de las Americas Puebla was attempting to implement an annual giving program for the first time in 63 years. The team in charge decided that UDLAP's first program should have a specific cause and that the final use of resources should be clear to our constituencies. Mexicans are especially interested in how their donations are used, and we wanted to respond to this concern.

Where to find the money

We thought our best option was to implement an annual fund campaign dedicated to establishing a scholarship fund. UDLAP already had an extensive scholarship program, and we knew that people liked to donate to a cause that helped others. We also decided on a face-to-face solicitation process to accomplish this, but we didn't know what department could manage such a large project. The alumni relations office would need more time to prepare for a fundraising campaign using e-mail or phone; our information technology systems couldn't handle large numbers of donations; and the development office was, and still is, a small shop, with not enough human resources. We would have to rely on volunteers to implement the campaign.

We had just begun to recruit volunteers with some positive results when we made a wonderful discovery at the financial aid office: A student had recently asked that office if he could accept external aid from a com­pany. The financial aid officer said yes and treated the donation as a scholarship. One student's idea inspired another, and by the time the development office found out about this phenomenon, close to 20 companies were already actively giving. We wanted to transform this trend into a process that could work for the annual fund.

Among other actions, we conducted a focus group with students and found out about the obstacles they were facing in asking companies for a scholarship. We understood relatively quickly how we could shape a program and what challenges and opportunities we faced. We came up with an annual fund program design and named it Beca UNE. Beca means "scholarship," and UNE is an acronym made by the words university and enterprise. Une also means "together" or "united."

Keys to success

Beca UNE was officially launched in spring 2004. We knew the development office would have to play the role of facilitator and gatekeeper of the process, as well as be attentive to both the students and the corporations involved. The following factors were keys to success.

Expanding the effort. We wanted to multiply the efforts of the individual students, but we needed to minimize the risk of having students "out there" asking for donations.

We designed an informational course that allowed us to promote the program and to provide students with Beca UNE marketing materials that shared the case statement, clarified the procedure of the program, and gave tips on how to solicit so that prospects would be confident about participating in the program.

The first question was always, "How do we identify a prospective company?" At first, the students only thought of big, transnational corporations; but that meant everyone was knocking on the same door. We recommended that the students instead go back to their hometowns and make the ask to the leading company in their region. This way, the choices would multiply and the competition among the students for the same dollars would be reduced.

Understanding companies' motivations. Each company has different reasons to give a scholarship to a student. Some­times the reason is merely a personal one: Perhaps the owner knows the student's parents, for example. In some cases the motivations are strategic and align with the company's vision and its concerns about the future.

Presently in Mexico, corporate social responsibility is becoming a focus of companies of all sizes and origins. In 2007, Instituto Tecnológico Autómo de México conducted a survey that revealed up to 30 percent of the biggest Mexican corporations participated in philanthropic causes. Education-related initiatives represented one of the top causes the private sector is willing to support.

In a country where only 14 percent of its young population finishes undergraduate education, companies are also facing the challenge of how to help universities provide quality higher education. Having capable employees is an urgent matter to solve, specifically in engineering sciences. UDLAP understands this need and tries to be very alert in identifying prospects that will join us in bringing excellent education to the future workers of their companies.

Stewardship. The development office's key role is to ensure that companies receive proper recognition, follow-up, and accountability. We provide thank-you letters and information about academic achievement of scholars, and we manage all kinds of recognition materials and activities. We even send a newsletter, Correspondencia, in which we recognize and share the results of private-sector collaboration with UDLAP.

UDLAP is also responsible for implementing payment procedures and managing incomes, sending donations receipts, and ensuring that students receive the correct scholarship amount.

Results and challenges

Beca UNE income has grown an average of 30 percent annually. In 2004, the program raised a little more than $500,000. In 2007, 221 students participated as scholars, and the program doubled its income, with 122 companies giving.

Although we understand that the money is important, we also place a high value on the education our students receive through this process. We truly believe this experience helps them grow and strengthens their capabilities. The program also allows us to promote a philanthropic culture, and we envision that in the future these students will give back to the university or other organizations.

We also consider Beca UNE to be a part of a bigger strategy with the private sector. The program can help us identify companies that can partner with UDLAP for career services opportunities, academic conferences, joint research projects, sponsorships, and academic program reviews, among others.

Universities are the providers of knowledge to the private sector, while companies can provide resources and tools to future workers. That´s the beauty of this annual giving program: We work together, united.

About the Author Norma Aburto Lugo

Norma Aburto Lugo is the director of alumni affairs and development at Universidad de las Americas Puebla in Mexico.




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