U looks to donations to help fill funding gap

Mega donations have boosted fundraising efforts in otherwise tough times.

by Graison Hensley Chapman

Last year the University of Minnesota Foundation raised $186 million, a four-year low. The schoolâÄôs donations arm was not alone among its peers nationwide.
But those low hauls âÄî syndromes of the recessionâÄôs long tail âÄî could see a turnaround, some experts say.
âÄúWe saw one of the largest declines in fundraising ever last year,âÄù Rae Goldsmith said of higher education fundraising nationwide.
Goldsmith is a vice president at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a trade organization that works with education institutions to improve alumni and donor relations, among other services.
But the economic upswing is already driving positive projections.
âÄúWe are hearing greater optimism,âÄù Goldsmith said. âÄúFundraisers are hearing from donors that they are having greater confidence in the direction of the economy.âÄù
Others share that outlook.
âÄúItâÄôs coming back âÄî philanthropy is coming back,âÄù said Don Fellows, president of Marts & Lundy, a fundraising consulting firm for nonprofits, the clients of which include the University. âÄúItâÄôs coming back slowly; people are making gifts.âÄù
The University, which raised record-setting or near-record-setting levels in the fiscal years from 2007 to 2009, has a recent record of netting large donations, including a $65 million gift from Minnesota Masonic Charities, a $40 million gift for diabetes research from Best Buy founder Richard Schulze and the $50 million founding donation to the Amplatz ChildrenâÄôs Hospital.
Unless the University bucks the national trend, it shouldnâÄôt count on such big donations in the short term. Apart from often taking years to negotiate, the instability of the economy still appears to have major donors spooked. Fellows noted that after peaking in 2007, university donations larger than $50 million dropped from 43 that year to just eight in 2009.
So-called âÄúmega donationsâÄù increased to 15 last year, but Fellows and Goldsmith emphasized the key to bridging the deficit is middle-range donors, or those giving between $250,000 and $1 million.
âÄòThe need is so greatâÄô
The efforts of the foundation, which occupies more than a floor of the UniversityâÄôs McNamara Alumni Center, not including its calling center, has come under increasing, if unspoken, pressure as state support of the school has consistently dropped for more than two decades.
âÄúThereâÄôs a lot more expectations and pressure on people in those positions to produce,âÄù Fellows said, âÄúbecause the need is so great.âÄù
Allocation from the Minnesota state Legislature has decreased 44 percent in the last 17 years, representing 18 percent of the current bienniumâÄôs budget.
Megan Skinner is the student manager at the foundationâÄôs call center. She said in her four years at the center, donations, solicited in amounts ranging from $25 to $300, have remained consistent despite the recession. She said her manager has increasingly emphasized keeping the center staffed as fully as possible throughout the semester to boost pledges.
âÄúThereâÄôs been a lot more pressure put on that in the last couple years,âÄù she said.
Lisa Meyer, vice president of marketing and communications at the foundation, confirmed that the role of fundraising at the University has grown.
âÄúItâÄôs not just saying that private dollars are going to have to fuel it in the future,âÄù Meyer said. âÄúThey already are.
âÄúBetween private gifts and research funding that comes from other sources, thatâÄôs primarily where the growth of the [University] budget has come from the last five years,âÄù she said, remembering one last source: âÄúâÄî and tuition.âÄù