In memoriam: Elizabeth Flanagan, former vice president for development and university relations
February 22, 2021
Elizabeth A. “Betsy” Flanagan, who served as Virginia Tech’s vice president for development and university relations from 2000 to 2015 and oversaw the university’s first billion-dollar fundraising campaign, died on Feb. 16. She was 68.
“Betsy’s influence was transformative, leading Virginia Tech’s fundraising and university relations during a period of tremendous growth,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Her impact can be seen in buildings that bear the names of philanthropists; the ongoing relationships she fostered with alumni, partners, and friends; and the university’s advancing national profile during her tenure. Hokie Nation will always remember her commitment and dedication to Virginia Tech and our vision for the future.”
Flanagan was the first woman to head fundraising at the university, and immediately began laying the groundwork for what would become The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future. After a four-year quiet phase, the campaign launched with a $1 billion goal in October 2007, despite consultants recommending a more conservative target of $800 million or less. By June 30, 2011, when campaign counting stopped, $1.11 billion in outright gifts, pledge payments, or commitments of future support had been raised.
Flanagan’s tenure saw major growth in the university’s fundraising operation, which averaged about $46 million in yearly gift income over the five years before her arrival and over $85 million over her last five years in the position.
“Betsy made a tremendous impact on Virginia Tech,” said Charlie Phlegar, the university’s vice president for advancement, who succeeded Flanagan in overseeing fundraising and university relations. “She nearly doubled the average amount of gift income that was being received. She increased the size of our fundraising staff, the scope of our ambition, and the possibility of what we could achieve.”
Ray Smoot worked closely with Flanagan while heading the Virginia Tech Foundation, which manages the university’s endowment.
“I have the highest regard for Betsy’s professionalism and work ethic,” said Smoot, who retired as CEO and secretary-treasurer of the foundation in 2012. “Betsy’s drive, leadership, and skill helped marshal resources that have fueled discoveries, broadened access to higher education, and enhanced our university’s ability to reach out into communities across Virginia and beyond to improve lives.”
As vice president for development and university relations, Flanagan’s team also included the university’s communications and public relations professionals. During her tenure, university relations launched the Invent the Future brand that helped highlight Virginia Tech as a major research institution. Flanagan’s team responded to numerous unprecedented communications needs following the tragic events of April 16, 2007. She personally helped get coordination underway for A Concert for Virginia Tech, an event that brought the university community together in September 2007.
"Betsy had an inner happiness that radiated through her work and personal life,” said Larry Hincker, associate vice president for university relations and spokesperson emeritus, who was university spokesperson and the senior communications officer throughout Flanagan’s tenure. “She was a joy to be around. I can hardly recall a time when she was not full of smiles and cheerfulness. Yet, she was a goal driven professional who broke barrier after barrier, whether in finance, higher education, or marathon runs.”
Flanagan grew up in Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Bethany College, majoring in Spanish and sociology, and receiving magna cum laude distinction. She would later earn her master’s in social work from West Virginia University, with a focus on gerontology, and her Ph.D. in higher education administration from the University of Virginia, where she minored in business, trusts, and estates.
Flanagan began her career at Ferrum College, progressing from assistant director of admissions to executive assistant to the president within four years. She then worked at Crestar Bank in Richmond, advancing to become vice president for trusts and estates before returning to work in higher education.
Flanagan served in positions of progressive responsibility in fundraising at the University of Virginia from 1991-2000, starting as director of planned giving and leaving as assistant vice president for development and director of individual, major, and planned gifts. Through much of her career, Flanagan also served as an adjunct faculty member at several institutions, teaching gerontology, organizational development, and higher education.
“She was one of the noblest people I have known, and the most conscientious, and the wisest,” said John Casteen, who was president of the University of Virginia during Flanagan’s time there. “Her work here and at Virginia Tech was always ambitious and always successful. She leaves powerful evidences of her successes in both of our universities.”
While at the University of Virginia, Flanagan met William H. “Bill” Goodwin, Jr., who had earned his graduate degree at the school and was highly involved through boards, committees, and philanthropy. After moving to Virginia Tech, Flanagan helped secure a then record gift of $25 million to the university’s College of Engineering from Goodwin, who had earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering in Blacksburg.
“I deeply appreciate Betsy’s substantial and incredibly dedicated service to both my alma maters,” Goodwin said. “She had a passion for education and an extraordinary skill at building relationships that were far more than transactional. Her attention to detail was matched by her genuine, personal warmth, and she will be greatly missed.”
Goodwin Hall was one of many Virginia Tech buildings and prominent spaces named in recognition of philanthropy during Flanagan’s tenure.
Gene Fife chaired the quiet phase of The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, and made a lead gift to name the Anne and Ellen Fife Theatre within the university’s Moss Arts Center, which opened in 2013.
“She was a remarkable person on many fronts and I enjoyed working with her on the campaign we conducted a few years ago,” Fife said of Flanagan. “I will always remember her as being incredibly bright, well organized and focused, and most of all a wonderful person to work with.”
Flanagan helped foster tremendous growth in membership of the university’s Ut Prosim Society of extraordinarily generous donors and Legacy Society of those who include the university in their estate plans. She created the President’s Circle within the Ut Prosim Society to recognize donors who have given more than $1 million. Recognizing the growing role of female-directed philanthropy, Flanagan championed the inclusion of women on key volunteer boards and committees at the university. She launched an initiative called Women in Leadership and Philanthropy, and also made a point of connecting with other women in leadership positions at Virginia Tech.
“Betsy was very influential in my life,” said Angela Hayes, associate vice president for advancement and campaign and sesquicentennial director for Virginia Tech’s Advancement Division. “She helped create a lot of opportunities for me to grow, as a person and a professional, impressing upon me the importance of being kind to all and to work intentionally and with integrity, doing the same for many other women over the course of her career.”
Flanagan had a framed quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson hung in her office as a daily reminder of the motto she lived by, Hayes recalled. The quote read: “Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
It was a mindset of Flanagan’s cited by many others who knew her as well.
“Betsy was a pioneer in fundraising at Virginia Tech and beyond and will be greatly missed because of her passion for people,” said Cindy Ingram, who served on the board of Women in Leadership and Philanthropy initiative. In 2016, an endowed lecture fund created by members of the initiative was renamed in Flanagan’s honor.
Flanagan was preceded in death by her husband, H. Michael Mitchell III, who died in 2016. She passed away on what would have been their 25th wedding anniversary.
A private memorial service is planned. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to the Virginia Tech Foundation Inc. for the Elizabeth A. “Betsy” Flanagan Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Endowed Lecture Fund, 902 Prices Fork Road, Blacksburg, VA 24060; or to the Purow Laboratory/UVA Neuro-Oncology Fund c/o Erica Cook and Norman Tillman, UVA Division of Neuro-Oncology West Complex, 1215 Lee Street, Charlottesville, VA 22908.