Statistical analysis collected by a New York-based council for institutions of higher education reveals that while other colleges and universities boasted increased donation revenues from the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Vassar College experienced a period of notable decrease. Despite the public announcement of these findings, financial officers at the College remain relatively unconcerned with the discrepancy in charitable giving and its general impact on the functioning of the institution due to extenuating financial circumstances related to the final year of the sesquicentennial campaign.
On Sunday, Feb. 1, The Poughkeepsie Journal published an article regarding a rise in donations at local mid-Hudson Valley institutions, such as Marist College and the United States Military Academy at West Point. However, the article also discussed a drop in donations to Vassar College and Dutchess Community College (The Poughkeepsie Journal, “Marist sees rise in donations, Vassar, Dutchess down,” 02.01.15). The article noted that donations to Vassar fell from $56.56 million to $41.3 million in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, a 27 percent drop. Meanwhile, donations to Marist saw a 14.1 percent increase this year and gifts to the West Point Association of Graduates topped $52.62 million, an increase of 37 percent. These statistics came from a survey conducted by the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), which covered 105 universities, colleges and community colleges in New York.
The CAE is an organization committed to helping educational institutions measure and improve learning outcomes for their students. They maintain the nation’s premier database on fundraising outcomes at higher-education institutions. Through the Voluntary Support of Education (VSE) survey, CAE provides the only tool for benchmarking fundraising in the nation’s colleges and universities.
The report found that Sarah Lawrence College and Westchester Community College also recorded noteworthy increases in charitable giving, while it decreased for the State University of New York at Purchase and for Rockland Community College. On a national scale, charitable donations to colleges and universities rose last year by an average of 13.7 percent, which was the strongest increase in donations since 2000.
In regards to the increased donations to the Military Academy at West Point, representatives from the institution were quick to note that some of the funding represented single, large-sum donations. Senior Director of Development Engagement for the West Point Association of Graduates Samantha Soper spoke about the increase in donations and attributed them to two estate gifts from donors.
The association is also engaged in a multi-year fundraising campaign, For Us All: The Campaign for West Point, which has helped fund an annual leadership conference in the past and an expansion of the West Point Cemetery and construction of a new lacrosse facility.
While Vassar saw a drop in donations this year, Vice President for Alumnae/i Affairs and Development Catherine Baer explained that it was neither unusual nor particularly concerning due to similarly time-specific financial situation. The 2013 Fiscal Year was the last year of Vassar’s $431 million “Vassar 150: World Changing” campaign, and it was the most successful year in fundraising in the college’s history, securing $56.56 million in gifts and donations.
According to Baer, the gifts that were made a top priority included the endowed scholarship aid, the construction of the integrated science center, the renovation of Swift Hall and the annual fund, among others.
Baer commented, “[C]oming out of a highly-successful, multi-year campaign, organizations always see a drop in giving. That said, the $41.3 million we raised in FY ’14 was the third largest amount given to Vassar in a single year. The fact that West Point is currently in a multi-year campaign was highlighted by the Poughkeepsie Journal as one of the reasons for their successful year.”
According to Baer, the vast majority of donations come from alumnae/i, but Vassar also receives support from parents and friends of the College, as well as important national foundations. The Office of Alumnae/i Affairs and Development engages with donors throughout their lifelong relationship with Vassar, starting with students through the student gift and continuing all the way through estate gifts in which alumnae/i put Vassar in their wills.
Baer also spoke about a common misconception that people believe the only thing the office does is ask for money. She remarked, “Of course we do that—communications ranging from postcards to phonathon calls to emails go out to Vassar alumnae/i, parents and friends throughout the year asking for contributions to The Vassar Fund, and our gift officers personally visit thousands of potential donors. But asking anyone to contribute to Vassar is only going to be effective if she or he feels a close connection to the College.”
Baer discussed some of the ways that the Office of Alumnae/i Affairs Development engaging with alumnae/i: “It’s equally important that we are communicating effectively what Vassar is doing well, day in, day out, and so we work in coordination with all other parts of the College, especially the Office of Communications, to make sure that our alumnae/i, parents and friends are aware of that.”
She continued, “We also engage with our alumnae/i across the country and around the world through programs, networking activities and the efforts of our numerous club and affiliate volunteers. And we are always looking for new ways to communicate these messages. Last year, we had our first, and very successful, crowdfunding effort. We will be unveiling a similar effort this month.”
Gifts to the Vassar Fund are an important revenue stream and directly support the operations of the College. According to Vice President for Finance and Administration Robert Walton, “[W]hen there is a drop in gifts that requires that we immediately reduce spending at the College by reducing budgets of various departments by a corresponding amount in the same year that the total amount of gifts drops. Gifts are a key part of the College’s budget.”
Approximately eight percent of the operating budget is supported by annual contributions including gifts to the Vassar Fund and designated gifts and grants. Thirty-two percent of the budget is supplied by income from the College’s endowment, which is supported over time by gifts.