UC Berkeley looks to philanthropy in place of state funding

Michael Drummond/Staff
Michael Drummond/Staff

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To solve its financial woes, the Haas School of Business has kept things personal: handwritten thank-you notes.

Last month, business students were asked to hand-write thank-you notes to show their appreciation for the more than 4,400 generous donors who were able to keep their school open through millions of dollars in donations. Donations fund about one-sixth of the school’s operating costs, according to a statement from the school.

In the face of declining state appropriations, the campus has looked to rely more heavily on philanthropy, according to Associate Vice Chancellor for University Relations David Blinder. In 1987, the state funded 54 percent of the university’s budget. In 2012, the state only supplied 12 percent.

UC Berkeley still lags behind its private peers with an endowment of a little under $4 billion. Harvard, Stanford and the University of Texas at Austin all have endowments significantly larger than UC Berkeley’s. In the past year alone, Stanford raised $1 billion.

While the average UC Berkeley alumnus has a midcareer salary of $103,000 — just $2,000 less than his or her counterparts from Columbia University — far fewer tend to donate to his or her alma mater. Over the last decade, an average of only 9 percent of UC Berkeley alumni have donated to the school, compared to 21 percent of alumni across all private institutions that are members of the Association of American Universities.

According to Blinder, it’s a cultural problem.

The question isn’t whether UC Berkeley alumni are as successful or as proud of their alma mater. Rather, Berkeley alumni are not accustomed to donating to their alma mater, according to Blinder.

For alumni who graduated when tuition was only about $700, it can be difficult to connect finances to education.

“It’s taken us a while to get across how little of state funding we now get,” Blinder said. “We have smart alum, but it’s hard to get that message across.”

Haas’ development efforts, such as the thank-you letters, are one of the many programmatic efforts toward closing this gap through a cultural push toward philanthropy, Blinder said.

UC Berkeley donor Lee Goldstein said the university is attempting to approach fundraising more similarly to how private universities do.

“I think it’s all done more professionally than it was before,” he said.

However, with proportionally fewer resources to meet the needs of UC Berkeley’s massive alumni base, campus administrators in charge of fundraising find themselves less versatile than their private peers, according to Blinder.

For example, Princeton University holds multiple alumni reunions on the weekends preceding commencement.

“They take over the campus,” Blinder said. “But you just can’t do that sort of thing on Berkeley’s scale. Every weekend, there would be an enormous flow of people.”

Vice President for University Development at Columbia University Kathy Okun said the appointment of Nicholas Dirks, Columbia’s former executive vice president for arts and sciences, as UC Berkeley’s next chancellor bodes well for the campus’s efforts at bringing in more donations.

“We already feel his departure,” Okun said. “He is a very gifted fundraiser and always articulated the role of faculty well.”

Blinder said the university hopes to get faculty more involved with the fundraising process.

“It’s hard to say you need to come to a training session,” he said. “But I think it should be done in the future because there is going to be greater and greater need for deans to be fundraisers.”

At Columbia, the conversation about donations starts very early with its students.

“It’s about believing that you’re a real partner in your school — it should be a lifelong relationship,” Okun said.

Haas’ development office has looked to emulate that strategy. The office plans to not only increase the size of its donor population but also to focus heavily on young alumni, according to Haas Director of Annual Giving Laurent de Janvry.

“We want our donors to look at the changing culture of giving at Cal, but you have to do that while they’re here,” de Janvry said. “It’s important to keep them thinking about Haas and Cal, or else you will fall to the bottom of how people prioritize their philanthropies.”

Haas senior Sukhpreet Sembhi, one of the students who participated in Haas’ letter-writing campaign, said she hopes to one day give back to her university.

“UC Berkeley has provided me with the resources I need to be prepared for life after graduation,” she said. “I want to thank the school and more importantly provide other students with the support and network I was given during my time at the university.”

Alex Berryhill covers higher education. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @berryhill93.