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Volunteers “Proudly” Lead Way in University of Cincinnati Campaign

September 29, 2009

The first colleges in America were located in towns and villages along the eastern seaboard, administered by churches for the training of their clergymen, and dedicated to propagating time-honored truths that should not be questioned. Unapologetically elitist in nature, determined to make higher education the domain of credentialed professionals, they made immense contributions to the nation’s founding.

Today’s great public institutions of higher learning, such as the University of Cincinnati (UC, founded in 1819), have developed along a different model. Established in the burgeoning urban centers of the Midwest and beyond, they serve the entire population directly and do so with an interest in knowledge that is immediately applicable to meeting social needs. Funded by taxpayers with generous contributions from business, these institutions are research-oriented and progressive in their approach, and their contributions are only now beginning to be appreciated. UC wants nothing less than to become the finest urban research institution in the nation, and as it gets closer to achieving that aspiration, it will receive the recognition it deserves.

The economic impact in the communities in which these dynamic public institutions operate is hard not to notice. The University of Cincinnati is the largest employer in the Cincinnati metropolitan area and, by one account, has an economic impact of more than $3 billion per year. Its Uptown campus, internationally recognized for its architectural distinction, boasts buildings designed by Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, UC alumnus Michael Graves, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, and UC alumnus Erik Sueberkrop.

More than 38,500 students are enrolled at UC, making it one of the 100 largest universities in the United States. That thousands of these students are from Cincinnati itself—many from inner-city families that are only beginning to be able to send their children to college—may account for the intense gratitude they feel for their alma mater.

This gratitude might also account in part for the university’s ability to conduct its Proudly Cincinnati comprehensive fund-raising campaign with such success. In late October 2008, at the Proudly Cincinnati public launch, a stunning announcement was made: The original goal of $800 million was being raised to $1 billion. By June 2009, the campaign had raised $500 million, reaching the halfway mark.

How this is being accomplished contains lessons from which other institutions can learn, especially about setting lofty goals, staffing up as necessary to meet these goals and expecting a great deal from volunteer leadership.

Being an urban institution, of course, presents special challenges. “For years, we were a ‘commuter college,'” says Michael Carroll, president of the UC Foundation and the university’s vice president for development and alumni relations. “We just couldn’t house all the students, and we probably paid a price for that in terms of the sense of community our graduates felt, but that is changing. We’re seeing an intensification in the feeling of loyalty toward the university.”

One reason for this mounting sense of identification with the university is the success of its athletic program. In 2005, the Bearcats switched from Conference USA to the better-known Big East Conference. At the university’s January 2009 Orange Bowl appearance, the first bowl game in the university’s history, “there were maybe 30,000 of our people in Miami,” Carroll says. “This was a major milestone for us.”

A more substantive reason for this intense identification may be this: Many of these alumni know that if they hadn’t gone to UC, they might never have gone to college at all. The university provided them an opportunity they would have received nowhere else.

Yet another reason is that many of these alumni have been so well equipped by their educations, they are now in the financial position to be able to give back to the institution in a significant way. They not only give of their money, but also, of their time, which gives the university a strong—even essential—volunteer leadership in its current campaign.

“Not all institutions appreciate the importance of volunteer leaders, but we do,” Carroll says. In 2008, Cincinnati Magazine’s list of the most important leaders in philanthropy in the city included, among its top five, three who were on the university foundation’s board of trustees. Its chairman, Jeffrey Williams, “doesn’t even live in Cincinnati,” Carroll says. “He’s in New York City.” A 1975 graduate of UC’s acclaimed design school, Williams went to Harvard Business School and was a managing director at Morgan Stanley for nearly two decades. “He’s like a number of our alumni in his loyalty to his alma mater and in his willingness to get involved,” Carroll says.

This alumni involvement is not merely symbolic, and it is not limited to financial contributions, though these are treasured. These alumni are hands-on volunteers, helpful in making big decisions but not above soliciting contributions themselves. “The University of Cincinnati has the best volunteer leadership I have ever seen at any public or private university, bar none,” says Michael Sinkus, a senior consultant with Marts & Lundy, who advised the university throughout the campaign.

Carroll says the volunteers have been critical to the campaign’s success. “When you have volunteers, as we have, who are personally making calls and asking for seven-figure gifts—that’s powerful,” he says.

University officials, staff and faculty have been generous, too. By mid-June, when the campaign celebrated raising 50 percent of its goal, 2,500 current and retired faculty members and staff had given more than $10 million. Carroll estimates that when the campaign concludes, 10 percent—about $100 million—will be attributable to the efforts of faculty and staff.

That all this successful activity has continued during a time of considerable change within the university leadership and an economic downturn is itself impressive. The campaign began during the six-year presidency of Nancy L. Zimpher, continued under interim president Monica Rimai, and will conclude after Gregory H. Williams takes over toward the end of 2009.

Such forward-looking leadership enabled Proudly Cincinnati to challenge long-established ways in which campaigns are designed and staffed. “Traditionally, universities look at the staff they have and ask how much they can raise with a staff of that size,” Sinkus says. “Cincinnati, to its great credit, reversed this model completely. They asked themselves how much money they would need to accomplish their educational and institutional objectives. They chose an outcome, and they put the staff in place that would produce that outcome.”

Carroll explains, “We went through the same process of evaluation that all institutions go through, but once we saw the needs we had, we did what we had to do in terms of staffing to meet those needs. In a sense, yes, we did reverse the model.”

A similar approach enabled the university to raise its fund-raising goals not once but twice during the campaign. “We were just coming out of an intense period of building construction,” Carroll explains. “We had cranes on campus for 13 years, and last year was the first time we didn’t [have major construction underway]. This meant we were able to concentrate on other areas—faculty support, for example—that the deans had identified as important. Marts & Lundy had originally recommended a goal of $750 million, but as we identified priorities and programs that needed to be accomplished and that excited our base, we raised the goal to $800 million and then to $1 billion.”

An ambitious a program such as this one needs a strong voice behind it, and UC found one in Zimpher, a bold and decisive leader who was not afraid of controversy. “She was a great public face for this effort,” Sinkus says. “She understood the importance of repetition, and she kept driving home the seriousness of this campaign.”

Zimpher’s promotional efforts tell only part of the story, however. It is the work of Carroll and his staff, and the great things they have expected of their volunteers, that are giving the story a happy ending.


Michael F. Sinkus

Senior Consultant & Principal;
Leader, Higher Education Practice Group

Hilton Head, South Carolina