Bruce Benson, University of Colorado president, plans to shift 139 foundation fundraisers to CU employees by July 1 to improve coordination.
Bruce Benson, University of Colorado president, plans to shift 139 foundation fundraisers to CU employees by July 1 to improve coordination. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

Insisting that "we just have to raise the bar," University of Colorado president Bruce Benson said the school will drastically restructure its fundraising efforts in the face of declining public support and other financial challenges.

A nine-month organizational review by an outside consulting firm found that CU lags behind its peers when it comes to tapping into its 372,608 alumni — even though the school has a comparable pool of wealthy potential donors.

The report recommended that fundraisers from the University of Colorado Foundation, a separate nonprofit entity, should become employees of the university to ensure greater collaboration and accountability.

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Benson said he will shift 139 foundation fundraisers to CU employees by July 1 and "move rapidly" to create a new position that will coordinate campus-based fundraising programs and report directly to him.

"You have to have accountability starting with me and going right on through the chancellors, the deans, the chairs, the faculty, the researchers — and the fundraisers," Benson said. "You've got to have it all the way through, top to bottom. And we don't have that."

The CU Foundation reported a banner year for gifts in 2011-12, taking in $110.1 million — its second-highest total ever, which, combined with funds directed through the university, produced a record-breaking year of $228.6 million in total private support.


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But Benson said the university must aim higher, toward the $300 million to $400 million range of annual giving, to achieve results more in line with schools such as UCLA, the University of California Berkeley, the University of Washington and Ohio State.

Those schools use the same organizational structure that CU will adopt. The CU Foundation will continue to manage the funds and investments.

On a per-alumni basis, CU averages gifts of $58 per graduate, compared with $138 for 10 peer institutions. CU's participation rate also trails its peers (generally defined as similar Pac-12 and Big Ten schools), with 5.8 percent of alumni giving to CU compared with 10.7 percent among the others.

Nearly 15 percent of CU's alumni are considered "high performance" individuals with a net worth of $750,000 or more — just shy of the 15.6 percent average of 10 peer institutions. But only 4.6 percent of CU's alumni gave gifts of $10,000 or more, compared with 7.6 percent among the peer schools.

Rick Lawrence, the president and CEO of the CU Foundation, said that having fundraisers working directly with university personnel will create a more seamless and effective effort to tell CU's story to potential donors.

He added that while foundation employees wait to see how current compensation and benefits will compare to what they will have as university employees, they have received the news with enthusiasm.

"Our improved performance during the last five or six years and our record performance this year are great indicators of current success," Lawrence said. "But they don't point directly at an ability to achieve the level of success we're going to strive for in the next five years. That's why we're looking at this other model."

The new model calls for university leadership to play a bigger role in fundraising — and to be held more accountable — while encouraging foundation directors and trustees to take more active volunteer roles in identifying and cultivating potential donors.

On the Boulder campus, chancellor Phil DiStefano said last fall that he wanted to double private fundraising from $50 million to $100 million. So he sees Benson's goal of essentially doubling university-wide contributions as doable, with the new system in place that puts more responsibility on deans.

"They understand the importance of private fundraising," he said. "They also understand the importance of having that responsibility tied to accountability."

The independent review also recommended greater investment in fundraising to bring CU up to par with its peers.

"It's something you have to do to create more alumni participation," said Benson. "You don't get real great return on the buck right away, but you do down the road."

The last 10 years have seen a precipitous fall in state funding for CU, from about $223 million in 2003 to $145 million in the current fiscal year. Projections in some economic studies have funding for higher education running dry within 10 years.

Benson noted that while CU will get a slight bump for the next fiscal year, state coffers could take another huge hit if the Colorado Supreme Court rules in the Lobato case, a key lawsuit under appeal, that the state must spend billions more on K-12 education.

"If you don't plan for the future, and figure out how you're going to do better than you're doing now, you're going to be out of business," Benson said. "We're trying to get ahead of the power curve on all this stuff."

CU hardly stands alone in that pursuit, said Paul Lingenfelter, president of the Boulder-based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. And the formula it's adopting simply tweaks methods already proved at other institutions.

"This is a well-established profession with people who are expert practitioners," he said. "Most of the techniques they use are pretty well known. It's not like something new has been invented here — it's revising existing fundraising practices."

Much of that strategy involves what Benson calls the "art and science" of fundraising — a focus on developing relationships, sometimes over a span of years, that can result in significant donor investment in the work of the university.

"The real cultivation is going out and finding people that don't know they love you yet," Benson said. "Then you show them why they should."

Kevin Simpson: 303-954-1739, ksimpson@denverpost.com or twitter.com/ksimpsondp