Private cash increasingly vital for MU

With help from alumni and students, campaign revenue could near $1 billion.
Sunday, August 17, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:33 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

When it comes to everyday operations, the University of Missouri is fed mainly by two hands: students and the state. The state has contributed less and less during the past three years, and in-state undergraduates will pay 20 percent more money this fall for tuition.

So where will MU turn if there’s still a shortfall?

There’s no single answer, but raising money from the private sector promises to play an increasingly vital role.

Next month, the UM system is poised to announce the largest fund-raising drive in school history. The ultimate dollar goal of the drive is still hush-hush, but it will come close to meeting a challenge set forth by Gov. Bob Holden in July 2001: to raise $1 billion by 2010.

It may be tempting to see a fund-raising number that large and imagine state funding cuts — $157.6 million in core cuts and withholdings over the past three years — being covered by generous alumni and corporations. After all, private donors gave MU $98 million in fiscal 2002 alone. If that were unrestricted cash, it would make a significant dent in the university’s annual operating budget.

Some strings attached

But there are more strings dangling from the third floor of the Alumni Center than at a marionette show, because donors almost never send money to MU without attaching a few of their own.

This unbending rule of fund-raising guarantees that all of the money flowing from the Office of Development will never make up for cuts in state funding. Last year, less than 1 percent of all money given to the university was unrestricted. The rest was earmarked for buildings, scholarships, professorships and anything but the basic operation of the university.

“Donors don’t want to give to a big, black funding pool,” said Linda L’Hote, executive director of advancement. “They feel the state still has a role in funding the general operation of the school.”

That doesn’t mean it can’t help, though. In 2002, MU spent almost $41 million on scholarships, which is one of the areas that donors are most willing to fund. So, if L’Hote can find almost $41 million in new scholarship donations, MU can spend the same amount on something else.

In fact, finding these kind of congruities is at the heart of the Office of Development’s role in raising money.

“We’re like matchmakers,” L’Hote said. “What Development is doing is trying to match the interests of the donors with the priorities of the institution.”

L’Hote and her staff have done quite a bit of matchmaking for the past four years, though they’ve been doing it out of the public eye. Though the kickoff for the campaign, “For All We Call Mizzou,” is still a month away, the drive has been in action since July 1999.

Much of the nitty-gritty of raising money — the phone calls to alumni, the pamphlets and letters sent to them — falls to fund-raising officers in each school and college on campus, with L’Hote’s office coordinating the efforts.

But in the world of fund-raising at public universities, the task of looking for private donations begins long before the phone calls. It begins before alumni even graduate.

Reaching alumni early

Alone and starting a job in Nashville, Tenn., 2002 MU grad Laura Tieman decided to look for friends in a local chapter of the MU Alumni Association. When she found that one didn’t exist, despite the presence of more than 600 alumni in the region, she did what seemed natural.

“My friends all said, ‘You know you’ll just start one on your own,’ ” Tieman said. “So I talked to my friend at the association and we went from there.”

She now has 80 Tigers on her e-mail list, and the group meets regularly to socialize and talk about their days in Columbia. Tieman’s experience is not unusual, but it’s one the Alumni Association hopes will happen more often in the future.

Over the past 10 years, the association has increasingly focused its time, energy and creativity on getting young alumni to feel as excited about their alma mater as Tieman does. It hasn’t always been that way.

“There was a time they would tell us, ‘It’s not your job to work with students. It’s your job to work with alumni,’ ” said Todd Coleman, executive director of the Alumni Association.

But by the late 1980s and early ’90s, most universities started understanding the value of preparing current students to become active alumni.

“If you look at it from a strict business standpoint, it’s much more cost-effective for me to build a relationship while they’re here than to wait until they’re a million miles away,” Coleman said. “We have a captive audience here.”

To Coleman, the Alumni Association is the set-up reliever on the fund-raising team — the Office of Development has a much easier time closing a deal on a donation if staff have prepared students for the day MU comes knocking.

“Very seldom do you get people to give a gift right off the bat,” Coleman said. “You have to make them feel like they know what’s going on, so when you do ask for the dollars, it’s not a cold call.”

The original efforts by the Alumni Association to get students involved early spurred successful traditions such as the Tiger Walk (in which freshmen and seniors promenade through the MU Columns), but student participation in alumni events still lagged. A study by an MU graduate-level business class in 1997 illustrated the problem.

“We realized that the second students hear the word ‘alumni,’ they tune out,” Coleman said of the study “They don’t think that applies to them.”

The solution? Efforts were better coordinated and resulted in a program with a student-friendly mission and name — True Tigers. The program has seen a steady growth in student participation, with close to 3,000 student members today. Thecampus has about 26,000 students.

Coleman has yet to do any tracking of whether turning students on to the Alumni Association early translates into money for the university down the road. But alumni such as Laura Tieman — who was involved in the association’s Homecoming Steering Committee when she was in school — show why Coleman thinks it’s vital to get students involved early.

“I haven’t given any money yet,” Tieman said. “But when I have the ability to do so, I would love to.”

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