University sets sights on “mega gifts”

By Ethan Frenchman

The University is ratcheting up its effort to attract “mega donations” of $5 million or more in an attempt to counteract a lag in major gifts to the Chicago Initiative, the University’s latest fundraising campaign, according to Randy Holgate, senior vice president of University Resources.

Although the University raised $217 million in 2004, the largest gift was $9 million. “This shows that we have a very strong and rather broad base,” said Don Randel, University president. “If one compares our results with those of some other universities, one sees that we have not received as many large gifts as some. The University certainly merits such gifts, and universities with which we compete are getting them.”

Over the past year Brown University and Yale University each received single grants of $100 million, and Duke University received a $72 million gift, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Other universities have received gifts upward of $50 million.

While such large gifts are rare, “they tend to be very impactful,” said Board of Trustees vice chairman and Chicago Initiative chairman Andrew Alper. “They tend to be gifts that endow buildings or major programs to attract faculty.”

The Chicago Initiative, officially kicked off in April 2002, has since raised $1.3 billion of its $2 billion goal, including advance pledges amounting to $700 million since 1999. More than half of the funds raised came from minor donations.

“We have simply examined our success to date and seen that we are doing rather better on the base of the pyramid than on the top,” Randel said. “Hence, we will devote some additional effort to the top.”

Ron Schiller, recently hired as vice-president for Development and Alumni Relations, said the University’s strategy to attract mega donations “is to have at least a few staff members who can devote their full attention to providing the support and information that these prospective donors need. If we follow the example of some of our peers in that regard, we will see a very significant increase in the number of very large gifts the University receives.”

The University is devoting more resources to attract institution-shaping mega donations now than it has in the past, including moving Randy Holgate from vice-president for Development and Alumni Relations into the newly created position of senior vice president of University Resources, who works full-time with prospective major donors.

Many University fundraisers see a more determined pursuit of mega donations to be the culmination of years of effort. “[Our] work over the past couple of decades has been making this step possible,” Schiller said.

The administration expects to receive an increase in significant contributions leading up to the Chicago Initiative’s 2008 deadline, according to Holgate. “We have always been in conversation with people about making substantial gifts. There is a progression of how these relationships develop over time,” she added.

According to Holgate, the University’s goal is $900 million of gifts from donations of $5 million or more. In order to reach its goal, the University will have to raise over $300 million over the next two years, a higher rate than it has garnered yet for the Chicago Initiative.

To raise mega donations, fundraisers are seeking major donors whose interests coincide with those of the University. “A person who gives $100 million is aligning their own passion and interest in really achieving something big with the University,” Schiller said. “[That person] wants a cure for cancer, or wonderful athletic facilities.”

Dennis Keller, a trustee and major benefactor of the University, described how receiving a fellowship from the Graduate School of Business in the ’60s allowed him to be a full-time student there, and was a partial impetus for his later philanthropy.

“I graduated with the knowledge that the right thing for me to do was to repay the U of C with as much return on their investment as I could muster so they could do it for others,” Keller said.