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Small change, big deal: How the Cornell Annual Fund came out on top in a year that was the pits

Annual Fund national chair Bob Katz in superhero outfit

Bob Katz 69, national chair of the Cornell Annual Fund, at the 2008 Annual Fund breakfast, where the $23 million goal was announced. See larger image

The retirement funds of millions of Americans melted away, the real estate bubble burst and Cornell's endowment -- like the endowments of universities across the country -- was diminished by almost a third.

Maya Gasuk, director of the Cornell Annual Fund since 2001, wasn't sure it was possible, in such a dire economy, to meet the fund's $23 million fundraising goal for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

"In May, it was clear we needed to have a better June than we'd ever had in our history," she says.

Luckily, a number of factors came together to give Cornell the June it needed. There was an innovative matching campaign, a highly effective Parents Committee that solicited gifts from non-alumni parents, and record-breaking giving from reunion classes. There was also a flood of larger-than-usual gifts, thanks in part to National Annual Fund Chair Bob Katz and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Pete Meinig, who personally secured gifts on Cornell's behalf.

"It's a testament to our alumni, parents, and friends that they stuck by Cornell during a rough, rough time," says Charlie Phlegar, vice president for Alumni Affairs and Development.

Twenty-three million might not sound like a lot of money in the context of the $4 billion Far Above … fundraising campaign, and at a university that regularly raises $300-$400 million annually, but, as Peter Lepage, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explains it, "Annual Fund income is especially important because of its immediacy."

Unlike endowment gifts, the principal of which must be invested forever, the Annual Fund is a pot of unrestricted money that can be spent right away.

"The Annual Fund helps the college meet a range of needs," says Lepage, "from keeping a key program running while we work very hard to raise the money required to fully endow it, to supporting students, to retaining star faculty."

"It would take an additional $500 million of endowment," President David J. Skorton has said, "to generate what the Annual Fund provides in current-use support every year."

To encourage graduates of the past 10 years to give, Trustee Martin Tang funded the M.A.R.T.I.N (My Annual Reason To Invest Now) challenge, giving Cornell $25 for every qualifying gift from young alumni.

"I know it's not much," a recent graduate wrote to Tang in an e-mail, "but I guess if we all got together and did our bit that would amount to a large contribution!" And it did: the challenge raised $166,000 from more than 2,000 young alumni.

On June 30 at 11:53 p.m., someone clicked the "make a gift now" button on the Annual Fund's Web site and made the last gift of the fiscal year, with just seven minutes to spare.

Gasuk and her staff crunched the numbers and discovered that in the midst of the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression, Cornell had exceeded its dollar goal, topping the previous year's results by 13.4 percent. Final tally: $24.4 million. As of presstime, Cornell is one of only a few schools in the country to do better this year than last at raising unrestricted cash gifts.

Katz reflects on the results: "Cornell's constituencies came together to do something extra special in a very challenging economic environment for giving. When you consider the budget stresses across the campus coming from the shrinkage in our endowment, you know that it wasn't just special, it was crucial. The most remarkable thing, and what will be the most important thing going forward, is the community who shared in doing this: the development staff, the local and national campaign committees, the student leadership, the class officers and reunion leaders, the 30,000 donors. It's about how much we all care about the university, and thus will take care of it. And that's what will always sustain Cornell."

Gasuk says she and her staff didn't celebrate for long. "We're concentrating on the new fiscal year, the next goal and the ultimate goal of consistently raising $30 million annually by 2012."

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