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Creating a New Tradition of Annual Giving at University of Rochester: The George Eastman Circle

A commanding statue of Eastman Kodak founder and philanthropist George Eastman overlooks the quadrangle at the University of Rochester.  The statue is located at the heart of the campus that Eastman helped to create in the early part of the 20th century.  Commencement and other campus events take place around the statue, and it’s also a popular meeting spot for students between classes.  College kids love to have their Facebook photos taken with “George,” and even dress him up at Halloween. 

The statue is an integral part of the University of Rochester’s culture but, surprisingly, “George” has been around for just a few years.

The story of how the statue became a beloved presence on campus begins in 2005, when the university appointed a new president, Joel Seligman.

“The board hired him with the mandate to focus heavily on fundraising, to manage a comprehensive campaign, and to build a centralized advancement operation,” said Jonathan Schwartz, senior associate vice president of advancement and director of university campaigns.

At the time, he said, the university “wasn’t aggressively pursuing long-term commitments and larger donations through the annual fund.”  Additionally, most of the larger gifts involved restricted funds, which offer less flexibility in spending.

Seligman’s new senior vice president of advancement, Jim Thompson, suggested an annual fund leadership society known as the George Eastman Circle.  The circle would pay homage to Eastman’s contributions and inspire others to follow his lead.  Membership would require an unusual five-year commitment to the annual fund, with unrestricted gifts ranging from $1,500 to $50,000+ per year.   

“Jim saw an opportunity to elevate the stature of George Eastman, the university’s most important benefactor, giving the campus a greater sense of personal identification with a remarkable philanthropist,” said Doug Stewart, senior consultant and principal with Marts & Lundy and, with John Cash,  co-campaign counsel to the university.

George Eastman’s gifts created the modern University of Rochester.  Founded in 1850 as a small, regional college in downtown Rochester, the institution grew into a major research institution with a new campus through the support of Eastman.  His relationship with the university began with the gift of a single Kodak camera in 1899.  Eventually, he contributed more than $50 million, providing the funding for the main academic buildings on the new campus and the Eastman School of Music.  He also supported the School of Dentistry and Medicine, and the Medical Center. 

To bring his level of support into the 21st century would “require hundreds of people finding their inner George Eastman,” said Schwartz.

The university hoped to enlist 250 George Eastman Circle (GEC) members during the charter phase of the campaign, which ran from March 2007 to December 31, 2008. 

“We ended with 1,087 charter members.  We did not anticipate that kind of growth.  It was really incredible,” said Martha Krohn, executive director of the university’s annual giving programs.

Around the same time that it was soliciting members for the GEC, the advancement team also commissioned a noted alumnus— celebrated figurative sculptor Marc Mellon—to create a statue in Eastman’s honor. 

In October 2009, the university dedicated the eight foot bronze statue in a ceremony in the quad.  A plaque honoring the George Eastman Circle and a charter book signed by its members was also unveiled. 

After the ceremony, newsletters and social events have helped to keep GEC members actively engaged.  Members in Manhattan and Rochester and other key cities receive frequent invitations to concerts, gallery tours, galas, as well as luncheons and dinners featuring speakers such as Tom Brokaw, Anderson Cooper, and Colin Powell. 

The events provide networking opportunities and help foster a sense of community, said Krohn.  They’re also “a great way to engage our donors.  They’re getting fantastic stewardship attention and access to university leaders.”  

The university currently deploys six development officers on  soliciting new GEC members and retaining existing ones.  Many of the original charter members who signed on in 2007 have already renewed or upgraded their membership for another five years.

To date, over 2,200 members have joined, and pledged a total of around $40 million.  George Eastman Circle members account for about 60-70% of the dollars raised for the annual fund, according to Krohn. The board recently approved a goal of securing 3,300 members by June, 2016, when the current comprehensive campaign is scheduled to conclude.  The University hopes the program will continue for many years to come.

The eager reception of both the statue and the GEC “shows how relatively quickly `mythology’ or traditions can be integrated into the culture of an established institution,” said Stewart, the Marts & Lundy consultant.

Schwartz recalled hearing a story from a colleague who went on an admissions tour of the campus with her daughter.  As they passed Eastman’s statue, “the student leader said, `it’s a tradition at the university for the students to dress up George,’” he said.  “George has only been there for two years, so it’s fun to hear it talked about as a ‘long-standing’ tradition!”

Last fall, President Seligman announced “The Meliora Challenge,” the University of Rochester’s largest-ever comprehensive campaign.  The university seeks to raise $1.2 billion by 2016.  George Eastman Circle members are playing an important role in this campaign through their annual fund donations and other efforts.  Marts & Lundy senior consultants and principals John Cash and Doug Stewart have provided support throughout the campaign’s planning and execution.  In addition to ongoing counsel, they have also conducted a feasibility study, helped train faculty, staff, and volunteers. Other members of Marts & Lundy have undertaken several analytical projects for the university and its medical center, as well as  campaign communications work.  The Meliora Challenge had already raised $600 million by the time of the public launch last fall.


 

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