The Secret to Successful Fundraising

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Adrienne Vargas Leads San Diego State University’s Campanile Foundation to New Heights
On her first walk across San Diego State University’s campus, Adrienne Vargas knew she was in the right place. “Just being around all those students with so much energy, positivity and excitement I thought, ‘This is really cool,’” she recalled.

In 2017, after 20 years at the San Diego Foundation, Vargas moved to SDSU where she is vice president of University Relations and Development, and president and chief executive officer of The Campanile Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm. Under her leadership, SDSU raised almost $116 million in fiscal 2018-19, a school record that may be surpassed this year.

Working with The Campanile Foundation’s 31 diverse board members makes Vargas happy. “They are people who care about San Diego and the future of education,” she said. Most of SDSU’s graduates remain in the region where they serve in every conceivable capacity. “Few institutions have the kind of connection that SDSU has with the San Diego community,” Vargas observed.

President and CEO of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Jerry Sanders, an SDSU alumnus, is The Campanile Foundation Board Chair. He has also been San Diego’s police chief and mayor, and has served on more boards than he can name. The Campanile Foundation Board, he said, might be his all-time favorite. Sanders said he enjoys working with board members who represent a cross section of San Diegans. Through them he learns more about their communities while together they discover how SDSU serves San Diego.

“At every board meeting there is a student and often a professor speaking about their research or their experience or about what they are involved in at the university. It is always exciting,” he said. “I look forward to that because it drives home the fact that what we are doing is important for those kids, many of whom are first-generation students.” Sanders describes Vargas as “a people person” who has learned how to form relationships. “It is all about relationships,” he said.

Vargas agrees. “Being a good fundraiser is being able to develop strong long-term relationships with people,” she said. “It is being a good listener and learning what is meaningful to them and presenting them with opportunities to make a difference in someone’s life or in the community.”
Both corporations and individuals respond to her philosophy. Southwest Airlines, for example, supports SDSU’s Office of Educational Opportunity Programs and Ethnic Affairs which serves high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds and historically underserved communities. Recently Mrs. Dianne Bashor, a donor unaffiliated with the university, made a $15 million gift to help SDSU build a new stadium that will serve the San Diego region.

“I think The Campanile Foundation Board and other donors feel their dollar really makes a difference,” said Vargas. “At San Diego State you can be much closer to the mission,” she explained. “At other places you are a step removed from the mission. SDSU is where the work is being done, so you see the faculty member talk about her research or the student athletes playing their sports. I feel like I am so close to it.”
That is why, when she can, Vargas still takes a stroll to recapture what she felt on that first walk across campus and remind herself why she came to SDSU. “It sounds really corny,” she said, “but it is invigorating to be around that youthful spirit and optimism.”

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Esteban Villanueva