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Bay Area CSU campuses are beginning the process of developing a culture of giving among alumni

  • January 7, 2011

California State University campuses see that their futures lie as much in philanthropy as in the classroom or lab.

Both Cal State East Bay and San Francisco State have beefed up their development efforts in recent years, realizing that the vagaries of funding from government coffers are an uncertain foundation on which to build a quality institution.

In the hierarchy of university philanthropy, private colleges like Stanford are at the top of the development food chain.

A step below are large state universities, like University of California, Berkeley, which don't have quite as ingrained a tradition of "giving back" to the alma mater as do the privates, but are catching up.

Well behind the UCs stands the California State University system, which has little tradition of alumni giving or private philanthropic support. It is fast boning up on the practice, recognizing that state dollars are unreliable and insufficient. Less than half of San Francisco State's operating budget comes forom the state, said Robert Nava, vice president for university advancement at S.F. State.

"State funds, I think everyone recognizes, are barely able to handle basic needs to educate students," said Robert Burt, vice president of advancement at CSU East Bay. "Private philanthropy doesn't fill that gap, but it does provide the margin of excellence," which includes scholarships, research and endowed chairs, as well as some capital improvements and new buildings. Private philanthropic dollars give the school flexibility to try out new curricula or programs, or to meet what it determines are the highest needs.

Cal State East Bay relies heavily on foundation and corporate support for its private philanthropy; and its top 25 gifts for the year ended Oct. 31 ranged from just over $1.5 million from Chevron to a handful of $20,000 gifts from foundations.

As East Bay works to engage alumni and educate them about the school's need for philanthropic support, it has developed a strategy centered on "STEM" — science, technology, engineering, math — education. A glance at the 25 top donations speaks to the school's success with that focus, particularly among local corporations. (See List, Page 33.)

San Francisco State raises more money from private donors than does East Bay. It also gets more large gifts from individuals and alumni, in part because it has concentrated on the practice longer than has the younger CSU East Bay. S.F. State aims for donations from 15 percent of its alums, and a recent $5 million gift could help the school reach that goal.

"It sets an example for other alumni or friends of the university when a transformative gift like this is made ... both about the need and the opportunity," Nava said.

In the world of university development, success breeds success, so getting corporate support helps the school make the case to alumni that theirs is an institution worth supporting.

S.F. State averages $17 million in private support annually, though Nava says that many of the efforts to date are just setting up the infrastructure for a future in which private philanthropy will figure more prominently and more deliberately in campus life. Nevertheless, the momentum is positive. While the dollars raised fell during the recession, the number of gifts increased — a promising sign as the economy improves.

Similarly, Cal State East Bay is about to embark on a charm offensive to win the hearts and minds of current students, to lay the groundwork for a future of engaged and generous alumni.

It also will make a "major push" that has been in planning stages for some years now, Burt said. How much the school hopes to raise from this effort is as yet undetermined, but Burt said it represents a "major increase" in the university's fundraising efforts, including added staff.

"Ultimately, we want to bring in all alumni and create what we call a 'culture of philanthropy' that will survive this major push, so there is an awareness and value of support in the public university setting," Burt said.

This will be East Bay's first comprehensive fundraising campaign. In 2004, it raised $10.5 million in private support for the $30 million Wayne and Gladys Valley Business and Technology Center, but this campaign will go far beyond that.

S.F. State is currently building a creative arts campus thanks to philanthropic support. Manny Mashouf, founder of Bebe Stores Inc. and an S.F. State alumnus, made a $10 million leadership gift to it in 2005. The state will provide $260 million to the three-phase project, and $50 million will come from philanthropy. Phase one has begun; it includes a 1,200-seat theater and will be done in 2014.

Both schools have more than 100,000 alumni, though they have done a poor job of remaining in contact with them until recently.

As the privates have long known, to their great fortune, staying in close contact with grads and communicating to them the university's priorities, values and vision helps lay the groundwork for lifetime alumni involvement in the school — and also lifelong financial support.

"Private institutions have obviously for hundreds of years been involved in philanthropy, and there are legacies of families," Nava said. "Their's is a whole different environment. What we are seeing today is that public-assisted universities are beginning to focus aggressively on a culture of philanthropy that is based on private universities."

Of course, CSU campuses have far fewer development professionals to devote to the big business of fundraising. S.F. State has just eight development officers on the front line, with over 30,000 enrolled students and well over 150,000 alumni.

"Public dollars just don't stretch far enough," Burt said. "We know ultimately the kind of sustained support we need will come from our alumni base."

Cal State East Bay will add philanthropy czar

In the coming year, California State University East Bay's advancement division will allocate one of its employees to focus full time on developing student philanthropy.

The role will be largely educational, informing current students about the role that private philanthropy plays in keeping the school running and tuition low, how alumni support is critical to CSU East Bay's future success, if not existence.

East Bay's plans call for encouraging the graduating class to give the university a class gift, an act of commitment common enough at private colleges but less typical at a state school.

Another key message is that any gift matters, even just $5.

"There's always a place for a gift of any size, and that loyalty and recurring gifts are what ultimately sustains a university," said Robert Burt, vice president for university advancement and president of the Cal State East Bay Educational Foundation.

This is an entirely new direction for the school, and it is just planning how this effort will look.

"It's an investment in the future," Burt said. "When you look at our existing alumni base and realize how many are unengaged because they have not been participating in one way or another, ... a lot of that is because historically we have not kept their interest."

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