Private donations to UC Berkeley increase amid COVID-19 pandemic

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During the difficult time of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increase in private donations to UC Berkeley. The funding includes private donations to campus departments, private donors to fund campus and "record-breaking" fundraising.

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Amid the ebb and flow of private funding that occurs every year, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an increase in private donations to UC Berkeley to support the campus community.

Donations tend to increase when people are inspired to do so, which occurs not only when there is positive news but also during difficult times such as the pandemic, according to José Rodríguez, senior editorial director of university development and alumni relations. Contributions aimed at supporting students, such as those given to the Student Emergency Fund and Basic Needs Center, increased drastically after the pandemic was declared in 2020.

In response to the challenges posed by the virus, about 4,000 alumni, parents and friends of campus raised nearly $1.8 million for the Student Emergency Fund, according to Rodríguez.

Gifts to the fund “bridge sudden unexpected gaps” in critical student resources, Rodríguez added. In collaboration with the Financial Aid and Scholarships Office and the Basic Needs Center, the Student Emergency Fund provides direct support to students by helping to cover lost wages, travel expenses, technological assistance and other essential items.

During the pandemic, the food pantry in the Basic Needs Center saw a 150% increase in use from the year prior, with 33,838 visits, according to Rodríguez. More than 1,000 students participated in financial planning workshops, and 2,575 participated in nutrition and cooking demonstrations.

Overall, the Basic Needs Center received about $2.2 million in private donations from 1,877 donors during fiscal year 2019-20.

The Basic Needs Fund — which provides food, housing and financial security to students — also increased during the pandemic. In the past fiscal year, donations to the Basic Needs Fund totaled $1.8 million, Rodríguez added.

“As the impact of COVID-19 unfolded at the end of the 2019-20 fiscal year, philanthropic support has been instrumental in supporting the university,” reads the 2019-20 Annual Report on University Private Support from the UC Office of the President, or UCOP. “Campuses sought support from alumni, corporations, nonprofits and donors for a variety of critical resources including gifts to expand testing platforms, protective equipment supplies, vaccine and virus research, and support for essential student financial needs and remote learning resources.”

Private donations to campus departments

In addition to the aforementioned funds, private donations to various departments on campus also increased during the pandemic.

According to College of Letters and Science spokesperson Michelle Phillips, the college — where the largest percentage of UC Berkeley alumni receive their degrees —has seen an increase in the overall number of donors this past fiscal year.

“Donors have responded positively to varying pressing needs, including the support of COVID-19 testing for the campus community as well as remote instruction, as two examples,” Phillips said in an email.

In order to navigate new challenges presented by the pandemic, donors have stepped forward to philanthropically support the Haas School of Business, according to Haas Assistant Dean for Development and Alumni Relations Howie Avery. The donations have gone toward digital technologies to improve the student learning experience, as well as internship stipends to aid students in this difficult job market.

Cal Athletics, described as a “great unifier” on campus as it brings community members together to cheer on Golden Bears, had more than 8,000 donors contribute more than $35 million in the fiscal year 2019-20, according to Cal Athletics spokesperson Herb Benenson. He added that fundraising is “essential” for the department to support student-athletes.

For the College of Engineering, or COE, the volume and number of gifts received this past year were relatively comparable to previous years, according to spokesperson Julianna Fleming. However, many donors shifted their giving to address the pandemic.

“Donors want to make a difference in students’ lives, and many saw an acute need among students during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Fleming said in an email, “This past year has provided clear evidence of how private philanthropy has enabled us to be nimble in the face of crisis.”

Fleming further underscored the need for private philanthropy during normal years, as it allows programs to be developed that push the boundaries of the traditional curriculum, including leadership, outreach and tutoring programs.

Private donors help fund UC Berkeley

Beyond the philanthropy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, private donations are a significant part of UC Berkeley’s funding. During fiscal year 2019-20, UC Berkeley raised about $1 billion in contributions, according to Rodríguez.

The largest gift from that fiscal year — UC Berkeley’s largest gift to date — was $252 million from an anonymous donor to support data science.

The next largest gifts were $52.8 million from the Weill Family Foundation/Joan and Sanford I for neuroscience and genomic research; $50 million from Gordon Rausser in support of the Rausser College of Natural Resources, or CNR; $38.5 million from Mara Vishniac Schiff Kohn toward the Roman Vishniac archive; and $28.6 million from software company for the COE.

Of the private donations to UC Berkeley, the largest percentage of donors were individuals, followed by foundations, corporations, foundations established by alumni, other nonprofits and campus-related organizations, according to the UCOP report.

Private donors have various reasons for donating to the university. Most major gifts are restricted to specific programs, scholarships, faculty support, research and other areas, according to Rodríguez. Annual fund donations are used at the discretion of academic and program leaders.

For example, the San Francisco Foundation, or SFF, helps fund UC Berkeley’s African American Initiative, according to SFF spokesperson Ling Woo Liu. The initiative strives to create a more inclusive learning environment for campus.

“The San Francisco Foundation works with a community of donors who care deeply about the Bay Area, including its institutes of higher education,” Liu said in an email. “Access to education — especially for communities of color — is an important component of the foundation’s work in creating an equitable Bay Area for all.”

Following Rausser’s donation in spring 2020, the CNR was renamed after him.

Rausser, dean emeritus of the college, has been a faculty member at UC Berkeley for more than 40 years and was thrice the chair of the department of agriculture and resource economics. He said he will leave it up to college leadership to decide how the money is spent but hopes it will be used to keep UC Berkeley as an intellectual leader in research, environmental justice and solving problems in the public sectors.

“I am not an external donor,” Rausser said. “I am someone who’s intimately familiar with the quality of the programs and how the programs can be improved with regard to financial support that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

“Record-breaking” fundraising supports all aspects of UC Berkeley

Private funding during fiscal year 2019-20 resulted in $2.9 billion across all UC campuses, of which $1 billion went to UC Berkeley, according to the UCOP report.

This number has increased significantly over the past few decades. In fiscal year 2000-01, for example, private funding to campus totaled approximately $315 million.

UC Berkeley’s Light the Way campaign has the largest financial goal of all UC campuses, according to the UCOP report.

The campaign seeks to raise $6 billion by the end of 2023 to support UC Berkeley’s faculty and students, research and work spaces, according to Rodríguez. Every corner of campus will be affected, including all schools and colleges.

As of June 2020, more than $3.7 billion was raised, according to the UCOP report. Rodríguez estimates that by 2023, campus will meet its goal of raising $6 billion.

Since the start of the campaign in 2014, gifts to campus have increased yearly, Rodríguez added. UC Berkeley has witnessed “record-breaking” fundraising every year and in fiscal year 2019-20, more than $1 billion was raised.

“Private support, whether in a form of smaller online donations or gifts in the multi-million dollar range, enhance the activities of many research institutes, centers, museums and programs,” said Kaja Sehrt, senior director of development of Berkeley Research, in an email. “We are grateful for every gift, large or small.”

Lauren Good is a higher education reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @lgooddailycal.

Because of misinformation from a source, a previous version of this article incorrectly attributed information to Haas spokesperson Ute Frey. In fact, the information came from Haas Assistant Dean for Development and Alumni Relations Howie Avery.