Financial gifts decline nationwide, but St. Thomas sees rise

While gifts to colleges and universities decline across the United States, St. Thomas is bucking the trend.

According to the Council for Aid to Education’s annual survey of voluntary support of education, gifts to colleges and universities declined almost 12 percent in the 2009 fiscal year. It was the steepest decline in the survey’s 53-year history.

Meanwhile, St. Thomas’ overall gifts increased by 13 percent, and the number of donors increased by over 1,000 – the highest number of donors in school history.

Steve Hoeppner, executive director of development at St. Thomas, said while the economic downturn is affecting charitable donations, an increasing number of donors have stepped up.

“Generally speaking, we had a very good year last year in terms of giving,” Hoeppner said. “Yes, we’ve seen it and we’ve felt it a little bit in terms of a slowdown of gifts, particularly at the highest level, but we’ve gotten so many more gifts in that same time frame … There are more and more people that are supportive of St. Thomas and want to help us get stronger and stronger. So that’s a great sign for us.”

At universities nationwide, alumni participation declined to 10 percent – the lowest ever recorded – and their contributions declined 18 percent.

At St. Thomas, alumni participation increased by 8.5 percent, while their contributions remained level at 17.8 percent.

In fact, the only category of the survey that St. Thomas fared worse in was corporate support. Nationwide, corporate support declined 6 percent, compared to St. Thomas’ 7 percent.

<p>St. Thomas' number of corporate and individual donors has fluctuated over the last years. (Graph courtesy of the St. Thomas Development Office)</p>
St. Thomas' number of corporate and individual donors has fluctuated over the last eight years. (Graph courtesy of the St. Thomas Development Office)

Hoeppner said he thinks the primary contributing factors in declining donations are job loss, the decline of the stock market, and general financial uncertainty about the future.

“The thing for me that’s amazing is to see the people who’ve lost their jobs who continue to make a gift to St. Thomas,” Hoeppner said. “There are those people that do because it’s that important to them, or they know that they never could have gotten their college degree in the first place if it weren’t for someone else giving that money.”

St. Thomas is currently in the middle of a $500 million capital campaign called “Opening Doors.” The campaign has currently raised almost $385 million, leaving about $115 million to go before ending in 2012.

It’s a particularly large goal given that the last capital campaign ended in 2001 and raised $250 million.

The current campaign’s chief priorities are campus construction ($132 million), financial aid ($85 million), and the School of Law ($22 million). Donors can also contribute to other causes of their choosing, which is expected to make up about $62 million of the campaign.

Hoeppner said the goals of the capital campaign are primarily aimed at areas of student concern.

“A lot of this is driven by students,” he said. “St. Thomas is very attentive to student needs and the student experience. The thing that we heard loudly and clearly was students want and need more financial aid. Those are the kind of things that alumni and other donors respond favorably to.”

Although the campaign seeks help from donors now, its effects will last long into the future.

“Giving is about helping the next generation,” Hoeppner said. “So for anyone who receives scholarships to go here, they get how important that is, and that’s the message really … It absolutely makes a difference.”

Brent Fischer can be reached at