October 13, 2010

Power of the Alumni Purse

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It is no secret that Cornell’s alumni base is one of the strongest aspects of the University. That fact was on display once again last week when the Cornell Annual Fund announced the highest donation total in its eight-year history — $27.3 million, or a 12-percent increase from the previous year. Despite the unemployment rate nearing 10 percent and the pace of economic recovery lagging behind the public’s hopes and economist’s projections, it is incredibly heartening that alumni are still able to find money to donate to the University.

Cornell has always had generous alumni, and the increase in donations bodes well for the continued strength and stability of the alumni network. Donations of any amount help alumni feel  more engaged with the University. As a result they will hopefully give more generously and, more importantly for students, get recent graduates a foot in the door in a wide range of industries.

Additionally, these funds have practical effects on the current state of affairs on East Hill. The donations to the Annual Fund can be used immediately and without restrictions — something that is crucial in helping to deal with the short-term problems and needs that face the administration.

But despite these benefits, the unprecedented success of the Annual Fund should not be mistaken for a solution for the budgetary issues that have plagued the University since Fall 2008. Donations should still be actively pursued, but they are not a sustainable long-term solution for departments and other University appendages in desperate need of funding. For example, donations, along with grants and other forms of temporary funding, were able to help Cornell Cinema shore up its budget this year after losing $13,000 of funding from the Student Activity Fee. But these temporary patches are no replacement for sustainable forms of revenue, and the Cinema is only able to put off difficult budget decisions with these gifts, not avoid them altogether.

Cornell has a long road back to reaching its pre-collapse financial clout. The Strategic Plan — the University’s long-term strategy for improving the educational experience while operating with a reduced budget — is a recognition of this fact. So while donations solidify the strength of Cornell’s alumni network and infuse colleges and departments with flexible funds, adhering to a broader sustainable financial strategy is still a necessity.