Colleges solicit year-end gifts

The Education Beat

Donations: Fund-raising efforts swell in December, as the deadline for deductions looms.

December 28, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

COLLEGES AND universities tend to be quiet as a tomb the last week of the year. But on many campuses, one group of employees will be at work. They're the folks in "development" who process donations from people seeking tax deductions before the turn of the year.

Development offices are like toy stores: They do much of their business in December. Thus, fund-raisers at the Johns Hopkins University and its hospitals have dispensation to receive mail on New Year's Eve, unlike other offices, said Robert R. Lindgren, vice president for development. "There are pleasant surprises nearly every year." (It's the postmark, not the date of the check, that counts with the Internal Revenue Service.)

Pleasant surprises for Lindgren and those who do his job elsewhere are lots of zeros to the left of the decimal point. My wife and I again will disappoint, I'm afraid, but we'll do our best to send small checks to our various alma maters, our alma step-maters (schools where we've worked or taken courses without earning degrees) and even our adoptive alma maters (schools from which our son has graduated). It starts to add up.

We've heard from most of them. A couple have dunned us several times, as though our annual donation were a bill which, if left unpaid, would lead to the garnisheeing of wages. Many are now "suggesting" the amount of our donation; they've calculated (vastly on the high side) our income at our age and the portion we can turn over to them.

And all are now employing students to work phone banks in the weeks leading up to Dec. 31. These schools know full well that it's hard to turn down eager young men and women who are following in our footsteps. (I suspect there's a notation in the computer at my primary alma mater: "Female should make call.")

College and university fund raising has become a huge and hugely sophisticated business. Schools are hitting up not only alumni, but parents and current students as well. Many colleges and universities are holding annual internal campaigns in lieu of the traditional United Way appeal. Employees at all levels are asked to donate, even if they haven't enjoyed so much as a cost-of-living raise for three years, as is the case with Towson University.

And if you're rich and at death's door, development offices at many schools will dispatch someone to your hospital or nursing home -- not to beg, you understand, or even to mention money, but to offer comfort and a hand to hold.

The private colleges are old hands at fund raising, with Hopkins, as usual, the gorilla in the dorm room. No sooner had Hopkins successfully completed a $1.5 billion effort in 2000 than it began a campaign to raise $2 billion by 2007. It is more than halfway there, said Lindgren. The directory of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education lists 161 Hopkins people (including President William R. Brody) in fund raising, publications, public relations and the like. Many are embedded in Hopkins' far-flung schools and departments, where they can offer one-on-one services.

The Chronicle of Higher Education regularly plots the monthly progress of fund-raising campaigns of the U.S. universities trying to raise at least $2 billion. Hopkins is usually near the top of the list. A recent Chronicle article said Hopkins would "visit and personally thank" any donor of $100,000 or more. At least that, I should think, and dinner at the Hopkins Club, with parking.

Public universities like Towson, Morgan State (which has announced a $25 million campaign) and the University of Maryland, College Park have greatly expanded fund-raising efforts. Tapping into private revenue sources is critical for these schools. Budget cuts have reduced state support to less than a third of their total budgets, and the near-term outlook is bleak. So they, too, are asking alumni to do their share.

Raising money is a tough job in the public sector. Many graduates are teachers who don't have huge incomes. But teachers tend to be people with a sense of responsibility for those who come after. Many of them will dispatch checks to their alma mater this week, take the tax deduction they deserve -- and take just a little pride.

Sizing up the states' public school systems

And the smartest state is ...

Massachusetts. The dumbest is New Mexico, according to a Morgan Quitno Press survey of the public school systems of all 50 states. Maryland is the 18th-smartest state in the survey.

States are graded on a variety of factors based on how they compare with the national average. These include such attributes as expenditures for each pupil, public high school graduation rates, average class size, and reading and math test scores. Morgan Quitno Press is a Lawrence, Kan., research and publishing company.

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