Despite a financial crisis that caused philanthropy to plummet nationwide, the University raised 80 percent, or $3.83 billion, of its “Cornell Now” fundraising campaign goal as of Feb. 3, putting it ahead of track to reach its target of $4.75 billion by 2015.
The campaign, originally launched in 2006 as “Far Above … The Campaign for Cornell,” is the most ambitious fundraising effort in the University’s history, according to Richard Banks ’72, associate vice president for alumni affairs and development. Donations to “Cornell Now” are meant to support the University’s most pressing initiatives, which include capital projects, faculty renewal and financial aid, Banks said.
Banks credited the capital campaign’s success to an “incredibly supportive alumni body.” While gifts to Cornell dropped sharply between 2008 and 2009, the University has seen its donations grow to new heights in recent years.
In 2011, an outpouring of donations catapulted the Cornell Annual Fund, an annual fundraising program, to an all-time record of more than $30 million, Banks said. Large gifts have also enabled the University to fund several capital projects in the 2010-11 fiscal year: The new humanities building, the first to be built since 1905, has already “exceeded” its fundraising goal, while Weill Cornell Medical College’s Belfer Research Building, the second most expensive building project in Cornell’s history, was financed in large part by donations, according to Banks.
Generous donations have also allowed the University to accelerate its faculty renewal process, Banks said. With its oldest faculty ever, the University must prepare to replace the 50 percent of its faculty positions it anticipates being vacated over the next 10 years, The Sun reported in November.
Two years ago, President David Skorton asked the University’s alumni affairs and development office to raise $50 million over five years to support the initiative. Just 18 months later, the office had raised $23.5 million of its goal, Banks said.
“We’re well ahead of that 10 million-a-year pace,” he said. “That’s the sort of initiative that has a lot of traction among alumni.”
The University has also made headway in its financial aid initiatives, raising more than $240 million of its target of $350 million for student scholarships, according to Banks.
Banks cited strong leadership among the University’s Board of Trustees as a major contributing factor to the capital campaign’s success.
Trustee Stephen Ashley MBA ’64, co-chair of the “Cornell Now” campaign, said that he appeals to donors by asking them to recall their experiences at Cornell and the generosity of prior Cornellians.
“When I approach someone to give a gift to the campaign, I generally ask them to remember what Cornell did for them: how they were broadened as an individual and how the people who preceded us as students had built a base on which we grew,” Ashley said. “Now, it’s our turn to provide to students as a group so they can have the same kind of opportunities — if not better — that we had.”
Ashley added that alumni and “friends of the University” are drawn to giving back to Cornell because its institutional goals, outlined in the five-year strategic plan for the University, have had a widespread appeal among donors.
“The provost’s strategic plan has some overarching goals that are inspirational and resonate with our donor base,” Ashley said.
The provost distributes unrestricted gifts, or donations with unspecified purposes, among the colleges — each of which sets its own three to five year fundraising goal within the University-wide campaign. Provost Kent Fuchs said that, when he began his work, the University shifted its campaign goals away from centralized priorities and toward individual colleges.
“There’s no magic in terms of knowing that you’ll raise a certain amount of money, but we have a goal that we track every year ... All the deans are held accountable for raising that amount of money for their colleges,” Fuchs said.
Continuing the University’s fundraising success will continue to be crucial as Cornell moves forward with its new New York City tech campus, Fuchs said. Still, at a meeting Wednesday, some Faculty Senate members raised concerns that resources would be diverted away from the Ithaca campus.
Fuchs said that, rather than detracting from the University’s fundraising campaign, the tech campus will most likely increase donations to the University.
“My firm belief is that there will be a lot more philanthropy that we expect will go into the campus,” Fuchs said. “I don’t expect another $350 million gift but I expect hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years, including from sources who’ve never given to Cornell before.”
Fuchs added that he believes that the University will not only be able to keep the fundraising goals it set prior to its tech campus victory but also raise additional money for the Ithaca campus.
“This puts us at a level of visibility and set of contacts that we didn’t have before,” he said. “Donors who were giving elsewhere are now giving to Ithaca.”
Still, Banks did not rule out the possibility that after “Cornell Now” ends in 2015, the University would factor the tech campus into its future campaigns.
“Will it change the goal eventually? It might, but now is not the time to talk about it,” Banks said.
Ashley, describing enthusiasm over the tech campus as “electric,” said that the University’s latest venture will only help it meet its campaign goals.
“I think what you have out there today is a sense that people are really, really proud to be Cornellians … and that spirit, that enthusiasm, does translate into people making commitments for capital giving,” he said.
Ultimately, Banks said, donations to Cornell advance society’s needs.
“Investments in a place like Cornell will have a real impact on society,” he said. “Whether you look at teaching, preparing students to be future leaders or grad students to be future professors, the research that gets done here is a great combination of the theoretical and the applied … and it’s on point with some of the challenges that society is facing today, whether it concerns energy, sustainability or the humanities.”