LINCOLN — Like most of their counterparts across the country, charitable foundations representing Nebraska and Iowa colleges and universities enjoyed a significant boost in their fundraising in 2011.
In most cases, total gifts collected last year returned to levels not seen since before the Great Recession hit in 2008.
"There is more optimism now, but there still continues to be caution," said Larissa Holtmyer Jones, assistant vice president for development at the Iowa State University Foundation. "It does not yet feel like it did in 2008."
Always important, private fundraising is becoming an increasingly critical component of an arms race in U.S. higher education.
Colleges and universities turn to private donors for projects that increase their prestige and give them a competitive edge: state-of-the-art laboratories and donor-funded pay supplements to woo research superstars; flashy athletic facilities to recruit marquee-level athletes and their fans; and scholarships to secure a top-notch student body and to help students cope with spiraling tuition and debt.
Nationwide, total charitable contributions to U.S. universities and colleges grew 8.2 percent in 2011 for a total of more than $30 billion, according to an annual survey conducted by the Council for Aid to Education. Nearly 60 percent of the 1,009 institutions participating in the survey reported increased giving in 2011.
It marks a welcome turnaround from the stagnant or declining giving that U.S. higher education experienced in recent years.
Charitable contributions still make up a small fraction of college operating costs. Total gifts equaled 6.5 percent of college expenditures in 2011, which includes the amounts given for endowments and construction.
The top 20 fundraising schools, led by Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities, raised a combined $8.2 billion, or 27 percent of the total raised by the institutions that participated in the survey.
The NU Foundation raises funds on behalf of all four campuses in the NU system: the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Lincoln, Kearney and Omaha campuses.
The gift increases seen at major public and private institutions in Nebraska and Iowa ranged from 9 percent at the University of Iowa to 55 percent for the University of Nebraska system.
The NU Foundation collected $171 million in charitable gifts last year, a record, while the University of Iowa received $123 million. Iowa State's Foundation reported a 10 percent increase, to $63 million.
Peter Whitted, chairman of the NU Foundation, said the national survey is based on cash receipts, not pledges, and as such doesn't fully reflect Nebraska's fundraising success during the economic downturn. If pledges by donors are included, Nebraska actually saw steady increases in giving throughout the recession.
That's partly because Nebraska has been in the middle of a $1.2 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign. That resulted in several major gifts to NU, including $50 million from the Robert B. Daugherty Foundation to establish an institute studying water resources and food supply and a $25 million gift from Texas cattleman Paul Engler to create an agricultural entrepreneurship program.
NU officials also project that private contributors will provide $200 million toward a new cancer center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and about $40 million of the $63 million cost to expand the east side of Memorial Stadium.
Nebraska and Iowa officials cautioned that private fundraising is not a substitute for state support.
"Philanthropic donors do make a difference, but they're not going to replace state dollars," said Holtmyer Jones of Iowa State.
In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman initially questioned whether state financial assistance was necessary to build a $370 million cancer center proposed for the NU Medical Center, considering the size of the NU Foundation's endowment.
In a recent interview, however, he said he now sees the project as a "Nebraska asset" worthy of state support.
At a private institution such as Creighton University in Omaha, philanthropy is even more important — both to the core mission and to providing affordable access to students, said spokeswoman Deborah Daley.
"Our donors recognize that the mission of Creighton University is more vital than ever," she said, pointing to a $3 million gift from Creighton alumnus George F. Haddix to support research and a $1 million gift from the estate of Herbert and Minnie Puller to create a faculty endowment in endocrinology at Creighton's School of Medicine.
Forrest Meyer, executive director of strategic communications for the University of Iowa Foundation, said donors did not forget the university during the economic downturn.
"Some of our major contributors took a wait-and-see attitude. They were planning to give something, but it was a matter of how and when," he noted.
In the 2011 fiscal year, Meyer said, the University of Iowa had a record number of contributors: 74,500 people.
So far this year, the Iowa State Foundation is seeing a substantial increase in "annual giving" by midcareer people who donate from $100 to $1,000 per year. Average gifts have increased from $166 last year to $193 this year.
Holtmyer Jones said she can only speculate that people have weathered the recession and now are less fearful of losing their jobs.
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