Bathed in the dusky haze of the afternoon sun, the smell of freshly mowed grass hovering as an undeniable harbinger of spring, the University of La Verne baseball and softball teams on April 8 don...
It’s not easy to ask for donations, but they’re the lifeblood of the University of La Verne, which can offer top-notch faculty and facilities because of them.
You get an e-mail from someone at the University Advancement office at your alma mater. Or perhaps a letter. Or a phone call. Or maybe all three. You know what’s coming: They’re going to ask you for money.
OK, fine. You had a good experience in college. You pull out your checkbook (or its electronic equivalent), make a donation, and that’s that.
Except it’s not. You know they’re going to ask you again next year, or maybe even in a few months. Sure, it feels good to help out the old school. But don’t they ever get enough? Why do they keep asking for money year after year? And don’t you wonder where that money really goes, and how it actually benefits the university?
“People think that donations just roll in automatically to institutions — especially the big ones, like USC, for instance,” said Michael Welch, Associate Vice President for Annual Giving, Alumni Relations and Advancement Operations at the University of La Verne. “Well, they don’t. People have to be asked. If people gave by their own volition, you wouldn’t need fundraisers. It takes a lot of time and effort.”
Housed in a small, modest building in Old Town La Verne that once served as the university’s health center, La Verne’s University Advancement office is where many of those calls, letters and e-mails have their origin, at least in a general sense. And, unlike the days when students strolled through the doors with a sprained ankle or in need of an allergy shot, the focus of those in the building today is on the health of the entire institution. Without them, the university literally would not be what it is today.
“Without planned gifts, we wouldn’t have the new Campus Center,” said Robert Earhart, associate vice president for University Advancement, referring to the recently completed Sara & Michael Abraham Campus Center that opened its doors in the fall of 2009, and describing one of the forms of donor giving the university employs. The lion’s share of the funds for the building came from members of the university’s Board of Trustees. But beyond that, donations had to be generated through old-fashioned fundraising. “Planned gifts played a central part in meeting our goals. And it provides undergirding for the future well-being of the university.”
Going beyond the checkbook response to a phone call or an email, planned giving can provide donors with an opportunity to give over a longer term — and it can give their gift a life beyond a one-time response.
Endowed scholarships represent another form of planned giving that can provide donors with a lasting legacy at the University of La Verne. La Verne biology professor and Natural Sciences Division Chair Robert T. Neher and his wife, Mary, have established an endowed scholarship to help students in the natural sciences. The principal is maintained, while the interest generated is used to help students with their tuition.
Still, don’t most of the University of La Verne’s funds come from tuition? Why worry so much about fundraising?
“We are a tuition-driven institution,” Earhart said. “Most of our revenue comes from tuition. But about 2-3 percent has to come from other sources. That’s where fundraising comes in. It may not sound like much, 2 to 3 percent. But if you think of your own finances, where let’s say you had expenses for mortgage, car payment, insurance and so forth totaling $50,000, but you made only $48,000, what would you not pay for? That $2.5 million is extremely critical.”
Ultimately, as those who work in the old health building will tell you, it’s not really about the money. It’s about providing the best learning environment for students.
“That’s what we’re about in the very best case, managing money to help change students’ lives while giving donors joy in making that possible,” said Jean Bjerke, Vice President for University Advancement. “I believe giving is a wonderful thing. We have a wonderful tradition of philanthropy and support for non-profits. I give to La Verne and other institutions, so I’m not embarrassed to ask. If I ask for a donation, it’s always to something I’ve made a gift to first.
“You have to believe in what you’re doing, and that has to come through. I love what I’m doing. I don’t mind asking people to donate because I believe in this institution and what it’s all about. I’m very motivated to invite people to give, but I also want to find ways to make it meaningful for them. When we were raising money to refurbish the Ann and Steve Morgan Auditorium (formerly Founders Auditorium), a trustee asked me if he could donate to the remodeling project. Later, he thanked me for giving him an chance to give, for the opportunity to do something meaningful for the university.”
As Welch points out, it is about involving those who were once connected to the university, or who continue to have something invested in it, to feel connected and involved in the ongoing work of the institution. “We say, ‘Here’s an opportunity to feel good and contribute.’ ”
It might help to know, when that call or e-mail comes in, that the size of the gift is not as important as the simple fact that you give. A foundation considering a contribution to an institution often bases its decision on the percentage of alumni who continue to support their alma mater — not on how big those donations are.
“To a large extent, our job is to communicate that much of what we have here at the university is made possible by the alumni who came before,” Welch said. “We try to get that message out in every possible way we can.”
For Earhart, it goes beyond finding creative ways to generate funds.
“What’s special about La Verne is that it’s found a way to make a liberal arts education available to many people who would not have had that opportunity,” he said. “Thousands of students have come here who probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college otherwise. The University of La Verne embraces them and gives them opportunities to develop personally and provide them with motivation that transforms their lives. People four or five years out of college come back and say, ‘La Verne changed me.’ Hundreds of people who come to school here are the first in their families to go to college.
“I feel I’m part of something special here. In a small way, I’m part of the success of those students. It’s like preaching — you don’t see the results right away. People sometimes ask me why I left the ministry. I don’t feel I did. This is another form of ministry, helping people to be something more than they would have been if not for your involvement.
“I enjoy my job. I’m not just raising money for someone’s salary. The gifts I help people make are helping perpetuate and sustain La Verne. People who make these gifts can really feel good because their gifts are helping sustain the University of La Verne and its concern for students.”