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Despite shaky economy, 'Spirit' campaign makes strides

It's a coincidence that the biggest fundraising campaign in UND's history is taking place during just about the most difficult time in the nation's economic history. But, to hear from UND Foundation CEO Tim O'Keefe, it's not a coincidence that th...

Ignite the Spirit
Streamers fall during the finale of the "Ignite the Spirit" program last academic year in UND's Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks. Herald photo by John Stennes.

It's a coincidence that the biggest fundraising campaign in UND's history is taking place during just about the most difficult time in the nation's economic history. But, to hear from UND Foundation CEO Tim O'Keefe, it's not a coincidence that the foundation continues to make headway toward its $300 million goal.

With about two years to go before the North Dakota Spirit campaign is scheduled to end, the foundation has about $226 million in donations and pledges. Fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, saw the most money raised of any in the past six years since the campaign began, about $50.5 million

This campaign is the first in which the university is an active player, and the foundation plays more of a support role rather than the leading role that it's taken in past, O'Keefe said.

Getting people to give money for intangibles requires they be inspired, and, logically, it's going to be UND's deans, faculty and students who are the best candidates, not the professional development officers at the foundation.

"They're the ones with the story, they're the ones with the dreams," said campaign Co-Chairwoman Linda Pancratz.

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UND is already reaping the benefits. Before the campaign, the foundation passes an average of $5 million a year to the university, said foundation Chief Financial Officer Laura Block. Since the campaign began in fiscal year 2006, the average has been $12 million per year.

Relief

So, what does it mean for UND to play a leading role?

University Provost Paul LeBel is the one to talk to, said O'Keefe, because, more than anyone that he works with at UND, LeBel "gets it."

"I appreciate him saying that I'm one of the ones who gets it, but the reality is fundraising is so important today that a dean couldn't be effective in his job without a vision for fundraising," LeBel said.

Donations are simply playing a more important role for public universities today, the provost said. Universities are becoming more complex, they're asked to do more and the cost of running them keeps rising.

State funding, he said, has been "generous," but it can't keep pace. That puts pressure on increasing tuition -- which the university is committed to keeping affordable -- and on grants and contracts from outside sources, such as federal agencies, he said.

Donations relieve that pressure.

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Close contact

O'Keefe said that, under LeBel, the communication between the foundation and the university is unprecedented.

One example of what they might talk about is for instance, the best way to pay for new buildings for the College of Business and Public Administration and the College of Education and Human Development.

Practically speaking, the business school tends to have more well-heeled alumni than the education school. So, if both needed new buildings, the business school might approach its alumni network and the education school might talk with the Legislature.

What the foundation can then do is facilitate a meeting between the dean of the business school and maybe students with donors. This way, the people with the dreams can talk to the people with the money.

"Fundraising isn't going out and telling people what you need," LeBel said. "Fundraising is getting them to buy into your vision of what the university and the college could be."

Ideal giving

Ideally, though, the donors wouldn't pick where the money goes. That's a harder sell, but it happens.

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Rick Bergum, the owner of several agribusinesses, major donor and UND Foundation chairman, and his wife Jody found themselves donating funds to an endowment for the music program that they really didn't know much about at first.

"I'm in the grain business," Rick Bergum said. "I don't know who should get what, or where the money should go for the chairs. I left it to the president." People like to put money into buildings, he said, but he prefers his giving with no strings attached because it's more useful to UND that way.

The stock market

Though O'Keefe and others at the foundation will marvel at how the North Dakota Spirit campaign has weathered the recession, they'll also admit that it does have an impact on giving to some extent.

There can be a big difference between the amount of money pledged and the amount of money actually donated. When the stock market took a huge dive in fiscal year 2009, the amount of money raised actually went up, from $35.8 million the year before to $43.4 million that year. The amount of money handed over, however, dropped from $21.5 million to $12.9 million. In other words, donors pledged more, but donated less.

Bergum said the stock market's performance certainly affects him. He still has a pledge at UND that he hasn't quite fulfilled, he said, and is waiting for the stock market to pick up. When a stock you own drops from $30 to $20 a share, he said, "it takes more shares to give the same amount."

Still, the market's been mostly up this past fiscal year and the same divergence in pledges and donations appeared. The total amount raised shot up from $27.9 million in fiscal year 2010 to $50.5 million this past fiscal year. The amount actually donated dropped from $16.2 million to $12 million.

If nothing, that shows that when the going gets tough, UND's friends think more of it, even if they can't send money right away.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send email to ttran@gfherald.com .

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