In tough times, 'U' pushes forward with fundraising efforts

By Kyle Swanson, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 15, 2009

Facing an economy filled with tight wallets and the word recession in the air, many colleges across the country are cutting back on their fundraising and development staffs. But in an interview yesterday, Vice President for Development Jerry May said the University isn’t following the trend.

May said although the current economic picture has made it more difficult for fundraisers, the University continues to make fund development, which raises money for the University’s endowment and special projects.

“We continue to put an emphasis on fundraising and private support because it means the difference between a good university and a great university,” he said. “We’re just not letting up on our emphasis on fundraising.”

May said he feels it is important to continue fundraising efforts because private philanthropy helps to increase the University's accessibility and overall quality.

“Fundraising has become an essential part of the revenue stream of the University,” he said. “It especially adds to the quality of the institution, and it especially adds to the money that provides students access to the University.”

But May also said the economy has made the mission of raising money for the University obviously more difficult.

“It’s harder than it was six months ago,” he said. “Fundraising is hard to begin with, but now that you have an economic downturn, you have some people that just don’t have as much money as before.”

Despite the current economic times, May said there are still potential donors out there.

“There are still people that frankly have the money,” he said. “But it takes a while for people psychologically to get past that sense that they don’t have as much.”

May said that in general, the number of donations to the University has stayed consistent, but that the average gift amount is lower than before.

“We’ve been averaging about 25 to 30 new pledges a month,” May said, noting that was a normal amount of activity. “But the size of the gifts have been decreasing.”

This decline in giving is one of the reasons some schools — including the University of Washington and Oklahoma State University — are reducing their fundraising staffs. Other schools — like the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Michigan — have continued to fill vacant positions in their development offices.

The University is not cutting back on its development staff, even though its operations are already considerably larger than other peer institutions, like UCLA. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that UCLA employs 270 development staffers, while the University of Michigan has approximately 480 staffers.

May said the larger operation at the University can’t be attributed to one factor, but that there are several contributing causes — including the University’s extremely large alumni base of approximately 475,000 people.

May explained that paired with the sheer size of the alumni base, is the fact that they are spread throughout the country — requiring a national fund development strategy. On the other hand, May said UCLA’s alumni are more heavily concentrated in California — meaning their fund development office doesn’t have to reach out to as many alumni or travel across the country as often.

“Forty percent of our alumni live outside the state of Michigan … but they give about 60 percent of the money,” May said. “We have to go a lot of places to bring out alumni to the University.”

Additionally, May said the University’s fundraising operations are so large because they support the Athletic Department, the Flint and Dearborn campuses and the Museum of Art, in addition to each of the University’s schools and other University entities.

The University finished its national record-breaking Michigan Difference Campaign in December. The capital campaign raised about $3.2 billion, breaking the previous record for a public institution fundraising campaign set by UCLA in 2006.

May said another capital campaign would be implemented in the future, but that until the economy improves, the Development Office will focus on improving internal operations and thanking donors who gave in the last campaign.

“We sort of call this year the year of the big thank you,” he said. “It’s just too soon to tell, but we’ll (start another campaign) as soon as the United States and everybody starts feeling a bit more optimistic about their finances and the condition of the economy.”