Economy forces donor hesitation

Ben Wolford

Administrators still hopeful to meet goals

A donor was going to give Kent State his house.

But that was before stock values fell violently three weeks ago. Now he may not.

Donor reluctance has been a recurring theme over the last few weeks for Gene Finn, vice president for institutional advancement. He said donors are less comfortable sacrificing their money with the future of the economy uncertain.

“One had been a significant donor in the past and was contemplating another significant gift,” Finn said. “He said point blank, ‘Come back in six months.'”

Finn said he’s sure fundraising has slumped since late September, but he won’t know exactly how much until they tally the numbers at the end of this month.

“Fundraising is full of ironies: We had the best fundraising quarter ever from July 1 to Oct. 1,” he said. “Last year at this time we raised $3.5 million. This year we raised almost $7.2 million, but a lot of that was August and September, and they were gift closures that were already in the works.”

Now donors are delaying or halting gifts in the works, and Finn can’t blame them.

“(The man with the house) may never give it because he’s afraid he may need the cash for retirement and those types of things,” Finn said. “We are getting folks saying, ‘You know what, come back in six months. Now, I’m just a little nervous.'”

But so are Kent State administrators.

“We’re very concerned about the state of Ohio because their next biennial budget will be coming up (in July 2009), and the state’s receipts are not good,” President Lester Lefton said. “Were there to be budget cuts, that would be quite serious.”

Lefton said the administration is considering how to react to every funding scenario, from budget cuts to tuition freezes, but would not identify specific solutions until an action is necessary.

He did say fundraising could not supplement the university budget.

“Most of fundraising is targeted money,” Lefton said. “It’s for professorship or a scholarship. So if someone donates $100,000, it spits out a $5,000 scholarship. You would need a whole lot of those to make up, say, an $8 million shortfall.”

Even though Finn’s fundraising won’t prevent a potential budget deficit, it could keep a student in school.

And that’s the petition his staff is making to donors.

“We are really focusing on our message of scholarships because we realize that this is impacting students in ways that have never happened before,” Finn said. “It’s setting the need and making sure they understand the importance.”

Promoting the importance of scholarship is a university’s best defense against getting slashed from the list of organizations a donor gives to, Finn said. In hard economic times, donors tend to cut out whole gifts rather than shave a little bit from each group.

“The good news is education tends to come out on top in a lot of that,” Finn said. “Part of the challenge is to make sure that we give a compelling enough reason to come out on top of their list.”

Finn set a goal to increase annual fundraising revenue by 50 percent over the next five years. His department raised $28.5 million in fiscal year 2008.

He said that goal is still possible. The economy is likely to turn around within that time frame, and “there are still a lot of people out there with money.”

But that hasn’t made the “sleepless nights” Lefton said his cabinet suffers any easier.

“The bottom line is, I don’t know what to expect,” Finn said. “No one knows what to expect.”

Contact administration reporter Ben Wolford at [email protected].