Vinnie Daboul remembers how it all started, and he tells the story often, because he says it’s important.
It was back in 1995, when Daboul, now a partner with Sage Benefit Advisers, was working for Phoenix Home Life. He was invited by someone at the Isenberg School of Management, which he attended a decade earlier, to speak to students about his work and his industry.
“As I was walking out after talking to the students, she thanked me and said, ‘by the way, would you be willing to make a donation?’” he recalled. “At the time … two little kids, a mortgage, two car payments, money was tight, but she made the ask, and I’m like ‘absolutely.’
“That was the first time I committed, and I can tell you, from that day, I’ve been engaged,” he said, summoning a word the UMass Alumni Office has been longing to hear from graduates.
And for Daboul, engagement takes a number of forms, again, like the alumni office would draw it up if it could. There are the financial donations, of course, including a scholarship he endowed several years ago in his grandparents’ name, one intended for Isenberg students from his native Pioneer Valley.
But there are also several forms of mentoring — of Isenberg students, but also those outside the business school — as well as outreach, and efforts to help graduates network, assist one another, and, quite often, do business with one another.
Jim Hunt’s story of engagement followed a similar path in many respects. A principal with Amity Street Dental in Amherst, he was in dental school at Columbia University when he was first asked to donate to his alma mater.
“As a dental student, I’m broke, I’m one of six kids who all went to graduate school, and that spread things pretty thin for my dad,” he recalled, adding that he could really only attend dental school with the help of a sizable scholarship. “Some kid on a cold call asked me to contribute to the alumni association, and I sent in $10. My second year I sent $20, my third year $30, until I got a job, when I gave $1,000.
“I’ve never missed giving in a year since 1978,” he went on, adding that his engagement has taken a number of forms over the years, from helping raise more than $800,000 to endow the track program when it was in danger of being cut (he ran track while he was a student and still holds the 800-meter record 40 years later) to providing mouthguards for a number of the school’s athletic teams on a pro bono basis.
The Jim and Ellen Hunt Hospitality Suite overlooks the end zone at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium following contributions to that effort, and there’s a ‘middle distance’ room within the facility for the track team named after one of his former teammates after contributions from Hunt and others helped fund improvements to the track and the team’s locker room, which were completed just over a year ago.
The connection you have back with your school is the most enjoyable thing about this. And people give back to something that was important to them.”
“I’m a passionate athletic supporter,” he said, adding that he’s also been a strong booster of the basketball team for more than 20 years.
Summing up all that, he joked that the connections made and kept from such engagement and giving back are far more important than the tax deductions.
“The connection you have back with your school is the most enjoyable thing about this,” he said. “And people give back to something that was important to them.”
Such is the case with Daboul, who graduated from the Isenberg School and is passionate about giving back to it and assisting its graduates.
He’s even created a group of 60 to 70 Isenberg alums from the area who meet every six to eight weeks, by his estimate, to engage and network.
“I’ve got a consistent group of about 20 right now, and we meet four or five times a year,” he said of the group he calls the Isenberg Alumni Network of Western Mass. “It’s just another way to make sure the university and Isenberg stay top of mind for alums.”
Engagement with the university and fellow alums has become a cause, or passion, for Daboul, who said that, overall, graduates of the university don’t network or “take care of each other,” as he put it, as much as alums at other schools, like those in the Ivy League, for example, seem to do.
And that’s something he says needs to change, and he’s doing his part by setting what he believes is a good example of solid, multi-faceted engagement.
“As alums, we should be finding ways to support other alums,” he told BusinessWest. “Whether you’re a chemistry major or an education major or a nursing major, we should be doing a better job of supporting one another — in multiple ways.
“Schools like Harvard and BC … one thing they do a really good job of is talking care of alums,” he went on. “We should be really focused on each other as alumni of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Massachusetts period.”
As just one example, he said the gifts he gives benefit clients are Tre Olive gift packs — the East Longmeadow-based purveyor of olive oil is owned by Isenberg graduates.
Daboul said one of the keys to creating these connections and gaining more engagement from alums is strengthening the UMass Amherst brand and creating more pride in that name.
“There are still many people my age — I’m 54 — and older who still think of this as their safety school,” he explained. “In my network of alums, we don’t like that phrase; it’s not a safety school, it’s the University of Massachusetts, and I’m proud of it.”
And by donating to the school in various ways, including financial support, alumni can help the school grow, rise in the national rankings, and, in the process of doing all that, create more pride in the institution.
“I look on what I do as an investment,” he said in summation. “Every time the university gets better, gets stronger, a rating goes up a notch … every time Isenberg moves up, that helps my diploma, it helps my daughter’s diploma, it helps the kids who are graduating this year and next year. It’s not a donation, it’s an investment.”
Hunt agreed, and cited Isenberg as an example.
“Alumni donations to that program are probably the highest,” he said, citing its dramatic climb in the rankings in recent years. “People love to see a program thrive, especially when they give to it, because they think they helped.”
That’s true with the school of management, but with the sports teams he supports as well, said Hunt, who has been putting his money where his mouth is — and where student athletes’ mouths are as well.
— George O’Brien