Lefton pushes for more donations

Jackie Valley

A framed picture of President Lester Lefton surrounded by prominent Kent State donors during a lunch outing sits in his office.

The donors’ relationships with the university offer a glimpse of the future of Kent State as private donations become increasingly vital to higher education funding, Lefton said.

Forging the necessary relationships, however, requires an investment – in time and money.

“That doesn’t just happen overnight,” Lefton said. “You have to have people to do this stuff.”

Kent State ran a classified ad in the Akron Beacon Journal Jan. 20 seeking applicants for 11 positions dedicated to university fundraising.

Lefton said the positions – ranging from development officers to an associate vice president for advancement operations – will command salaries between $40,000 and $100,000.

Given a few years, Lefton said the rate of return for these positions is 9-to-1, meaning they should bring in $9 for every $1 spent.

“You expect to see from a development officer significant money,” he said. “They should be bringing in multiples of their salary.”

Building the infrastructure to support such a staff began last year with the creation of two new positions. Gene Finn was hired as vice president for institutional advancement and Robert “Yank” Heisler as special assistant to the president for community and business strategies.

Finn works exclusively to grow Kent State fundraising as the chief executive officer of the University Foundation. Heisler helps establish relationships with the Northeast Ohio business community, especially in Cleveland.

Lefton said the Board of Trustees charged him to “create a culture of philanthropy” since tuition and private donations account for a large portion of university funding.

“One way to hold down tuition is to create scholarship or philanthropy,” he said. “This requires spending money and people spending time raising money.”

The Road Less Traveled

As public debate swirls about the impending changes to Ohio higher education, Lefton has consistently reiterated where he thinks Kent State should stand.

“I conceive of Kent State as the public analog of the private Case Western Reserve University,” he said. “Northeast Ohio needs a high-end place that’s a magnet for high-achieving students.”

Unlike Mid-American Conference rival Miami University in Southwest Ohio, which already has a strong reputation of academic excellence as a public institution, Lefton thinks Kent State needs more recognition for the quality of its education.

“Everyone knows about Miami University of Ohio,” he said. “I want them to talk about Kent State.”

But the path to more recognition means shining a spotlight on Kent State – something Lefton said the university has not done enough of.

“I think Kent State has tried to stay under the radar for a long time,” he said, referring to the events surrounding May 4, 1970.

Despite the social turmoil already facing the nation, President Emeritus Carol Cartwright said the May 4 tragedy cast a negative shadow on Kent State.

“When the shootings happened at Kent State, a lot of people blamed the university,” she said.

Consequently, Cartwright said the university entered into a survival mode at about the same time public universities began realizing the importance of private fundraising.

“I think a lot of people in the university did turn inward right about the same time some schools were beginning to think about fundraising,” she said.

Now, Lefton said it is time to for the university to emerge from its shadow.

“Kent State has chosen, over the last 37 years, not advertise very much and to not promote itself as aggressively as other universities,” he said.

For the university to gain recognition, Lefton said Kent State must establish its brand and market what it establishes.

Lefton said “excellence in action” represents Kent State’s brand – a research, traditional and selective institution committed to academic excellence.

“Both are important to fundraising,” he said. “Nobody wants to give money to something they don’t know through the brand.”

Mike Strebler, director of financial administration at the University Foundation, said the money for Finn’s position and the institutional advancement office expansion is part of about $1.8 million the foundation gave toward university development this year.

“This was an addition to where we send (money) already,” he said.

David Creamer, senior vice president for administration, said future funding for Finn’s and Heisler’s positions is tied to increased levels of philanthropic giving and enrollment growth that would return the total enrollment to 23,800 students on the Kent campus.

In addition, Creamer said the positions “won’t add to the burden of students,” but rather help provide more donor-funded scholarships and gifts to the university that directly benefit students inside the classroom.

To ensure success, Lefton said development officers are required to call a certain number of people, initiate new contacts and close a certain amount of gifts per month.

Cheryl Casper, president of the Faculty Senate, said these decisions become a question of a short-term versus a long-term strategy.

“As a faculty member, I would prefer to see money invested in academic programs,” she said. “Most faculty understands there has to be a balance.”

While Casper said the new positions might not have immediate payoffs, she remains hopeful for long-term benefits.

“We want to raise more money as an institution,” she said. “Unfortunately, that costs money to do.”

Down the road

Lefton said not spending money to increase university development and philanthropy would equate to “throwing money away.”

“We have underinvested over the years in development and communication related functions,” he said. “If we’re ever going to be a great university, we have to make strategic investments.

“Our failure to do so would be a failure indeed.”

Many of the new development positions will involve people seeking private donations by knocking on doors to increase philanthropy.

Mel Mellis, chair of the University Foundation Board of Directors, said a development staff expansion is key toward increasing philanthropy.

“We’re only as good as the people working for us,” he said. “We have some good people, but we need some more.”

Steve Sokany, associate vice president for institutional advancement, said when Cartwright began as president, the Development Office consisted of seven full-time staff members, including the vice president for university relations and development. By the time she left, the staff had grown to 38 members.

Since Lefton became president, Sokany said five positions have been added to the Development Office, including Finn.

Mellis said he believes the future of Kent State lies in the growth of the University Foundation.

“The Foundation needs to, at some point down the road, become a billion dollar foundation,” he said.

Mellis said, however, that the future of the University Foundation depends on support from students by staying involved and giving back to Kent State after graduation.

The University Foundation is the non-profit entity that processes and manages gifts to the University. Its total assets are currently more than $150 million, including a $90 million endowment.

If the Foundation reaches $1 billion, Mellis said it would be able to make about $50 million available to the university every year, based on the annual 5 percent payout it currently makes to the university.

Mellis said the university’s investment in development will help perpetuate the foundation’s growth.

“We are getting the pieces in place to really do that,” he said. “I believe in the next five years, we will really see the impact.”

So far, Kent State’s current fundraising initiative – the Centennial Campaign – has raised nearly half of the campaign’s $200 million goal since its launch in 2003. Last year, the University raised about $28 million.

The Centennial Campaign, which will coincide with the University’s 100-year anniversary, follows Kent State’s first major fundraising campaign during Cartwright’s era as president.

Sokany said the Campaign for Kent State University lasted six-and-a-half years and generated $121.8 million – surpassing its $100 million goal.

Eventually, Mellis believes it is possible for the Foundation to reach the $1 billion mark.

“It will take a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, but we’ll get there,” he said.

Contact administration reporter Jackie Valley at [email protected].