U nears record in donations

University of Minnesota officials say the increase comes from an improving economy and a new approach to talking with donors.
July 02, 2014

The University of Minnesota received an almost record-breaking amount of donation money this year.

Total donations since last July topped $276 million on Friday, just $13 million shy of the University’s all-time annual record, which came a few months before the recession hit in 2008. An improving economy and a more effective way of talking with donors contributed to the spike, University officials say.

The University of Minnesota Foundation, the institution’s fundraising arm, bypassed its target of $248 million for fiscal year 2014 and raised at least $40 million more in donations than the year before, said Becky Malkerson, the foundation’s executive vice president and chief advancement officer.

“We’re very excited,” she said. “We’ve exceeded our goal.”

Scott Meyer, chief advancement officer for the College of Liberal Arts, said the improving economy is one of the most obvious reasons for the increase.

But the jump in donations is also due to more conversations about students’ debt loads, Meyer said. In CLA, there’s a growing public concern over the rising costs, he said, which in turn has spurred more response from private donors.

“We’re seeing a lot of increased money coming in to help support scholarships and help ease up the burden,” Meyer said.

Donation totals have generally floated upward since the summer of 2009, but not because of more donors, which have actually dropped in number by more than 10 percent between fiscal years 2010 and 2013.

Donors are instead giving larger gifts, which Malkerson said is in part because the University’s foundation is more coordinated in its fundraising efforts.

Last year, the Minnesota Medical Foundation combined with the University of Minnesota Foundation to unify the University’s fundraising operations.

That change has helped employees collaborate more effectively to work with top donors and present benefactors with a picture of how their funds can help multiple areas throughout the University, Malkerson said.

University President Eric Kaler and his wife, Karen Kaler, actively support the foundation by attending events and promoting the school, which Malkerson said helps form strong relationships with donors.

Keeping donations up is becoming more important over time, Meyer said, as government funding remains unstable for Minnesota’s higher education institutions.

“We need to expand our base of donors to both fill in the gap as well as to expand our ability to promote our agenda,” he said.

Between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, the state dropped funding to the University by $140 million — but increased its appropriation for the next two years to fund some research initiatives and keep tuition frozen for students who pay the undergraduate in-state rate.

The University has also recently seen a decline in federal dollars. Brooks Jackson, vice president for health sciences and dean of the Medical School, has called for a greater focus on philanthropy dollars to offset dwindling research grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Still, Malkerson said donations couldn’t replace the role state funding plays in the University’s operations.

For fiscal year 2014, state appropriations totaled more than $601 million, compared to about $276 million gifted or pledged by donors.

“State support is critical for the University,” Malkerson said.

Giving back

Itasca Consulting Group Inc., an engineering consulting and software firm, is giving the University thousands of dollars over the next several years to establish an indefinitely available scholarship.

The group is one of the University’s many company and individual donors, some of which give the institution millions of dollars out of loyalty or gratitude.

Many of the Itasca Consulting Group’s staff earned their graduate degrees at the University, said Will Pettitt, vice president of the group.

“We’ve always kind of wanted to give something back to the University,” he said.

In April, the group pledged $250,000 over five years to the University, and they’re seeking contributions from others to get that amount up to $700,000, Pettitt said. Then, he said, the money will be invested, and each year’s earnings will be used to support a graduate student pursuing a degree in geoengineering.

The scholarship is in honor of Charles Fairhurst, a retired rock mechanics faculty member at the University.

The group has backed one-year scholarships in the past, Pettitt said, and it will keep giving in the future.

“We will continue supporting the University as much as possible,” he said.

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