Fundraising totals stabilized in fiscal year 2021 after previous year’s drop

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Institutions of higher education nationwide have faced recent difficulty meeting revenue and fundraising goals, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education report.

Updated: Sept. 15, 2021 at 12:29 a.m.

GW’s fundraising totals have stabilized after declining by millions of dollars from a recent peak in fiscal year 2019.

Fundraising totals dropped by 17 percent between fiscal years 2019 and 2020 – a downturn that dipped far below the national average of 0.2 percent that year – but slightly increased last fiscal year. Experts in higher education fundraising said GW’s incoming change in leadership could be an opportunity for administrators to push for increased donations.

Fundraising totals tallied $122.6 million in fiscal year 2019 and $102.5 million in fiscal year 2020. The data showed total fundraising at GW had a slight uptick to $105 million in fiscal year 2021, which ended June 30 and included nearly the first five months of the bicentennial celebration.

University spokesperson Crystal Nosal said the average alumni gift amount increased by 30 percent since fiscal year 2019 and officials have seen an increase in retention among faculty, staff and alumni donors.

She added that during fiscal year 2020, which ended on June 1, 2020, officials launched GW Cares, a 90-day fundraising initiative that created two new emergency relief funds for students and health care workers.

“We limited fundraising efforts beyond this initiative to be sensitive to our community,” Nosal said.

Higher education institutions nationwide have recently faced difficulty meeting revenue and fundraising goals. Officials worked to close a $180 million budget gap in fiscal year 2021, which led to extensive financial mitigation measures.

Nosal said the University received the largest single alumni donation in GW’s history at $22 million in October, and officials raised nearly $30 million for scholarship programs in fiscal year 2021, the second-highest year ever for scholarship fundraising.

“As GW enters its third century, we are excited about new initiatives planned to generate increased support for student scholarships, and we hope to be able to share more details about those plans this fall,” Nosal said.

The University’s most recent large-scale fundraising campaign ended in 2017, raising almost $1 billion under former University President Steven Knapp.

The recent fundraising totals are cast against the backdrop of a university that has faced the impacts of the pandemic and conflicts between administrators and community members.

Amid faculty dissatisfaction, University President Thomas LeBlanc announced in May that he would retire. Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights announced at a Faculty Senate meeting last week that LeBlanc would be leaving his office in January, and Mark S. Wrighton, the former chancellor at Washington University at St. Louis, would take over as interim president on Jan. 1.

Experts in higher education said a turnover in University leadership could help boost fundraising revenue if the new president can develop a detailed strategic plan that outlines their specific goals for fundraising.

Sandy Baum – a nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, and a former research professor of higher education finance at GW – said administrators at higher education institutions are most likely to blame when fundraising totals dip below the industry average.

“If it was a great year for most universities, and your university was unable to raise money, then people would be like, ‘What’s going on? How did that happen? Who’s at fault?’” Baum said. “But in the year when nobody’s successfully fundraising, people aren’t going to blame the administration for not successfully fundraising.”

Baum said a new University president could help revitalize fundraising efforts if numbers have slumped or if the community is unhappy with the current financial leadership. She said the president should formulate a new strategic plan for fundraising and community outreach at the start of their time in the position to set up the University for success.

“That would certainly be a positive thing, especially coming out of something problematic, as you are,” she said.

Scott Rembold, the vice president for university advancement at the Catholic University of America and an alumnus of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said loyal donors often are more attached to an institution than to a leader, so their level of commitment and desire to donate often won’t dramatically change after a leadership transition.

Rembold said donors rally around new leadership, meaning a new University president could reinvigorate public fundraising following a period of instability. He said the president and other senior administrators need to lay out a “bold vision” for the GW community.

“Making sure your academic programs are really competitive and robust are critical because the rankings, the prestige and the reputation of the academic reputation in the industry is really important,” Rembold said.

In April, various student aid and scholarship fundraising projects at GW made up the top six highest-grossing annual Giving Day initiatives, earning nearly half of the $1 million raised, according to data from the online donation website.

Rembold said university leaders will often take a few years to invest in school infrastructure, facilities and major projects after a major fundraising drive, like the $1 billion campaign that ended in 2017.

“These campaigns are really kind of organizing principles – they flow from the vision of the leadership and the vision of the Board of Trustees,” Rembold said.

Noah Drezner, a professor of higher education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said officials could see a small decrease in donations after a new University president takes office, because people who were happy with the former leadership may want to re-evaluate their giving, but it would likely rebound once administrators laid out a new strategic fundraising plan.

“Once the new president is announced, there’s excitement around their vision,” Drezner said. “Oftentimes, giving comes back just like that.”

Drezner also said administrators will generally wait until a major leadership transition passes before announcing a new fundraising campaign, like the Bicentennial Weekend drive. He said he thinks GW’s Bicentennial fundraising campaign will be successful, as donors and alumni celebrate such a historic marker in GW’s history.

“That’s something big to celebrate, 200 years of an institution, so there’s going to be momentum there,” Drezner said. “So I suspect that that campaign is going to be very successful, and you’ll reach your goal, whatever that number is going to be that’s going to be announced.”

This post was updated to clarify the following:
This post was updated to clarify that Drezner teaches at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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