Later this week, Cornell will formally kick off the public phase of its current capital campaign. Vice President of Alumni Affairs and Development Charlie Phlegar announced last week that the Ithaca and Weill campuses are collaborating to run a joint campaign aiming to raise $4 billion over the next five years. If successful, this initiative will greatly impact Cornell’s future well-being.
For the past two years, the University has been raising money as a part of this campaign, through what is called the quiet phase. This phase is an opportunity for development officers to accumulate donations to get the campaign off to a strong start without making the total amount raised or the fundraising goal public. This is done to test campaign priorities with potential donors and gauge their support. Though Cornell is emerging from the quiet phase of this campaign with a significant number of commitments already in hand, much more work needs to be done.
The last time the University embarked on a capital campaign was from 1990 to 1995, when it raised just over $1.5 billion. The funds generated were primarily used to grow the endowment: 125 faculty positions were endowed and the endowment per student increased by 99 percent (though Cornell is still the lowest in the Ivy League). In this campaign, funds generated from endowment growth will be used to create both financial aid packages for undergraduates and fellowships for graduate students in an effort to diversify the student body and increase access to a Cornell education. Additionally, Cornell seeks to raise funds for faculty chairs, as well as address several critical facilities needs, such as the Life Sciences Technology Building, West Campus Residence Halls and Milstein Hall, which are all being built to help foster creativity for future students and researchers. The need for Annual Fund donations is also a priority. It’s important to understand that student tuition only covers half of the cost associated with earning a Cornell degree. The balance is a combination of current use gifts, endowment, facility funds and state and federal government support.
Other than utilizing the benefits of this campaign, current students might not think this has much to do with them. Generally, alumni and friends of the University — not people who are still in school — donate to campaigns such as this. But most currently enrolled students will be involved in the campaign as a senior (for undergraduates) and as a young alumnus since they will graduate during the time horizon of this campaign. Your first thoughts on being asked to make a gift to Cornell right after graduation are probably like mine were when I graduated: “My family and I just paid tuition for four years and now I have thousands of dollars of loans to pay back. It seems a bit heartless to be asking for money almost immediately after you pick up your diploma, doesn’t it?” But, after reading a little deeper into the literature that is sent (I just received more Class of 2002 materials a few weeks ago), it became evident that Cornell does have some heart in its approach. There is certainly an understanding that many students face a financial burden and that gifts of any size are welcome. Showing your support for Cornell through participation is what matters the most. In fact, over 75 percent of all Annual Fund gifts are $250 or less. Not only that, but the last campaign received 96,000 monetary gifts, proof that broad participation is essential.
Nevertheless, once you decide to give, things can still be a bit confusing. First of all, you will be asked to pay your class dues and make a donation to the University. Class dues go directly into your class’s treasury and help pay for things for like reunion, regional events and mailings. Gifts, on the other hand, support Cornell as either restricted or unrestricted and count towards the campaign goal. Restricted gifts are donations that you specify to a particular club or group to which you are affiliated and can only be used by that specific recipient. Unrestricted gifts, also called Annual Fund gifts, go to the University and give it the flexibility to put the funds wherever it determines the needs to be most critical. Each Annual Fund dollar is spent in the fiscal year it is given, with roughly 54 percent of it spent on Faculty and Program Support, 28 percent on student financial aid, and 18 percent on special initiatives (like new courses) and facility support. One slightly confusing caveat is that you can still “restrict” Annual Fund gifts by designating your money to a list of possibilities, such as a particular undergraduate college, athletics and/or the library.
In addition to help raising funds, the University staffs nine different regional offices to help alumni across the country stay connected to each other and Cornell. They organize events such as away-game football tailgates like the one at Harvard, where alumni came together to celebrate and had the opportunity to meet President Skorton. In addition to social events, groups like Cornell Silicon Valley host alumni speakers that focus on business, science and technology. This latter type of involvement is one area Cornell could improve for its young alumni. Cornell has about 200,000 living alumni, and it would be great if there were more opportunities for young alumni to network with older ones.
Most of us will never have the financial capacity to donate millions of dollars to our alma mater. Nevertheless, Cornell is built upon a foundation of alumni involvement and support, both financial and non-financial. So, as the University embarks on a new capital campaign, consider giving a gift that works for you to help future Cornellians as past ones have done for you.
Doug Mitarotonda is a student-elected trustee. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays.