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Public Universities Up Fund-raising in an Economic Downturn

Despite the Council for Aid to Education’s prediction in 2009 that the economic downturn would cause private donations to universities to decline, public institutions like Rutgers University raised more money in 2010 than ever before. In fact, Donald M. Fellows, the president of Marts & Lundy, an advising firm for nonprofits, stated, in The New York Times article on the subject, that post secondary education is the only nonprofit sector in which he hasn’t lost business. Facing mounting state budget cuts and an infertile economic climate, public schools are pulling all the stops to survive.

However, Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, wants to stress is that the growing amount of money public schools are raising shouldn’t leave “legislatures off the hook.” Schools such as Rutgers have received more private donations by investing and focusing more than ever on fund-raising–because the state simply isn’t providing the money anymore.  SUNY’s funding, for example, was cut by $674 million: 30% over three years. Many schools, such as San Diego State University, are cutting courses, raising tuition, and, in some cases, furloughing teachers. The economic pressure is forcing schools to consolidate alumni contacts, hire fund raisers, and invest in sometimes pricey fund-raising campaigns. However, universities such as the colleges of the City University of New York, which once collectively raised 50 million a year and are now raising upwards of 200 million, show us that schools can make efforts to raise substantial sums even in our current economic climate.

But it also means that schools that didn’t rely on donations before, need it now–which means that many schools that don’t have the kind of chain of communication to alumni and other potential donors that private schools, which have relied on donations for years, have. Many public schools lack the traditions of class reunions and alumni giving back that many private schools have established. With the decrease of state funding, public schools find themselves restructuring their relationships with former students.

Likewise, universities in Australia, which have historically relied far less on donations than American universities, are now turning to private funding. In fact, Australia’s University of Melbourne recently hired fundraiser Nancy Wells, who worked with Stanford for over a decade, to take charge of its fundraising office. Like many public institutions in the US turning to private funding on a big level for the first time, Australian schools need to renew their culture around giving. For example, Wells states that, because Australian schools do not have a strong alumni culture, they must focus on establishing lines of communication to and a strong relationship with alumni before starting any fund-raising campaign.

Although students calling alumni to solicit donations has been a common practice among American schools, it’s a foreign concept to many Australian universities. However, Australia’s Bond University has started emulating this practice. Mr. Bowes, University of Melbourne’s dean stresses the importance of a personal touch, personally appealing to potential donors to support the school for reasons applicable to them,  as opposed to generalized mail-outs. University of New South Wales has also made strides in fundraising, as it has multiplied its annual donations by ten. Currently, the school is still working toward creating an identity it can sell to alumni: to stress its academic rigor,  international partnerships, and the influence the school has made as a research facility.

Rutgers has also focused on its image as presenting itself as “not a rich kids school” to donors. While dubbing their fund-raising campaign “Our Rutgers, Our Future,” the school highlights the fact most of its students were financial aid recipients and frames donating as a way of giving back. Rutgers has also invested in fund-raising events, such as its black tie gala last fall. Likewise, San Diego State has invested in an alumni center, reshaping its relationship with graduates.

State funding is and always will be important but with budget cuts, state funding is covering less and less of the costs public institutions face. Schools have struggled to let students know this, as the assumption has been public schools don’t need donations, as, in the past, the state has provided adequate financial support. Three years ago, the State University of New York at Geneseo’s conducted a survey that showed, despite the fact graduates thought of their time at the college as their “best four years,” their misconception that the school was adequately funded by the state dissuaded them from donating. In reality, the state provided only 25% of its funds–a percentage that is on the decline. Many public schools across the nation face similar situations. “We can not wait for the return of state support,” McCormick of Rutgers states. “Nor can we delay as the economy recovers.”

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