By Matt Rocheleau
Massachusetts’ public universities, long overshadowed by their private peers when it comes to fund-raising, are increasingly hitting pay dirt.
Buoyed by a concerted effort by top administrators, the five-campus UMass system and the nine-campus state university network nearly doubled their annual private fund-raising totals over the past decade, allowing them to shore up their endowments as the state’s financial support for higher education has trended downward.
Recent generous gifts illustrate the campuses’ success in reaching donors. In just the past four months, UMass Amherst received gifts of $10.3 million and $10 million; Bridgewater State announced a record $3 million gift; and UMass Boston received a $1 million donation.
While such grand gifts receive most of the attention, it is the steady accumulation of more modest donations that is driving the bulk of the fund-raising.
“The numbers are better than they’ve ever been, and I’m very pleased with the progress we’re making, but we have a long way to go where we need to be,” said Robert L. Caret, president of the UMass system, which is in the midst of its first systemwide capital campaign, seeking to raise about $1 billion over the next several years.
“If we’re going to continue what we do — the education piece, the research piece, the social well-being piece — and to keep student costs affordable going forward, we will need other revenue sources,” Caret added.
Although Massachusetts has increased funding for state higher education over the past several years, the level of support is still significantly down from the early 2000s.
That fiscal landscape has made it more important than ever for public institutions here and around the country to focus on raising private money, experts said.
“A lot of public universities now have major fund-raising campaigns which are intensive and often multiyear campaigns; they’ve invested in their fund-raising programs and infrastructure; and they’ve produced a lot of successful alumni,” said Michael Worth, a George Washington University professor who has studied college fund-raising for more than 30 years.
Compared with a decade or two ago, fewer potential donors believe public colleges can survive on taxpayer funding alone, Worth said.
Still, private universities receive greater charitable support overall. Historically, they have been more aggressive and successful at soliciting donations, particularly in New England, which is home to a cluster of elite, high-profile private colleges.
“They’ve been at it so much longer,” Worth said. “Public universities are still catching up to that.”
A recent annual report by the Council for Aid to Education showed that donations to public schools across the country rose by 6.4 percent in 2013 from the previous year, but at a slower rate than at private colleges, which saw fund-raising jump by 11.4 percent.
The report also found that the percentage of alumni who donate to private colleges is higher, as is the average amount they donate.
Donations account for only about 10 percent of annual spending by colleges on average, the survey said. But the additional support can be critical, administrators said.
“If you factor in inflation, the cost of an education at UMass has actually stayed about the same,” said Marty Meehan, chancellor at UMass Lowell. “What has shifted is who pays for it. It’s gone from the state paying for most of it to students and families picking up most of the burden. So there’s a real need for private fund-raising.”
Many donors say they are drawn by being able to directly support students.
The $3 million gift to Bridgewater State came from Bruce R. Bartlett and his wife, Patricia A. Bartlett, who met while attending the college. The donation, the single largest gift in the school’s history, will go toward funding student scholarships.
“We realized that at most of the state colleges there’s a fair percentage of people that go there because they have limited budgets, and we thought it might help some students,” said Bruce Bartlett, who has founded numerous companies, including Plymouth-based BHI Energy.
Figures provided by state officials show that yearly donations to the UMass campuses increased from $63 million in fiscal 2004 to $111.5 million in fiscal 2014. Massachusetts’ nine state universities saw annual private gifts jump from $9.4 million to $18 million over that span.
Still, even the largest endowment among the state’s public colleges, UMass Amherst’s $296 million, is modest compared to those at many local private schools and even at some public universities elsewhere.
Public campuses across the state are hoping to close the gap by courting more donations, including large gifts. Schools have expanded fund-raising staffs and bolstered alumni outreach through phone calls, special events, and personal appeals to potential donors.
This spring, Salem State University officially launched a fund-raising campaign. Since the campaign’s “quiet phase” began in 2010, the effort has drawn five gifts of $1 million or more, said campus spokesman Tom Torello.
Worcester State University raised a record $6 million during fiscal 2013, more than double what it collected the previous year, said campus spokeswoman Renae Lias Claffey.
Across the UMass campuses over the last five years, gifts of $100,000 or more jumped by 73 percent to 152 percent in the most recent fiscal year, and the total number of gifts received annually rose by a steady 9 percent to 64,400 over that span.
“Giving is a building block approach,” said Charles Pagnam, UMass’s vice president for advancement and executive vice president of its foundation. “Consistency is a major reason for success."