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Honor Our Past, Build Our Future

Article was written by Greg Esposito and originally appeared in the Washington and Lee magazine.

On Oct. 22, Washington and Lee announced the goal of its capital campaign: $500 million. As far as we know, that figure makes it one of the three largest campaigns ever undertaken by a liberal arts college. How and why did we decide on this campaign, this amount, this time frame?

In November 2008, the country was reeling from the unfolding economic disaster that was swallowing up companies, crippling endowments and eradicating personal savings. Amidst this crisis, the W&L Board of Trustees gathered in the economic capital of the world, New York City, to discuss how to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for the University. The silent phase of a planned capital campaign had been underway for a few months.

“It was a very bleak meeting,” said Warren Stephens ’79, one of the campaign co-chairs. “People were wondering if we should suspend the campaign. What should we do? You know there’s no way people will be spending in this environment.” Phil Norwood ’69, the campaign’s other co-chair, said the message to the board was that they needed to set an example with early and generous support.

“We said, ‘Look, the timeline of this campaign is written in pencil, and if we have to erase the end date and put another end date, that’s what we’re going to do,” Stephens said. “We’ll just keep going until we reach our goal. But we can’t suspend it.”

And so the campaign dubbed Honor Our Past, Build Our Future, was up and running. Two years later, on Oct. 22, the University announced its campaign goal: $500 million. (That’s more than $250 million above the total raised by the Campaign for the Rising Generation, completed in December 2003.) From the end of that 2008 board meeting to the next one, in May 2009, the campaign raised about $60 million. That total stood at more than $310 million on Oct. 22 of this year. With such a strong start, that penciled-in end date of the campaign, June 30, 2015, is looking safe.

“Phil and I both said, ‘If we said then that we were going to raise this amount of money, you all would’ve laughed us out of the room,’ ” Stephens remembered.

Keeping This Place Strong
So what happened? How has the ambitious goal to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for a small, vibrant university come to fruition? It’s neither an economic miracle nor a preordained success. Those close to the campaign credit many factors, including early leadership gifts, careful and personal cultivation of donors and potential supporters, sound planning and specific details that have mitigated the economic collapse’s impact. The one overriding factor, however, is the loyalty and generosity of alumni and friends of the University.

“It’s reassuring that we have a lot of people who care deeply about Washington and Lee, and deeply about its future, and want to ensure that the things that have made us so strong in the past continue to make us strong in the future,” said President Ken Ruscio ’76. “We only had a strong experience because the others who came before us felt that they needed to give back. That strength that we have can only be ensured in the future if this generation of alumni and supporters accepts our obligation and duty to keep this place strong for those who come after us.”

That loyalty and generosity is nothing new, and in fact they are a point of pride for many alumni. The involved faculty, small classes, close-knit community and focus on personal development cultivate the brand of loyalty that resulted, during the last campaign, in donations from some 70 percent of alumni.

Those factors cannot and should not be discounted, said Dennis Cross, vice president of University advancement. He came to W&L in 2004 after working in advancement and on campaigns since 1986 at Vanderbilt University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the College of William and Mary. While the basic best practice for fund-raising is the same for any leading university, be it public or private, a large research university or a small liberal arts college, Cross finds that W&L alumni expect a more personal approach that reflects their experiences, both as students and as alumni.

For example, when Cross worked at UNC, he spoke to alumni who were proud of their school and fondly recalled classes. Often, however, they would struggle to recall the names of the faculty. “But when you talk to a W&L alum, whether it’s a recent grad or someone who graduated 60 years ago, they will start reciting names of their favorite faculty members,” he said. “It’s very special and very unique. And they will not only remember names, but they will also start talking about their experiences here and the ways W&L shaped their lives.”

Continuing a Tradition
The campaign’s focus on people and programs plays to the University’s advantage. While many people may appreciate having a building named for them, about 77 percent of donors’ gifts typically go toward the endowment, which covers such things as scholarships, professorships and program initiatives, said Bruce McClintock, chair of Marts & Lundy, a consulting firm working with W&L.

McClintock added that the recession, which decimated capital markets, affected certain gifts more than others. He finds that while the recession posed some challenges, plenty of philanthropists are still looking to give, albeit in a selective way, for things that matter to them. Institutions that highlighted their values and mission fared better than those that simply asked for donations. He counts W&L among the institutions that have benefited from conveying those qualities. “Washington and Lee has done extraordinarily well in a really tough period,” he said. “It’s an amazing success story.”

Tres Mullis, W&L’s executive director of University development, said that W&L is in “an incredible position of strength” as it approaches the public launch. “We’ve added a few positions to have staff visiting alumni and parents across the entire country, increasing the breadth and depth of our supporter base,” he said. “We’ve been building relationships over the last three or four years, and the result has been more people who are more personally connected to the University and the campus.”

Susan Cunningham, director of major gifts at W&L, said that the passion of alumni is most evident to her in gifts of a certain kind, regardless of size. “A stretch gift is different for everyone,” she said. “It could be an alumna who makes a gift above her annual fund contribution for a special project she believes in. Or it could be a young alum couple who put W&L in their wills. Or it could be an alumnus who endows a scholarship in his lifetime, so he is able to know those students who will benefit from the gift.”

The Washington and Lee equation that depends so heavily on private giving and is a reality at virtually all private colleges is not something that many people know, said Farris Hotchkiss ’58. He is retired from posts as senior assistant to the president and vice president of University relations. Hotchkiss said helping people understand that students will always depend on the generosity of previous generations is vital.

“I never thought it was correct to say that they ‘owe’ W&L anything,” he said of alumni. “But that they want to invest their time, money and their energy in the University, they are continuing a tradition that in our case-and no one else can say this-goes back to George Washington himself.”

The Science of a Campaign
Beyond simply relying on good feelings for the University, there’s a science to maximizing the impact of a campaign. It starts with support from the Board of Trustees and investment in the development operation to get the right people in place to make it a success. And while he calls the previous campaign a great success, Cross said there had not been enough consistent contact with a broad group of potential donors. “W&L had too few people doing too many things,” he said, “which left things undone and many alumni not as connected as they desired.” Cultivating those donors takes a systematic plan. The strategy in this campaign represents a shift to regular, broad-based engagement of alumni who can contribute large gifts. And that strategy takes time.

“You can’t just go into someone’s office or home cold and ask them to make a big gift to the University,” Cross said. “You need to have many conversations with them, and you have to inform them about life at W&L today, and the importance of our strategic priorities. You have to get them connected to the University. You have to get them to understand what the campaign is all about. You must listen to their experiences, questions and interests. And then you need to eventually ask them to give a gift to the campaign. It takes longer. It’s more labor intensive. But the end result will be many more people will make larger gifts matching their interests with our goals.” The belief in that patient, systematic approach is one reason the University decided to make the campaign a seven-year effort, rather than five.

Talking to people about W&L’s special qualities and its future is the part Ken Ruscio most enjoys about his first campaign as president. The emphasis on supporting people (the past campaign was more about buildings and facilities) makes it even more enjoyable to discuss. The approach developed out of W&L’s strategic plan, which was approved in 2007, during Ruscio’s first year as president. The campaign was organized in his second.

The first of the five campaign components coming out of the strategic plan increases financial aid and scholarships. Like many universities, Washington and Lee struggles to balance rising costs with recruiting top students and providing them with a W&L education regardless of their ability to pay tuition. In June 2007, Rupert Johnson ’62 earmarked $85 million of his historic $100 million gift for this purpose, providing need-based financial aid to outstanding undergraduate students. Since it supports a strategic and campaign priority, Johnson’s gift counts toward the current campaign and its goal of at least $160 million for student recruitment and support.

“Washington and Lee needs to be available on merit, not just on wherewithal to be a full-tuition payer,” Norwood said. “You cannot create the greatest liberal arts university on that model. We have had a lot of financial aid to give, but we’ve never been able to match all the needs of those applicants who we think would be ideal to become part of the student body.”

While the yearly sticker price for an undergraduate student at W&L is nearly $50,000, that figure represents only tuition, room and board, and totaled up provides just 60 percent of the University’s budget each year. Most of the remaining revenue-35 percent-comes from private gifts and from income from endowments established over the years. This ongoing support from alumni, parents and friends truly makes a W&L education possible.

Faculty and Staff
Supporting the faculty and staff who work with those students is the second priority for the University and the campaign. Norwood said there is a need for the University to bump up faculty pay so that it is at the mean of W&L’s competitors, other elite liberal arts colleges such as Williams, Davidson and Middlebury.

The University needs to identify and keep those professors whose names alumni will recall decades later. Faculty members who, in addition to being scholars, are “deeply committed to the liberal arts ideal of education,” are at the heart of the W&L experience, Ruscio said. The campaign will raise at least $122 million of endowment for this purpose. More than half of that will come through the Lenfest Challenge, the $33 million gift that Gerry Lenfest ’53, ’55L will give the University to support competitive faculty compensation if donors match his gift before the end of this calendar year.

Other campaign objectives for faculty endowments will support professors’ ongoing professional growth, to keep them in the forefront of their fields; allow W&L to invite visiting experts to enrich curriculum offerings not covered by regular faculty; and focus on faculty leadership in areas of study emphasized in the strategic plan. Environmental studies, entrepreneurship and global learning are just three examples of these areas.

The strategic plan also encompasses the nonteaching staff, whose impact on students is just as important and apparent. W&L wants to foster a workplace that is personally rewarding for them in accord with the University’s ideals and to fulfill its educational mission.

Academic Programs
The third piece of the campaign is supporting faculty as they create and develop new ways to engage students in learning outside the classroom, new curricula important to a 21st-century liberal arts education, and other innovations. Gifts to increase faculty-mentored research by students, redesign of the third-year law school curriculum, support for off-campus educational opportunities such as internships and the New York and Washington programs, and Spring Term innovations are among the initiatives.

A Campus for the 21st Century
The bricks-and-mortar element pertains to nothing less than the structural face of the University. The Colonnade, a National Historic Landmark, is to be renovated over the next several years. As with the completed first phase of the project, Newcomb Hall, historic preservation and rehabilitation will guide the work. Preservation means maintaining and repairing existing historic features and retaining the building itself. Rehabilitation means the alteration or addition of certain aspects (fire alarms, sprinkler systems, elevators, handicapped-accessible features, an electrical system to allow the latest teaching technology) while keeping the original character. The price tag of the fouryear project is $50 million, accounting for a sizable portion of the $120.5 million campaign goal that includes the just opened Hillel House, an expanded and modernized Lewis Hall, a state-of- the-art facility for global learning in a renovated duPont Hall, and new indoor recreational and athletic facilities.

Ruscio believes the Colonnade renovation serves as an appropriate metaphor for the entire campaign. It is a beloved, historic structure that will be preserved and improved. “What we’re trying to do is take what made this place so great and special in the past even as we prepare for the next century,” he said.

Annual Fund
The unrestricted money in the Annual Fund provides 6 percent of the University’s operating budget. It undergirds such things as salaries, equipment purchases, athletic teams and upkeep of the facilities. And it gives financial flexibility throughout the year, allowing W&L to strengthen academic offerings, enhance student self-governance, and support student projects. The campaign goal is to increase donations and alumni participation by 5 percent each year for $60 million total. It’s through this all-important portal that many alumni will support the campaign.

One of a Kind
Preserving the past while ensuring the University’s ability to adapt to the future and continue its tradition is something Phil Norwood thinks is worth funding. It’s not a particularly hard sell. “There are plenty of liberal arts colleges, there are plenty of research universities. And a lot of very highly qualified students and their parents choose those places over Washington and Lee,” the former rector said. “I don’t hold out that we’re for everybody. But for the people we’re right for-and that is people who are interested in the development of character as well as the development of intellect and cultivating lifelong relationships and building leadership skills-I think we’re one of a kind. We should be the leaders. And in order to be the leaders, you need the resources.”