KSU combats recession with philanthropy

Jenna Staul

Fundraising grows as

state funding slows

As universities across the country scale back on fundraising efforts in the economic downturn, philanthropy at Kent State is still revving up.

Kent State is using fundraising to combat steep state budget cuts, according to university officials.

The university’s fundraising arm has raised $32 million in donations so far this fiscal year. Last year, it brought in a record $37 million thanks to several big-ticket donations.

“What we do is we look to our alumni to provide opportunities outside of our budget situations,” said Eugene Finn, vice president for institutional advancement. “We are never necessarily going to fill that gap because we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding cuts.”

The recession has taken a heavy toll on philanthropy at universities nationwide — donations declined by 11.9 percent nationally in 2009, according to a survey by the Council for Aid to Education. But Kent State isn’t feeling the lag.

That’s because fundraising is a relatively new venture for the university, which ended its first major campaign in 2001 under former President Carol Cartwright.

“(Kent State) relied on state budgeting and didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to fundraising over the years, and that’s not unusual,” Finn said. “Had we been at this level of giving prior to the recession, we probably would have seen a decline.”

Faced with drastic budget cuts, administrators have been forced to make up for lost time — quickly building a robust network of alumni donors willing to invest in Kent State.

“We’re behind,” Finn said. “When I first came here three years ago, I did a benchmarking for fundraising against other MAC universities. Kent State pretty much ranked at the bottom of that list.”

President Lester Lefton said he spends roughly 25 percent of his time fundraising, but in the future would like to spend as much of 40 percent of his time lobbying potential donors.

“It’s my belief that we have to take care of ourselves,” Lefton said, citing state funding cuts. “The only way I can keep tuition costs down is to increase the number of grants brought in and increase fundraising.”

Money from donations typically funds specific projects for the university or scholarships. Kent State’s annual fund, which includes direct mail fundraising, can raise an unrestricted amount of money to be used in the university’s operating budget.

Lefton, who formerly worked as an administrator at private universities, including Tulane and George Washington, said he had fundraising in mind when he took office in 2006, and now takes a hands-on role with the university’s wealthiest donors.

“It’s airplanes and security checks and driving from one place to another,” Lefton said of his fundraising schedule that often takes him around the country. “Someone came to (an alumni event) who had nothing to do with Kent State. He said you’re the first person from Kent State who I’ve liked at Kent State in a long time. He said he’d take a meeting with me and it turned out this person has substantial wealth. And we’re courting. It’s a dance.”

Contact administration reporter Jenna Staul at [email protected].