Competitors top GW in donations received last fiscal year

Donors gave the University $98.5 million last fiscal year, a smaller amount than 10 competitor schools received, though GW saw its largest-ever total of pledged gifts.

The $98.5 million only includes gifts received during the fiscal year, not pledged gifts, which brought the University’s fiscal year fundraising total to more than $191 million. Still, GW’s peer schools received $260 million on average last fiscal year, according to data released last week by the Council for Aid to Education.

Among GW’s competitor schools, the University of Southern California brought in $732 million, an amount that made it the third-largest fundraiser in higher education last fiscal year. Northwestern University received about $616 million, the fourth most.

Northwestern is one of five competitor schools in the middle of a multi-year fundraising campaign, and it landed a single gift of more than $100 million last fiscal year. That gift, from Warren Buffett’s sister, made Northwestern just one of five schools to land a gift of that size, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported. Emory University, another peer, also received a gift of more than $100 million.

Ann Kaplan, who has conducted the CAE survey for more than a decade, said it will “almost certainly” show different totals than those in school reports. Colleges and universities often count pledged gifts that donors commit to that year, but those donations could take years to appear fully in a school’s account.

GW’s pledged gifts more than quadrupled since fiscal year 2013, from $16 million to $85 million, Kaplan said. That fiscal year 2014 total includes the largest gift the University has ever received: a combined $80 million pledged by billionaires Michael Milken and Sumner Redstone to rename the public health school.

“The larger the gifts, the more likely it is to have been pledged,” Kaplan said. “It has to do with the payment schedule [the donors] work out with the institution.”

Richard Ammons, a senior consultant at the fundraising firm Marts & Lundy, said donors will typically give large gifts over the course of three to five years. He said pledged gifts help schools make plans for down the line and gauge overall fundraising performance.

“A pledge allows the institution to make financial plans based on the expected payout of the gift and, yes, it does give a more robust picture of fundraising performance,” Ammons said.

Ammons also said GW’s peers may have had larger fundraising totals because of more experience in asking for donations.

“I think some of it has to do with how long schools have been raising money,” Ammons said. “Those schools that are at the top part of that average. They’ve been in the business of developing philanthropic programs probably a lot longer.”

Ammons said the size of a school’s alumni base, the percentage of alumni participation and a school’s investment in its development office can also make a difference. The University’s alumni have historically donated at a rate of about 9 percent, lower than most of its peer schools.

Still, across the nation, alumni donation rates dropped last year to about 8.3 percent, or by about 0.4 percentage points from the year before, the Chronicle reported.

Michael Nilsen, the vice president for public affairs at the Association for Fundraising Professionals, said he expects to see donations to schools continue to increase as the economy improves.

“Maybe it won’t surpass that [overall total], but I think it will still be high,” Nilsen said. “I don’t expect it to drop off too much.”

GW’s fundraising arm has been steadily growing, from a group that raised $84 million in 2009, one of the least among its peer schools, to publicly launching a $1 billion campaign last summer. Ammons said that campaign will likely help lift GW’s fundraising total for the next fiscal year.

Officials have already brought in more than $600 million for the campaign.

Nationwide, universities raised a total of $37.45 billion last fiscal year, the highest total in history and the fifth year of consecutive increases, according to the CAE data. Harvard University raised more than any school in history last fiscal year, bringing in more than $1.1 billion.

The University will also have to continue strengthening its fundraising operation as it searches for an official to lead the office. The former chief fundraiser, Mike Morsberger, stepped down for personal reasons in November.

GW has not provided a timeline for when Morsberger’s replacement will be chosen.

But Arthur Criscillis, a managing partner at the fundraising firm Alexander-Haas, said he would not expect to see “significant fallout” in donations because a school lost its head fundraiser. Other officials can continue building relationships with potential donors, he said.

Criscillis said “to have someone leave is not a fatal blow” if the leader left the office with plans for connecting with donors and finding new ones to expand GW’s pool.

“If you’re dealing with a key donor, those relationships in many instances that they have with the university can be multifaceted, and there can be other people who can kind of pick it up and run with it,” Criscillis said.

Colleen Murphy and Ryan Lasker contributed reporting.

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