Jan. 29, 2009

Phlegar: Annual gifts on pace as new campaign giving dips

University Photography
Charles Phlegar, vice president for alumni affairs and development

In the face of a weakening economy, there is a seeming paradox to giving to Cornell's $4 billion capital campaign. On the one hand, fiscal year 2009 donations to the Cornell Annual Fund, which is included in the campaign, are on pace with those for fiscal year 2008 -- Cornell's best year ever for fundraising -- and cash gifts to the campaign are higher than a year ago. On the other hand, says Charles Phlegar, vice president for alumni affairs and development (AAD), new commitments to the campaign are down by 50 percent compared with this time last year, and gifts of stock were down by 85 percent in December, compared with the month a year ago.

"People are continuing to make their annual gifts at all levels, which is a real sign of support for Cornell," Phlegar said. The Annual Fund, which receives unrestricted support given to meet Cornell's greatest needs, stands at $11.1 million for fiscal year 2009. That pace is in keeping with fiscal year 2008, when the fund raised $21.5 million.

Cash gifts to the campaign in fiscal 2009 are higher than a year earlier because donors are making good on pledges they made in previous years. And alumni who are 70 and older -- many of whom have shifted their wealth into more stable investments -- are also giving generously.

Even so, said Phlegar, giving to the campaign is down overall as the nation's economic woes worsen. "When we ask people for money," he noted, "people aren't saying 'no' as much as 'I just can't do it right now.'"

But this decline must be seen in the context of a very high level of giving. "We have to remember that our fundraising totals are not that far off from what we were doing three years ago," Phlegar said. "We have just increased [our fundraising] so radically over the last three years that we're benchmarking from a very high number."

But many are continuing to respond to the campaign's stronger emphasis on raising funds for undergraduate scholarships. "Without a doubt, financial aid is really a passion for Cornell alums. We'll be spending a lot of time on that in the years to come," said Phlegar.

The emphasis reflects President David Skorton's commitment to the university's undergraduate population and to economic diversity. The campaign aims to raise $350 million for undergraduate scholarships, as well as additional funds for graduate fellowships.

Despite the downturn, the campaign's scope and timeframe remain the same: to raise $4 billion over five years, Phlegar said. "Those needs are clearly defined, and we'll continue to work toward them. We're at about $2.5 billion, with three years remaining in the campaign."

Until the economic tides turn, AAD staff members are hard at work, and traveling more, to stay engaged with potential donors. The staff is also working on a new online social networking system for all Cornellians and new programming for current students and young alumni. Campaign-related events are selling out across the country.

"We're seeing more activity and more interaction with donors and prospects than we've ever seen," Phlegar said. "But we realize that people's financial situations have changed drastically, and we have to be thoughtful about approaching them."