UMass gifts soar beyond expectations

06/28/2008
By From the Boston Globe

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has raised nearly $28 million in donations over the past fiscal year, 25 percent ahead of last year's pace, defying predictions that fund-raising would suffer following last year's departure of popular chancellor John Lombardi.The state's flagship university, whose fund-raising has traditionally lagged behind counterparts in other states, has surpassed the rosiest expectations with one of its strongest campaigns to date. Through the end of May, the 25,000-student school has received $5.4 million more in donations than at this point last year, and expects to top its year-end goal of $30.3 million.

That projected amount would trail the totals from two recent years, but both included unusually large donations that inflated the sums, university officials said. Fund-raisers credited a new strategy that targeted a broader range of incomes, particularly graduates who are well off but not exceedingly wealthy. Fund-raisers also succeeded in persuading regular donors to give more generously.

"We decided to change our approach somewhat, and it seems to have paid off," said Kenzie Thompson, UMass-Amherst's executive director of advancement.

Officials at the university and the five-campus system have identified fund-raising as a chronic weak ness and pledged renewed efforts to engage alumni support. With state funding unpredictable, university leaders say private donations are critical to attract top faculty, finance research, fund scholarships, and make capital improvements and are essential to the university's campaign to elevate its national standing among major research universities.

Across the five campuses, donations through the first three quarters of the fiscal year have risen $10 million over the same period last year, the highest mark in the past five years. After welcoming new chancellors, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell has already raised $2 million more than it did all of last year, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston is markedly ahead of last year's pace.

At UMass-Amherst, the unexpected increase countered gloomy projections after last spring's announcement that Lombardi would step down as part of a controversial shake-up of university leadership by Jack M. Wilson, system president. A number of deep-pocketed graduates rescinded millions in pledges after the news, and some faculty and lawmakers predicted Lombardi's absence would set fund-raising back years.

Instead, after three years of flat fund-raising, donations have surged, particularly major gifts of more than $10,000.

"There was some concern around the Lombardi situation, but alumni have really rallied around the campus," Thompson said. The greatest gains came from donations between $10,000 and $250,000, more than doubling last year's total from that category, she said.

In addition, gifts from major donors - between $10,000 and $1 million - exceeded $11 million, up from $7.3 million and well more than double the total from four years ago. The number of donations above $10,000 rose sharply, from 95 to 165.

The university, which has approximately 220,000 alumni, also expanded its base of donors by 1,000 to more than 32,000, the fourth consecutive yearly increase.

Lombardi, who became president of Louisiana State University in September, was praised for modernizing the university's fund-raising operation and for landing seven-figure donors. But critics said he failed to expand the donor base since arriving in 2002.

Interim Chancellor Thomas W. Cole Jr. credited the improved fund-raising to "effective campus collaboration, the dedicated alumni and friends of UMass-Amherst, and the growing recognition that UMass-Amherst offers an outstanding education."

Cole will be replaced by Robert C. Holub, the chief academic officer at the University of Tennessee, in August.

Thompson said that donors withdrew $14 million in pledges after Lombardi's departure was announced and that some major contributors are withholding donations until they have a sense of Holub's priorities and leadership style.

"Some of the larger donors are waiting," Thompson said. "They want to hear his vision for the campus."

Robert Connolly, a spokesman for the university system, said fund-raising gains reflected improved communication with potential donors and greater investment in outreach efforts.

More broadly, the university has enjoyed a heightened profile through well-publicized successes such as Craig Mello, a professor at UMass Medical School in Worcester who received the Nobel Prize, and the system's prominence in the state's $1 billion biotechnology initiative.

"You're seeing significant progress throughout the system," he said. "Money follows success, and there's a general sense that the University of Massachusetts is enjoying newfound levels of success."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.