After making serious strides toward reaching its goal of $1 billion over the course of the academic year, donations to GW’s largest-ever fundraising campaign have grown by $25 million since February, reaching a total of roughly $740 million.
Members of the Board of Trustees announced the new total during their meeting Friday, which was far lower than the $110 million increase between October’s and February’s Board meeting. Still, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Aristide Collins said he thinks the University will hit the three-quarter benchmark on the fundraising blitz over the summer.
Collins said the campaign is right on target and has seen a healthy number of donations over the past year. The University counts 55,000 members in its donor pool, a 5,000-person increase since the total was last released in February.
“If you look at the campaign as a whole, it’s really a very good example of how people are really investing in GW,” Collins said. “I think that the pace over the past year has increased. There’s a lot of enthusiasm.”
He said that though the campaign will reach the $750 million marker during the summer, the University will wait to celebrate it until the fall, when students and parents are back on campus.
“It’s our inclination to do it when the family’s here, when everybody can acknowledge it,” he said. “We might have surpassed it then, but at least to put the stake in the ground and say, ‘We’re celebrating with everybody,’ I think it’s always good.”
University President Steven Knapp said in an interview that he’s content with how the campaign has been progressing since it publicly launched last June.
“That’s pretty rapid progress, and we just want to keep that going and build momentum on it,” he said. “I’m very excited with the way our students have engaged with the campaign, really dramatically increased in the participation rate, which is very, very important for the future.”
The senior class raised more than $128,000 this year from more than 60 percent of its students, the highest donation and participation counts in University history.
But nearly a third of the $25 million increase in donations since February was funded by two million-dollar donations. Gilbert Cisneros, a 1994 alumnus, and his wife Jacki Cisneros donated $7 million to the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences to fund the Cisneros Leadership Institute, which chairman of the Board Nelson Carbonell announced at the Friday meeting. The donation is in large part going to benefit Hispanic students, Carbonell said in an interview.
“I think the gift is really a terrific opportunity for the University to really improve in that area, have new resources that we wouldn’t have otherwise,” Carbonell said.
Carbonell said this isn’t the first time the couple has given to the University, either. They made a $1 million gift to financial aid at GW in 2011 after winning $266 million in the Mega Millions lottery.
Trustee George Wellde, who graduated with a master’s degree in 1976, also donated $1 million toward the Center for Career Services. Mark Shenkman, another trustee, made a $5 million gift for the Center for Career Services last year, the largest-ever gift from a sitting trustee.
Collins said the other two-thirds of the $25 million were collected or pledged and include a “couple large grants.”
The $110 million that officials brought in between October and February shows donations coming at an estimated pace of about $23 million per month on average, though that amount could also include pledged gifts.
That average gift total decreased by more than 60 percent between February and May, where gifts averaged about $8.3 million each month. The University does not release month to month giving totals, but rather makes announcements at points throughout the year.
Collins said the development office has seen “very strong momentum” throughout the campaign, bolstered donors who give annually or have given at multiple points in the fundraising blitz. Collins said it’s important to keep in touch with past donors in the hopes they will decide to give again.
“You also want to have major gift donors who give at one part of the campaign for one particular priority,” he said. “They may give to that same priority again. They may decide to give somewhere else, so you want to continue to cultivate and steward them as you go throughout the campaign.”
Experts say the decline in the rate of giving should not be a cause for concern.
Arthur Criscillis, a managing partner at the fundraising firm Alexander-Haas, said the University has “obviously hit some nice licks” in fundraising $215 million, or about a fifth of its goal, over the past 11 months. The campaign had already raised $525 million during its three-year quiet phase before launching in June.
“When you have the announcement and it’s public, there can be a period of time where it’s just not rocketing forward,” he said.
Criscillis said the large, multimillion-dollar donations in a campaign often come during the “silent phase” before it’s announced publicly. Those donations generally come from donors who have been giving to the University since before the campaign started, he said.
For example, billionaire philanthropists Michael Milken and Sumner Redstone, neither of whom attended GW, gave a combined $80 million last spring to rename the public health school.
But major gifts from first-time donors tend to take some time, said James Reber, a University of California, Berkeley graduate who operates a small fundraising firm.
“It might take you two meetings and some schmoozing,” he said. “It might take you six months just to get a meeting.”
Erika Bernal, the director of development and alumni relations at Marshall B. Ketchum University in California, said before universities present their fundraising campaigns publicly, they often try to raise about 50 percent of the campaign goal, so fundraisers don’t have to rely so heavily on large gifts in the first years of the public phase.
“There’s like a pyramid,” she said. “You need a pretty wide base of smaller level donors.”
Those donors, like parents and alumni with no prior history of giving, are generally “very good supporters, but don’t have the capacity” to donate six-figure or seven-figure gifts, Bernal said. Their gifts typically roll in during the first and second years of the public phase of the campaign and are smaller than the annual donation amounts in the private part of the fundraiser.
Major gifts often start to come back in during the tail end of the campaign in the form of matching agreements, she said.
“At the end you usually have your closers,” she said. “People who are willing to match gifts and say, ‘We’ll match up to $100 million if you can raise $100 million from an alumni base.’”
Collins said he expects to see more large gifts as the campaign continues.
“I’m just very very optimistic,” he said. “You can’t do this kind of work without being enthusiastic and excited about it, telling the GW story.”
Jacqueline Thomsen and Colleen Murphy contributed reporting.