September 14, 2009 — Bob Sweeney, senior vice president for development and public affairs at the University of Virginia, is widely recognized as one of the most successful fundraisers in higher education. In the 1990s, U.Va. set the standard for public universities when it launched an ambitious $750 million comprehensive campaign. That effort surpassed its original goal two years ahead of schedule and ultimately raised $1.5 billion. The current Campaign for the University of Virginia, launched in 2004 with the then-unheard-of goal of $3 billion, has just reached the $2 billion milestone.
In this Q&A, he reflects on the campaign and what it means to the future of the University.
Q: As we begin the final leg of the Campaign for the University, how have priorities changed or evolved? What are some of the funding initiatives at the top of your list today?
A: As I look at the third phase of the campaign, there are a number of things that still need to be accomplished, and we've also identified many new needs.
Our Provost, Tim Garson, and his team are spearheading a new effort called Jefferson Public Citizens, a program that will be a model academic public service program that integrates undergraduate service and research.
Our new vice president for research, Tom Skalak, has identified a particular interest and strength in ideas around innovation. An institute on innovation is something that we think would be very much in keeping with the University's founding values, as we are innovators by tradition.
We have a new dean in the medical school, Steve DeKosky, internationally regarded as an expert in Alzheimer's. He's now looking very seriously at developing programs in neurobiology
In the College of Arts & Sciences, Dean Meredith Woo is an authority in East Asian studies, and in the School of Nursing, Dean Dorrie Fontaine is pursuing the idea of palliative care and mindfulness and how you go about healing people – both physically and emotionally.
In the Curry School, Dean Bob Pianta is exploring how we might extend his groundbreaking work in CASTL [Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning] to include higher education, with classrooms at U.Va. serving as a starting point for research that might help transform learning at the post-secondary level.
In the Health Sciences, we are making great strides, but there is still much to be accomplished. We've made a major commitment to a new cancer center, and there is also a major effort under way for the children's hospital.
Pan-University initiatives will be a major thrust of the final phase of the campaign. The institutional costs of our state-of-the-art financial aid program, Access UVa , continue to rise as the economy poses more of a financial barrier for our students. The Jack Blackburn Scholarship endowment has been very well received, and we know that financial support for our students may well be the number one motivator of alumni giving. Student need in this difficult economy is among the really big priorities that our alumni understand. Access is one of those programs that allow this institution to live up to its most fundamental values – education, personal freedom, and democracy.
We are looking to continued investment into athletics programs, not only revenue-producing sports, but also those that have great potential such as many of our Olympic sports.
Q: How will the campaign change the University?
A: Perhaps, because of tough economic times, the unfinished work that remains is more important than ever.
The University is committed to offering the most powerful undergraduate experience of all research universities, integrating science and technology into every facet of the educational and scholarly experience, and extending the reach of the University across the world.
Q: There is worry among some faculty that the campaign, and donors in particular, are setting the 'University's priorities. Is this a real concern?
A: The key to successful philanthropy is matching University need with donor interest. Certainly in recent times, we have been very reluctant, very reluctant, to get involved in gifts that 'don't reflect our institutional interests and priorities because both the institution and the donor end up displeased if that match isn't there. There is tremendous expectation on the part of the donor now for accountability. Most gifts are designated, so very little of the giving coming into the University is unrestricted. Designated gifts have much greater level of accountability.
Q: How has the economic downturn affected the campaign and what challenges do you see as we move forward?
A: When we look at philanthropy and the economy, I believe a couple of things are left out of the equation. The first is that in every recession, even during the Great Depression, philanthropy continued to grow. So in the worst of times philanthropy existed, and in many instances it grew and it was solidified.
The second thing to pay attention to is that these donors who make a great difference in higher education are not baseline donors; they are leadership donors. Although there have been trillions of dollars of wealth lost in this meltdown, the leadership benefactors to institutions like Virginia, even though they have been hit, their capacity for giving was neither eliminated nor greatly diminished. The reason we've reached $2 billion is that we've been able to continue leadership philanthropy, even during the worst of times.
Q: Campaigns are largely successful because of leadership gifts. But what about smaller gifts and participation by larger numbers of alumni and friends? Why does the small gift matter?
A: Broad participation provides a lot of benefit to the institution, not all of it financial. Participation is evidence of commitment. All alums can demonstrate tangible expressions of interest, investment, commitment and love of the institution. It's critically important. Our best donors, and we have data to show this, generally have a much longer and richer history of making annual gifts. Building this pattern of giving is crucial in that it builds for the future. Our commitment for the final phase of the campaign is to build participation that will fuel philanthropy for generations to come.
Q: Campaigns are a reflection of a university's aspirations. What does Virginia aspire to be as a result of this campaign?
A: Our institutional vision is really threefold. We've already achieved the first milestone of becoming arguably the top public university. I've said this many times: "Great" and "public" are not mutually exclusive.
The second piece of our strategy was to build an endowment that would sustain us as we faced ever-decreasing state support. Today, we receive less than 7 percent of our annual operating budget from the Commonwealth. As a consequence, we decided that we would be – because of our size, our affluence, our DNA in terms of philanthropy – the first largely privately financed public university that maintains its public mandate. Our $3 billion campaign goal is a manifestation of this strategy.
The final pieces of our strategy were to build a more market-driven tuition model and to change legislation – the restructuring act that gave us the autonomy to manage the University on a daily basis.
So this was a three-prong, strategic approach to making a great privately funded public university. At the time we announced our campaign, it was the most ambitious fund-raising effort in the history of higher education.
Think about it: For an institution like U.Va. – without a long history of philanthropy – to be on track to raise $3 billion, it's transformative. It really allows us to control our destiny.