The Daily Gamecock

USC may seek $1 billion from donors

Campaign has raised $463 million so far

USC has quietly raised about $463 million in the 4-year “silent phase” of a planned 8-year fundraising campaign.

The university has yet to set a goal for the still publicly unnamed campaign, but the almost half-billion raised so far has administrators thinking, “Why not go for a whole billion?”

The campaign, which began in July 2007 and ends in 2015, will go public Nov. 11, when the university woos its biggest donors at a black-tie gala during Homecoming weekend. Smaller events for a wider swath of donors will soon follow the gala.

Fundraising campaigns raise money during silent phases before setting a goal in order to pick an ambitious yet achievable target, said Michelle Dodenhoff, USC’s vice president for development and alumni relations. Also, an 8-year public fundraising campaign would likely create donor fatigue.

“The reason we do campaigns is so we have a finite period of time and a sense of urgency,” Dodenhoff said.

Should the campaign succeed in raising $1 billion, it would shatter all records for both USC and all South Carolina universities. USC’s largest previous campaign — dubbed the Bicentennial campaign — raised more than $500 million from 1996 to 2002.

Though the $1 billion goal is not officially set, Dodenhoff’s presentation at last Friday’s board of trustees meeting mentioned the possibility “billions” of times. Trustees fixed their eyes on a PowerPoint presentation showing 33 other universities that have already embarked on such a lofty goal, three of which are in the SEC.

After Dodenhoff pointed out that USC raised $122.2 million in fiscal year 2010-11, up from $117.6 million last fiscal year, and had added around 2,000 new donors, no trustee expressed doubt that expectations were too high, even though a study completed before the recession hit estimated that USC could raise only $750 million during the campaign.

“We have had people step up with some big gifts, and we think there are a few more out there — despite an economic downturn, we have had record-breaking years our last four years, and our donors have gone up,” Dodenhoff said. “Our university deserves a bold and inspiring campaign. With state funding being cut, we have to aggressively pursue new revenues.”

Donations currently provide more money to South Carolina’s public universities than the state.

USC Columbia has 260,000 living alumni from whom it can seek donations. But 70 percent of the money raised so far has come from only 2 percent of donors, Dodenhoff said.

The day after the Nov. 11 kickoff event, USC will host a pre-Homecoming game party for such donors with “surprise entertainment.” A regional and national kickoff will occur on May 10, 2012 simultaneously in a number of cities, from Sumter and Union, S.C., to Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Despite continued economic hardship, the times, at least for USC, are a-changing, said President Harris Pastides. He said recent athletic success, coupled with a strengthening reputation for USC’s academic offerings, continue to grow buzz for USC.

“As I begin my fourth year, I can tell you there’s a palpable difference this past summer relative to former years. People want to be part of the university I believe like never before,” Pastides said. “[Alumni] hear about Carolina, the sons and daughters and grandchildren of their colleagues want to know how hard it is to get into Carolina and they want to visit here. That gives me the enthusiasm to know that we’ll be successful in the campaign.”

Dodenhoff is hoping to translate those improvements into a long-term financial boon. She’s recently made several hires, upping her staff to “about 30” — or levels not seen since the Bicentennial campaign ended.

She said campaigns are important for far more than funds immediately received. The university’s prestige and national reputation tends to climb during a campaign, and long-term giving levels are typically higher after a drive, Dodenhoff said. Before the Bicentennial campaign, USC averaged about $50 million in private gifts. That number spiked to $80 million after 2002.

“I think we could easily stay at the $100 million mark after this campaign,” Dodenhoff said. “I hope that’s the floor and not the ceiling.”

Dodenhoff said USC officials attempt to match donor priorities with university goals. Funds from the campaign will be used for student support, faculty development, program improvements and capital projects.

Reporting was contributed by Josh Dawsey.