A balancing act: Officials weigh goals and donors’ desires when starting institutes

How much does it cost to start a research institute?

That probably depends on who you ask, experts say. GW’s two newest institutes were created with large donations, but the most recent, the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom, was started last month with a donation that is about $4.5 million smaller than the $7 million gift that created the Cisneros Institute for Hispanic Leadership last spring.

University officials said there is no minimum donation required to start an institute, but that discrepancy in amounts indicates the difference in scopes of the programs. The Cisneros Institute, created by alumnus Gil Cisneros, includes 10 scholarships and an endowed professorship. The $2.5 million for the Loeb Institute will cover the salary of a director, and officials said it is possible an endowed professorship would be added in the future.

Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations Aristide Collins said the amount of money used to start a center or institute depends on the interests of the donor – and their ambitions.

“Centers and institutes enhance the university’s focus on a specific academic mission in research, education and service, offering tremendous benefits to faculty and students,” Collins said in an email. “We focus on understanding potential donors’ interests and identifying areas where there are intersections with the university’s strategic priorities.”

As part of GW’s largest-ever donation, the Milken Institute School of Public Health created a center on global health in 2014. The total donation, a combined $80 million from billionaire philanthropists Michael Milken and Sumner Redstone, also renamed the public health school.

Rob Townes, the executive vice president of the fundraising consulting firm Sinclair, Townes and Company, said universities often establish institutes based on the wishes of the donor, and have to decide if the proposed contribution is enough to support it.

“It’s just a matter of degree, you can do more with 7 million than you can do with 2.5,” Townes said. “But here’s the thing, it may be that your student base increases because of that $2.5 million institute. It may be you get more students coming to the University because of that program.”

Townes said officials may hope to start institutes to strengthen their academic reputation. A successful research hub can bring in new top-level academics and boost a school’s reputation.

“In some way, shape or form, it’s going to circle back to money,” Townes said. “You just have to have these various assets to woo the smart students. That’s the game you’re in.”

Donations can also support portions of an institute. A $2.5 million from Board of Trustees Chair Nelson Carbonell will help fund the salary for the new director of an autism research institute. GW will also invest $5 million in the institute. Officials had originally said $10 million would be needed to create it.

Alan Hustson, a principal and managing partner at the fundraising firm The Monument Group, said officials will be strategic before deciding to create an institute. While officials always support the desires of a donor, they may have an idea of specific areas that they would like to see funded down the line.

“Universities are not random in how they choose those issues,” Hutson said. “Institutes are usually selected based upon specific strengths of a university, or things leadership wants to see improved.”

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