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Heavy Lifting

How the class of ’68 pulled together and set a new giving record

John Bello, Nancy Sambul, and Tony Cortese

For Nancy Gurwitz Sambul, J68, it all started with a photo. In the summer of 2012, she noticed a picture of seven of her female classmates in this magazine and started daydreaming about seeing them at their fiftieth reunion. Then she read the accompanying article and learned that two of the women had recently died. “Who else is going to die in the next five years whom I’m going to regret not having stayed in touch with?” she asked herself.

Sambul picked up the phone and started calling friends, asking them to meet her at their forty-fifth reunion. And when she was invited to join the reunion committee, she immediately agreed. What followed was a whirlwind of social networking—and a remarkable class achievement. A recordbreaking forty-three percent of the class of 1968 made a gift to Tufts in honor of their forty-fifth reunion. And thanks to various challenges the university offers to inspire reunion giving, two $10,000 class of 1968 scholarships were created for current students in need of financial aid.

Along the way, a lot of old friends reconnected. “We just had wonderful conversations,” says Sambul, who is the executive director of the Jersey City Library Literacy Program.

In her Tufts days, Sambul was “very social”: president of the freshman class, field hockey player, stage actor. She majored in math and, after Tufts, earned a law degree and an M.B.A. Her combination of strengths—knowing people and knowing numbers—helped her see the importance of a key element in the reunion effort: the class participation rate.

That rate—the percentage of alumni who make a gift, of any size, to their alma mater in the course of a year—is widely seen as a measure of alumni satisfaction. Influential publications like U.S. News & World Report factor the alumni participation rate into their annual rankings of colleges and universities. And the rate guides foundations and corporations in decisions about which institutions deserve their support.

Participation rates vary widely from one institution to another. At Tufts, the average participation rate for all classes is twenty percent.

The class of 1968 decided to aim high. They would try to break the participation record for a Tufts forty-fifth reunion, which stood at thirty-seven percent. That would bring Tufts closer to the participation rates of schools like Dartmouth, raising the bar for other Jumbo classes and elevating Tufts’ stature nationally. The competition was on.

Sambul and other members of the reunion committee divided up their class list. “It all boils down to personal contact,” says one committee member, John Bello, A68, A13P, who sits on the Athletics Board of Advisors, is a longtime advocate for Tufts, and is the former president of NFL Properties and founder of the SoBe brand of beverages. “These days it’s easy to do, with email, phone, postcards, Facebook.”

The committee also offered incentives for classmates to make a gift in honor of their reunion. First, there was the so-called Everyone Counts challenge, in which a $10,000 scholarship in the class’s name is made available to all reunion classes by an anonymous alumnus—but with a catch. For a class to qualify, fifty of its members would have to make their first gift of the year between April 1 and the reunion, in mid-May. Not only was the class of 1968 the first to meet that challenge, but it rounded up another fifty qualifying donors and earned a second $10,000 scholarship.

As they stretched to reach these goals, committee members used a combination of old-fashioned networking, social media, and online searches. They found “lost” alumni and updated contact information for many more, making it easier for members of the class to connect with each other and with Tufts.

Bello, who majored in history at Tufts while on a Navy ROTC scholarship and went on to earn an M.B.A., organized his fellow Delta Upsilon fraternity brothers to create a scholarship of their own. They raised $50,000, which the university matched through its current Financial Aid Initiative, to create a $100,000 endowed scholarship. “My hope is this will be something for each Delta Upsilon class to work against, as a tradition,” Bello says. “It creates a legacy in their name.”

2013 Alumni participation rates

Bello’s larger goal is to inspire other alumni, whether in reunion classes or not, to support Tufts and strengthen its ability to educate tomorrow’s active citizens. Giving to the university has been a high priority for Bello and his wife, Nancy, J69, A13P. They funded the Nelson Gateway Garden at the Tisch Sports and Fitness Center, as well as the first artificial-turf field on campus. “Tufts has everything going for it except sufficient financial resources to effectively compete for primacy among America’s most elite academic institutions,” John Bello says. “As graduates, Nancy and I are concentrating the bulk of our philanthropy on Tufts because we believe focus here will have the greatest impact.”

Eye on Financial Aid

In its fundraising efforts, the class was determined to make a lasting impact. The best way to do that, the committee decided, was by strengthening financial aid. “It’s so difficult for families to cope with college costs,” says Anthony Cortese, E68, EG72, a committee member who sits on the Tufts Board of Trustees and was formerly dean of environmental programs at Tufts. “We really wanted to increase the scholarships available for students at Tufts.”

It’s a strategy that not only helps the students who receive aid, but improves the overall Tufts experience and Tufts’ competitive standing, Cortese says. Currently, some other institutions can provide more generous financial aid packages, so “when it comes down to getting the best students, we could lose out.”

Cortese knows something about financial aid. A kid from an “inner-city, blue-collar” family in Boston’s North End, he was a beneficiary. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering as a commuter student at Tufts and went on to earn a doctorate in environmental health sciences. Cortese says the diversity at Tufts changed his life and can help other young people become more “cosmopolitan, caring, and tolerant.” Besides serving as a Tufts dean, Cortese was formerly the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and president of Second Nature, a Boston-based nonprofit advocacy organization he cofounded to promote sustainability through higher education. He is now a senior fellow at Second Nature.

Beyond gratitude for his education, Cortese has another reason for wanting to give back to Tufts: he credits Tufts Medical Center and the Tufts University School of Medicine with his current good health. Three months after becoming the Massachusetts DEP commissioner in 1979, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia. “If it weren’t for the experimental protocols developed by medical school faculty and others,” he says, “I would not be alive today.”

Cortese serves on boards and committees for Tufts to ensure that future generations have the opportunities he enjoyed, or even better ones, as the university continues to develop. He has helped organize nearly every reunion since his graduation. “Because of the nature of the work I’ve done, I don’t have the ability to contribute large sums of money, but I always make a gift,” he says. “I also bring other things to the table—ideas, connections, enthusiasm. I can help organize people, and I can be a positive spokesman for the institution. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

Person to Person

Asking for money isn’t always easy, but Nancy Sambul says she was very comfortable seeking support for Tufts. Her father, Jack Gurwitz, A34, M38, was a class gift officer before her, and taught her the importance of sustained giving. “I’ve always given, except for a few years in law school and when I was clerking and couldn’t afford to,” she says. “My father told me, ‘So few people give. If everybody in the class gave something, we would do better.’”

For those receiving the request, being asked directly by someone they knew often meant the difference between a no and a yes. “Quite candidly, the only reason I supported this effort and the class gift was because of friendship with John,” says Peter Marshall, E68, a retired rear admiral with the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps who connected with Bello as a fellow Tufts Navy ROTC graduate. “I felt supporting him was appropriate. I was glad to see it was intended as a scholarship.”

For Bello, Marshall’s gift was particularly meaningful because the classmates had a chance to talk about Tufts’ current support of the ROTC program. “Peter was surprised to learn that Tufts reinstituted the NROTC program that made it possible for him to go to Tufts but was removed from campus in the turbulent sixties,” Bello says. “My call helped him reengage, recognizing that the university was doing the right thing.”

Like Marshall, Herbert (Hank) Towle, A68, hadn’t considered financial support for the university a priority—until Bello asked him to make a gift to the Delta Upsilon scholarship. Towle, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Dental Corps and retired professor at the University of Florida College of Dentistry, says he received “a great education in spite of myself ” at Tufts and has for a decade interviewed prospective students for undergraduate admissions. But it took the combination of knowing his gift would go toward a scholarship in his fraternity’s name, learning about the dollar-for-dollar match, and being asked by someone he knew to inspire him to give.

“John and his persistence did it all,” he says. “He puts his heart into the mission. Eventually, I said, ‘OK, sign me up.’”

For Bob Budnick, E68, the class reunion inspired a mini-reunion of a dozen fraternity brothers from Theta Delta Chi. Together with many of their spouses, they attended a few Tufts events but spent most of their weekend off campus, catching up and reminiscing. “We had a blast,” Budnick says. “After spending just a short time together it was like we’d never left Tufts and the fraternity house.”

Plans for their gathering started with a few fraternity brothers emailing each other to ask if they were going to the reunion. Then Budnick asked the reunion committee for an address list and got in touch with other fraternity members who agreed to join in the fun. After visiting their former fraternity house together, some of the classmates are talking about helping to restore the building, which Budnick says has fallen on difficult times. He is grateful that the reunion served as an impetus for them to get back together. “It was a shame that we had gone all these years with no concerted effort to maintain strong relationships,” he says. “We told the current brothers we saw at the house, ‘Don’t let it happen to you.’”

Budnick’s reconnection with his fraternity brothers is just one example of the sort of engagement needed to boost class participation rates. Bello hopes other classes will follow the model of the class of 1968, or find their own ways to support Tufts. “As alumni, we all have a responsibility to improve and enhance the Tufts experience through sustained giving, however large or small,” he says. “It is our legacy.”

How You Can Help. Boost your class’s participation rate directly by making a gift—visit giving.tufts.edu/make_a_gift for details. Or join the Tufts Fund Gift Officer Program, a volunteer-based, annual-giving fundraising initiative that helps you reconnect with classmates while supporting the continued growth of Tufts. Contact Melissa White, Director, Tufts Fund for Arts, Sciences & Engineering, 80 George Street, Medford, MA 02155, 617.627.5335, melissa.white@tufts.edu.