BY CHLOE SORVINO | CAMPUS NEWS EDITOR
When alumnus Bart Kogan donated $500,000 to create a plaza in his name in 1999, it made him one of the top donors in GW’s history. The University’s modest academic reputation hardly made it a destination for million-dollar donations.
Since then, the University’s fundraising office has massively expanded, and recorded 21 donations of $1 million or more last year to pay for projects related to academics and research. But as administrators chart out the likely billion-dollar fundraising campaign this year, the University has to battle against its own history and make the right connections to land enough big gifts.
Reaching that goal, Kogan said, starts with the same question he was asked nearly two decades ago: Will you give?
“No one’s interested until they’re asked,” Kogan said. “They have to ask. If they don’t ask, they don’t get.”
University fundraising campaigns typically rely on large donors: 77 percent of university campaigns that raise at least $1 billion are funded by the top 1 percent of donors, according to a 2011 report from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
At universities that ran fundraising campaigns of at least $1 billion, the median largest gift was $86.1 million, according to the fundraising campaign report.
That creates a steep challenge for GW considering it has just 10 gifts that top $10 million in its history. GW’s largest gift ever is only $25 million.
77 percent of campaigns that raise at least $1 billion are funded by the top 1 percent of donors.
GW’s campaign is still in the “quiet phase,” which means development officers have had hundreds of conversations with past and prospective donors to gauge GW’s chances of fielding big gifts. The donations GW secures during that period are key before going public, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Mike Morsberger said.
“It hopefully gives people the sense of confidence that we’re already rolling and [makes them think] ‘I want to join that,'” Morsberger said.
Right now, GW’s development officers are trying to lay the groundwork for multi-million dollar gifts. That process is fraught with delicate discussions and uncertainty, said Rich Collins, GW’s associate vice president for law development.
“They’re getting to their big prospects,” Collins said. “They’ve been talking to them over the last 12, 18 or 24 months. Some of those discussions are probably moving along to find out if the donors are feeling better about their economy, or [are] at the stage of their life when they’re doing estate planning.”
He added that GW Law School is seeking a $10 million gift to fund two top faculty positions.
Pam Russell, communications director for CASE, said quiet phases have become longer since the recession, increasing on average by six months. That gives development officers time to find donors who can hand out a large donation as colleges try to collect nearly half of campaigns’ total hauls during the quiet phase.
‘We stay with people until the end’
When former director of development and alumni relations Michael Worth came to GW in 1983, he and his fewer than a dozen fundraising staffers stationed in Gelman Library struggled to solicit donations even from GW alumni.
Now, the department has about 200 staffers and a spacious office at 2100 M St. But he said when it comes to bringing in large gifts, the fundamentals are still there.
“For larger gifts, there’s no substitute to getting to know people and hearing from them what they want,” said Worth, who is now a professor of nonprofit management.
Over the past two years, the development office has brought in about $223 million towards the overall campaign.
GW’s largest donor overall is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one of the nation’s largest health philanthropies, which has given more than $125 million since 2002.
“For larger gifts, there’s no substitute to getting to know people and hearing from them what they want”
Administrators go to extreme lengths to make sure GW’s best prospects get attention.
Former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he considers it his duty to continue bringing in large gifts for GW. He recently helped GW secure a multi-million dollar donation from a woman’s will, after 30 years of taking the donor to basketball games and visiting her at her nursing home until her death this past year.
Trachtenberg connected with the woman through a New York City law firm that listed GW as one of the possible nonprofit groups to which individuals can bequeath their wealth. The donor wanted to donate to a foundation in D.C. because it was where her husband made his fortune.
“Eventually, she gave us a couple of million. Then a couple of million more. Over the years, she got older and sicker and if I had abandoned her at the end, she could have changed her mind. We stay with people until the end,” Trachtenberg said.
The development office also relies on trustees and high-level administrators to bring in donations, especially gifts that expand GW’s donor base by tapping those who aren’t alumni or parents.
When University President Steven Knapp was The Johns Hopkins University’s provost a decade ago, he connected with alumni and trustees from one of the best research institutions in the country. And when he came to GW to take on his current position, he brought some of those relationships with him.
One was with A. James Clark, who was a trustee for Johns Hopkins Hospital and is also the founder of one of the largest construction companies in the nation.
A few years later, he gave $8 million to fund engineering scholarships at GW; now his company is building the University’s most expensive academic building, the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall.
Wanted: More alumni participation
“There were commuters who would go home every night and they had no loyalty to the school. They would go home every night and disappear.”
This campaign will be the University’s third of this kind, and while that puts it ahead of competitor school Boston University in its first ever campaign, GW still needs to catch up to other peer schools.
Alumni will play a key role in GW’s fundraising campaign. In similar campaigns at 125 other schools, alumni participation made up about one-third of total donations, according to the CASE report.
But the University’s about 10 percent alumni giving rate still lags behind the averages of GW’s competing institutions that have campaigns of $1 billion or more.
The University continues to fight off a dangerous combination that makes it difficult to motivate alumni to donate: It has only a recent history of academic prestige, and lacks the kind of traditional school spirit energized by top sports teams.
Kogan said he remembers that when he was a student in the late 1960s, “there were commuters who would go home every night and they had no loyalty to the school. They would go home every night and disappear.”
The alumnus said he was recently approached about donating to GW’s latest campaign to name the terrace off the new entrance to Gelman Library.
“They have to ask for the right amount. If they ask for too much, the donor is embarrassed or uncomfortable,” Kogan said. “It’s all about hitting the hot button of what the donor wants to accomplish, whether it’s name recognition, tuition relief or supporting the school they went to, but they have to find that particular hot button.”