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Educated investments: University endowments range in value, are alike in mission

DeAnna Carlson Zink, CEO of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation, displays historic pottery from UND's Margaret Cable collection in her office in the Gorecki Alumni Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

With higher education in flux across the country, steady sources of funding are hardly guaranteed.

The drawdown of state dollars for many institutions could make outside fundraising an even more attractive option than it is today. In North Dakota, as with most of the colleges and universities in the country, much of that fundraising goes toward building and growing an endowment, a pool of investment funds that grow over time and send gains back to campus.

The institutions of the North Dakota University System differ in the total values of the endowments at their disposal, with larger schools having the largest investment portfolios. But in other, structural ways, the endowments are marked with similarities.

For example, at UND, the university endowment is in the wheelhouse of the UND Alumni Association and Foundation. The involvement of an alumni foundation in maintaining these funds is a standard feature across the NDUS.

DeAnna Carlson Zink is the CEO of UND's foundation. As the largest school in the NDUS, it adds up that the investment portfolio is sized to match.

Carlson Zink said the total endowment that serves the university is about $283 million. That number doesn't include all of the money in the foundation's portfolio—rather, it gives an idea strictly of the endowed funds, dollars earmarked for specific purposes on the UND campus.

The total value of a university-affiliated investment portfolio can be significantly higher. Milo Smith, communications director for the UND Foundation, said the investments of the organization also include various trust funds as well as more diverse assets, such as mineral rights. When all those assets are rolled together, the total investments held by the UND Foundation comes out to a whopping $340 million. However, for the task of defining an endowment, Smith downplayed the big number.

"It's not a number that we really use," he said of the investment portfolio in its entirety. "It's not one that is relevant to what we're doing."

The endowment funds that regularly find their way to students is conservatively invested in assets that attract long-term gains. At UND, as is the case at many other NDUS institutions, the actual investment is managed by a third party. UND is partnered with the national SEI Investments Company.

The more local level of management is overseen by a board of directors who form policies that guide the nature of the investment strategy. As a nonprofit, the foundation is audited on a regular basis.

Carlson Zink said donors provide their gifts with specific endowment agreements to instruct how the money is to be spent to benefit UND. Returns from endowments are largely dependent on how the financial market performs in a given year.

Giving back

On average, Carlson Zink said, the funds returned to campus from the endowment total about $7 million per year. Over the past five years, she said, the endowment impact has been $32.6 million. In total, including one-time gifts made to UND through the foundation, gifts to campus amounted to $20 million over the past fiscal year.

During fiscal year 2016, fundraising produced a total of $26.3 million, the highest level of funding yet provided through the foundation. That sum was hit thanks to donations to cover major capital projects on campus, such as the Collaborative Energy Complex.

As the university continues its fundraising, she said, that number has steadily increased. The foundation now oversees more than 1,400 established donor endowments.

To the south, North Dakota State University has a similar trove in its own warchest. John R. Glover, president and CEO of the NDSU Foundation and Alumni Association, said the total endowment for the university is about $175.5 million. Just like at UND, the foundation has other investments besides the endowment. In total, Glover said the entire portfolio is worth almost $208 million.

The returns to campus are approximately the same as at UND and are guided each year by the foundation's investment committee. That group, Glover said, keeps track of the endowment portfolio's gains and makes recommendations for how much to allocate in campus spending for the year.

In the past fiscal year, the NDSU Foundation gave a total of just over $20 million in support to the campus, broken down into $14.8 million for building support and $3.75 million in scholarships. Of the total endowment, Glover said $104.2 million, or nearly 60 percent, is earmarked for student scholarship support, with the rest divided among other areas of campus.

Smaller funds

Foundations at North Dakota's smaller universities are also doing their part to attract donations. John Klocke, head of the Mayville State University Alumni Foundation, said the total MSU endowment is about $6.5 million, all of which is pegged for scholarships.

Like the larger organizations, he said the MSU Foundation's investments are overseen by outside fund managers who use foundation board policy to guide investment strategy. That outlook, Klocke said, is intended to keep the funds "balanced and secure over the long term." The foundation's board of directors maintains accountability for its managers by requiring them to provide annual presentations, Klocke said. Depending on how the markets do in a given year, that board directs between 1 and 5 percent of its endowment balance to student scholarships.

The four-year universities aren't the only institutions that maintain endowments.

Lake Region State College is supported in part by the Community College Foundation. LRSC representative Erin Wood said that foundation has been around since 1959 and funds the typical areas covered by its equivalent organizations at other institutions.

The Community College Foundation currently has more than 150 individual endowments, most of which go to supporting scholarships, and manages a total investment portfolio of about $9.7 million—$6.3 million of which is in permanently restricted endowments, the funds specifically earmarked according to donor wishes.

Each year, Wood said, the foundation awards more than $250,000 in scholarships.

Across the Red River in East Grand Forks, Northland Community and Technical College has a total investment pool of more than $3 million, nearly all of which is restricted in the endowment. Lars Dyrud, executive director of the NCTC Foundation, said the gains from most of that money go toward scholarships. As with the other foundations, annual campus funding is set to the strength of the market. And, again, the funding is overseen by an investment manager with a "pretty tight, conservative policy" guiding how assets are distributed.

Over this past year, Dyrud said, the foundation distributed a total of about $150,000 to the college. Dyrud said investments are reviewed regularly, and the foundation is audited on a yearly basis.

NCTC is also currently in the midst of a major funding push to add to the foundation's coffers. With the help of the Engelstad Family Foundation, the college is looking to the prospect of receiving up to $100,000 in matching funds if NCTC can raise $100,000 on its own by April 1. Dyrud said the organization is currently at about $40,000.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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