PART 1: VOLstarter program connects alumni, aspiring entrepreneurs

UT Knoxville(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series on the VOLstarter program launched by the Office of Alumni Affairs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

The Office of Alumni Affairs at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville was seeking new ways to better connect with alumni, particularly younger ones. In the process of deciding on the best approach, it has developed a unique way to also help faculty, staff and students.

The program, appropriately named VOLstarter, adopts a very popular model of engaging non-traditional investors in interesting and worthwhile projects.

“It’s a crowdfunding platform modelled after Kickstarter and Indiegogo,” said Lance Taylor, UT’s Director of Annual Giving and Student Philanthropy. While focused on alumni, anyone can contribute.

Since VOLstarter’s launch on November 17, a total of $58,815 has been raised for 59 projects, according to Kristen Watt, Assistant Director of Annual Giving, who works with the program.

“We drew 652 donors with 230 of them being first-time givers,” she added.

These statistics check two key boxes – involving new donors and helping fund worthwhile projects submitted by faculty, staff and students.

“It’s reaching the people we want to reach,” Taylor said.

The 42 projects were equally divided between those led by students and those submitted by faculty or staff. Watt added that those led by faculty or staff still benefit students.

One of the projects was funding to support the College of Communication and Information’s “Medal of Honor” initiative, an effort previously profiled on

“We were able to get about $2,800 pledged on a $1,500 ask,” said Nick Geidner, the Assistant Professor of Journalism who spearheaded the “Medal of Honor” effort that captured interviews with many of the living recipients of the award and chronicled the annual “Medal of Honor” convention last year in Knoxville.

Geidner’s students produced a documentary that was unveiled March 26 and distributed on DVDs.

“This money (from VOLstarter) completely covered the cost of the DVDs and allowed us to purchase some new equipment that we are using to shoot additional video projects and documentaries for the East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association, the Boys and Girls Club of the Tennessee Valley, and the Metropolitan Drug Commission.”

In another instance, an alumnus living in Florida who had never made a donation to the University contributed $5,000 to the “Systers: Women in EECS” project. The monies were needed to produce a commercial to help recruit more women into engineering disciplines.

“For most student organizations, finding funding for specific projects is the most difficult part of what we do,” said Jessica Boles, a senior in electrical engineering and Vice President of the Systers group. “VOLstarter provides an entirely new way for us to raise funds – no matter how little or how much. The work Kristen is doing is a game-changer for student organizations.”

NEXT: How to submit a project and what to expect.

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