February 7, 2011

Cornell Donations Drop In 2010 Fiscal Year

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In contrast to last year’s fundraising record, private contributions to Cornell dropped sharply in the 2010 fiscal year, according to a report issued by the Council for Aid to Education on Wednesday.

Donations to the University declined by more than 31 percent, totaling approximately $308.2 million. In 2009, Cornell received $446.7 million in gifts and donations from alumni, corporations and endowed foundations.

Collegiate contributions have declined nationwide, with 13 of the top 20 fundraising universities — including Ivy League peers Columbia University and University of Pennsylvania — receiving fewer private donations than in the previous fiscal year.

In Cornell’s case, the sharp annual drop is “very misleading,” said Charles Phlegar, vice president of alumni affairs and development. Sanford Weill’s ’55 one-time donation of $170 million for construction projects at the Weill Medical College artificially inflated the 2009 figures, explaining the college’s dramatic declines this year, Phlegar said.

“Those numbers are skewed up and down based on large donations,” he said, adding that Weill’s gift was the largest in 2009.

In 2009, Cornell experienced a nearly one-third decline in its then $5.4 billion endowment and the administration aggressively pursued donors, inducing Weill to donate earlier than they had originally planned.

Colleges report fundraising totals to the Council for Aid to Education’s study in the fiscal year 2010 beginning July 1 and ending June 30.

At Cornell, fundraising since the end of the 2010 fiscal year “has rebounded” and the alumni base “continues to be big financial supporters” in spite of the weak economy, Phelgar said. In fact, the alumni affairs office’s donation total has increased at least 10 percent over the past 12 months.

In terms of the overall alumni donor base, Cornell fluctuates between 32 to 37 percent of graduates that contribute back to the University, Phlegar said.

Cornell’s average alumni giving rate is far lower than other peer institutions such as Princeton University, which reported receiving donations from more than 60 percent of alumni, according to US News & World Report.

Phlegar attributes Cornell’s lower contribution rates to an alumni base that is “much larger and more socioeconomically diverse” than most peer institutions.

He reiterated the importance of “small gifts” despite the Campaign for Cornell’s $4 billion fundraising goal. Initiated in 2006, the campaign pledges additional funding for ongoing construction projects such as Milstein Hall and for expanded financial aid accessibility.

Several alumni echoed Phelgar’s suggestion to donate regardless of amount.

“Every dollar counts, it doesn’t matter if it’s $25 or $50 or $50 million,” Nancy Dreier ’86, president of the alumni association, said.

Dreier reiterated that the most important factor is “participation at any level,” since the University “wants young alumni to feel connected.”

When they get older, it is possible that they will donate more substantial contributions, she added.

Dreier said that private donatons would “absolutely” return to the “historic trend line of increasing donations.”

“[Alumni] see the value in their Cornell education,” Dreier said, “and ultimately their responsibility is to continue that legacy.”

Original Author: Max Schindler