The University of Nebraska's fundraising arm is no longer just weathering the recession. It's whipping it.
The NU Foundation raised a record $172 million this fiscal year, beating a previous record set just before the 2008 stock market crash.
The foundation now controls roughly $1.7 billion in assets, its highest-ever total despite a two-year recessionary dip related to the market plunge and reduced giving.
Foundation leaders say this money is funding programs in water usage and early childhood education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
It's financing new buildings and low-income scholarships at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
And it's paying for eye research at the Medical Center that could lead to breakthroughs in the knowledge and treatment of glaucoma and macular degeneration.
“It's a really good year,” NU Foundation President Clarey Castner said Friday. “I think the University of Nebraska is on a tremendous trajectory. The year that the foundation has had is reflective of that.”
Thousands of new donors, some working in Nebraska's surging agricultural economy, have helped produce the foundation's record year.
UNL's move to the Big Ten has helped, too. Castner cited it as one example of bold leadership by NU President J.B. Milliken and the university's four chancellors, including UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman.
Donors like to fund big, bold ideas proposed by university leaders, Castner said.
The foundation's finance committee — composed mostly of financial industry types who also are NU donors and foundation board members — have helped by beating the stock market during a tough period for most investors.
This year, the finance committee, chaired by veteran Omaha corporate attorney Deryl Hamann, grew the foundation's main endowment by approximately 22 percent. That performance exceeded all but 9 percent of similar endowments nationwide, Castner said.
The group's conservative investment principles meant it had plenty of cash on hand at the outset of the recession, Castner said. The foundation avoided having to sell stocks and bonds when the market was low in order to pay off unpaid obligations.
“I've been told by other folks, outside consultants, that we have the highest functioning investment committee in the country,” Castner said.
The fruits of the fundraising arm's success can easily be seen at UNO, where new buildings and newly renovated buildings dot the growing campus.
Carl and Joyce Mammel donated millions to build a state-of-the-art, $27 million business college that opened last year near the Peter Kiewit Institute on the Aksarben campus.
That meant the business college could move out of Roskens Hall, said Lori Byrne, a foundation vice president and director of development for the UNO campus.
In turn, Roskens Hall received a $13 million face-lift thanks to sizeable donations from George Haddix and Ruth and Bill Scott, she said.
Now UNO plans to turn Kaiser Hall, the former education college, into a one-stop academic resource center where students can get tutoring help and scholarship assistance. That renovation will likely be funded by private donations as well.
Private donations aren't just building UNO with brick and mortar, Byrne said.
Jim Young, the chairman and CEO of Union Pacific Corp., and his wife, Shirley, donated $1 million this year to fund need-based scholarships.
Young, a UNO graduate, worked several jobs to pay for college and wants to help others in similar financial situations, Byrne said.
That $1 million donation will fund around 10 need-based scholarships annually.
“We don't just build buildings, we raise money for program and faculty and student support,” Byrne said. “The buildings can only be one part of the equation. You need these other pieces to make a successful institution.”
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