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UR gears up for capital campaign

As the University of Rochester announces the largest campaign in its history today, James Thompson has another goal: raising an army.
 
The university’s senior vice president and chief advancement officer has been working for much of the past few years securing commitments large and small, but in doing so he also was building another important asset in a more engaged base of alumni and friends.
 
"For a major capital campaign to work, it has to include everyone from the recent alum who gives five dollars to the community member raising money on a walkathon to the Tom Golisanos who give eight-figure commitments," Thompson said. "If we didn’t build a whole army of people actively engaged in helping promote this institution, we would just be hiding our light under the bushel."
 
The capital campaign, which enters its public phase at the university’s Meliora Weekend, has been a project of President Joel Seligman since his arrival in 2005. UR declined to disclose its goal before Friday’s announcement, but in 2006 Thompson told the Rochester Business Journal the goal likely would exceed $1 billion.
 
Under Thompson the campaign reached out to alumni, building regional cabinets and holding events throughout the country. Thompson also drew faculty and staff into the campaign, creating programs that involve them in what Seligman termed "articulating their pride in our university."
 
By engaging both faculty and alumni here and other alums worldwide, the campaign can spread the university’s reputation.
 
"If you have thousands of people who are enthusiastic and engaged in everything from helping the Simon School to involvement in our tech transfer and entrepreneurship programs, all of that creates activity and a sense of excitement," Thompson said.
 
With these new networks, the university can work on deepening its relationships and allowing its influence to spread, he added.
 
New groups are coming on board in San Diego, Chicago, Texas and Florida, he said.
 
The campaign also is a boost to the local area, Thompson added. It will give flexibility to a growing university, one that already is the region’s largest employer.
 
"If our Lab for Laser Energetics were an independent business, it would be one of the largest in the area, and it’s just one part of the university," Thompson said. "In many ways a university is a community’s ultimate stakeholder. We will never move, never be bought and never go out of business."
 
Meliora Weekend gives the university a chance to make connections with alumni and the local community. More than 8,000 people have signed up for the more than 220 events, highlighted by former President Bill Clinton and Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia.
 
For all its ambitious goals, UR’s capital campaign comes at a difficult time for other large-scale campaigns. When the Chronicle of Philanthropy in late 2010 looked at the nation’s 36 largest capital campaigns, with goals ranging from $1 billion to $4.3 billion, it found several that were less than halfway to the goal.
 
Some participants noted difficulties related to the economy. Officials at the University of Texas, which had reached 40 percent of its $3 billion goal, said they had difficulties in fundraising, especially when it came to gifts of stock.
 
At Carnegie Mellon University, the difficult economy meant more donors delayed their gifts, though this has begun to ease recently, said David Bohan, associate vice president for university advancement and campaign executive director. In late 2010 the university was 65 percent of the way to its $1 billion goal, but a $265 million gift this year put Carnegie Mellon ahead of its expected pace.
 
"We were able to secure that after years of working with the donor, and it certainly did a lot for the campaign," Bohan said.
 
Though Thompson did not put a dollar figure to the total amount raised to date, the university has been successful during the quiet phase in bringing in large gifts. Richard and Martha Handler made a $20 million commitment toward student scholarships, bringing their total contribution to $25 million. Thomas Golisano gave $20 million to build a new children’s hospital and Philip Saunders committed $10 million to support research programs in muscular dystrophy, cancer and translational medicine.
 
Large gifts are typical of capital campaigns of that magnitude, Bohan said. Colleges and universities can raise the majority of the campaign from a small slice of their richest donors, but focusing only on large benefactors can hurt the university’s real goals, he added.
 
"Those large gifts are important, and for universities like us and the University of Rochester, we’re also trying to grow engagement of alumni," Bohan said. "At Carnegie Mellon, we haven’t been around as long as some of the schools like Harvard, so any level of gift is important. Many of our goals are just participation goals to get those alumni involved."
 
For UR, participation is as important as fundraising.
 
"It would be terribly concerning if we had gone through this and made the goal with only three donors giving large gifts," Thompson said. "We’re giving thousands and thousands of people the chance to participate, to understand how important this university is to our future locally and in finding ways to deal with the world’s problems."
 
Not that these participation efforts preclude fundraising as well. To promote more frequent giving, UR instituted the George Eastman Circle, which draws members who make a five-year unrestricted pledge to give $1,500 or more each year.
 
The George Eastman Circle has 1,850 members, on pace to reach its goal of 2,000 by the end of the year.
 
"Though it’s a tough economy, people are being generous, and we have members of the George Eastman Circle from every state and in 15 foreign countries," Thompson said.
 
This balance of seeking out the large gifts that drive the campaign while also pursuing smaller donations that create new stakeholders is key to a successful effort, Bohan said. And even though Carnegie Mellon is on pace to surpass its financial goal, the university has not taken its sight off the larger picture.
 
"If you have a capital campaign that only focuses on fundraising, you’re missing out on what you’re trying to do as a university," Bohan said. "We made it a specific goal to get greater engagement, and it’s helped create lifetime stakeholders of our alumni and other donors."

10/21/11 (c) 2011 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or e-mail [email protected].

 

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