The University of Virginia is famous for its focus on student self-governance, a concept that puts decision making in the hands of undergraduates. Alumni, too, want to be actively involved in shaping the institution.
To capitalize on that desire, the university’s alumni association created the Jefferson Trust, inviting donors to give $100,000 and decide collaboratively how contributions are spent on projects that strengthen the student experience. Since 2005, the trust’s endowment has grown to more than $24 million, and its trustees have given out $5.5 million to support 141 projects, including efforts through the business school to help former prisoners learn entrepreneurship skills and the publication of a book of the university’s songs.
"We think of ourselves as a venture fund, start-up money for opportunities that can enhance the university in the future," says Wayne Cozart, executive director of the trust.
Funding Creative Ideas
Named for university founder Thomas Jefferson, the trust was designed to provide support for innovative ideas that receive little funding from the state and heavily restricted university coffers. Students, faculty, and administrators can submit grant proposals.
The trust’s endowment is overseen by 55 trustees who are alumni and parents of students.
"It’s using alumni in a real utilitarian way, taking their passion and moving it into real activity in a way few get to do until they’re 65 and serving on the governing board of an institution," Mr. Cozart says. "Direct interaction is something our alumni and parents find fascinating."
That interaction, plus the trust’s transparency with its grant making, appealed to Mark Pinho, a trustee from the class of 1999.
"You know where your money is going, and you have a voice in the outcome, although not necessarily control," he says. "You actually get to see how the capital makes its impact."
Trustees meet three times a year. In the fall, a grants committee whittles down the approximately 60 applications received in September by two thirds. In the winter, the semifinalists appear before the full committee. The university’s leaders also review the grants to make sure they are not "moving in a direction the institution is not interested in," Mr. Cozart says. In the spring, the grants are awarded at a reception. The trust gives 18 to 24 grants each year ranging from $2,500 to $150,000; last year, it distributed $777,000 among 18 grants.
Mr. Pinho, who works in private equity, likened the process to his investing job.
"It’s hearing pitches on lots of good ideas and deciding where to allocate capital," he says. "You have the responsibility and visibility of saying, we’re going to push it here, chase some outcomes."
To track progress, the trustees build a "report card" to measure grant outcomes and assign a trustee to serve as a mentor to the grant recipients.
"It’s a good way of keeping accountability on all sides," Mr. Pinho says.
Grants have gone to all of the university’s 11 schools. The trust has provided initial funding for a new data-science institute, a student group that advises international startups, and a new minor program in international leadership.
It has also been responsive to current events: After the university came under fire for allegations of an on-campus rape — later discredited — the president got a grant to support the creation of a curriculum to train people in sexual-assault awareness.
Diverse Points of View
The range of ages and perspectives among the trustees "makes us smart and more effective about the things we do," Mr. Pinho says. The body does not yet represent the full diversity of the university’s alumni, Mr. Cozart says, but its leaders are working to recruit minorities and people who live abroad.
About a third of the trustees are in their 20s and 30s. One of them is Grace Grundy, incoming chair of the grant committee, who graduated in 2012 with a degree in mechanical engineering. She joined the Jefferson Trust after serving on her class giving committee her senior year of college, excited about the chance to support diverse programs across the university.
"It was an opportunity for me to give back in a way that had a broad impact on the school rather than having to focus my gift on one thing," she says.
Trustees have a lot to learn from each other as they debate the merits of proposed grants. For example, if a request for funding for the university’s art museum appeals to some trustees more than others, proponents have the opportunity to advocate for it, Ms. Grundy explains.
"I might not understand art as well as the next person, and it doesn’t strike a chord with me, but there are five other people it strikes a chord with," she says. "Having the discussion helps a lot to sway me one way or another."
Mr. Cozart believes the trust is unique among university foundations. Although the University of Virginia’s special commitment to self-governance makes the trust especially effective, says Mr. Cozart, he believes it would also work at other state colleges. A few have contacted him to express interest in learning how to replicate the Jefferson Trust.
"The trust offers that opportunity to look at, weigh in on, and build a committed relationship to the institution," he says.