Q&A with David Cooper, Campaign Director and Associate Vice President for University Development

Posted: February 19, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Carrie Secondo Lake

Editor’s note: This weekly question-and-answer column with George Mason administrators appears every Thursday in the Daily Gazette. To view previous articles, visit the Q&A archive page.

David Cooper
David Cooper
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Seventeen months before its official end, The Campaign for George Mason University has moved beyond its minimum goal to raise $110 million in private support. To what do you attribute the campaign’s success so far?

Because this was our first campaign, we didn’t have a tradition to build on, so it really took everyone at the university working together to make the campaign successful. Members of the administration, beginning with the president, had to be committed to its success and devote their time and energy to it. President Merten passed that on to the deans and made them central to developing the plan for the campaign and then implementing that plan. This gave every unit a stake in the campaign’s success, and I think it was key to our quick progress. Everyone associated with the university has really had a hand in making this successful, including not only our faculty and staff, but also our friends in the community, led by Campaign Chair Sid Dewberry. The university’s alumni, parents of our students, business leaders–all were excited to see the university take this step. They saw how it could have a positive impact on the future of the university. By working together, we were able to pull this off.

What will happen between now and the end of the campaign, June 30, 2005?

One of the important messages to get out to people right now is that just because we’ve passed the minimum financial goal for the campaign, we are not finished. The campaign has a year and a half left, and we certainly want to take advantage of the important opportunities that are still ahead. The work of identifying funding opportunities, identifying individuals, companies, and foundations that might be interested in supporting those opportunities, putting the people and opportunities together, and building those relationships–that’s what the campaign is all about, and that work doesn’t stop when you get to a certain dollar threshold. There is continuing urgency around a lot of the projects on campus, so we will continue to fundraise just as hard as we have been.

Are there plans to increase the dollar goal?

We are informally talking about numbers that we might be able to reach by June 30, 2005. We do not, however, plan to formally raise the goal. We think the stronger message is to go substantially beyond $110 million. At the end of the day, to have gone $15 million, $20 million, or $25 million over our original goal will be a better story than to have barely made it past a slightly increased goal.

One hundred and ten million dollars is a lot of money. How has the money raised had an impact on George Mason’s students, faculty, and staff?

That’s the one question that everyone on campus always wonders about. One hundred and ten million is so much money, and yet, the average faculty or staff member can’t necessarily see where his or her life is different because of it. Approximately $8 million of the total is in deferred gifts, so that won’t come to the university until the particular donor passes away. Another small portion is in pledges, which will be paid over time. However, because we do have most of the $110 million in hand, the real answer is that most of the total is restricted to specific projects. So, if you ask nursing students how the campaign has had an impact on them, they would think of the Toups labs. If you ask someone associated with the economics program, he or she would cite Vernon Smith and his team that came here as a result of private money from the Charles Koch Foundation. If you talk to people in the History Department, the Center for History and New Media is a good example. On and on, there are specific programs and projects where the money has made a dramatic impact.

I would add that this emphasis on restricted gifts is especially indicative of younger fundraising programs like George Mason’s. As our program matures and our relationships with our donors mature, I believe we will see unrestricted gifts grow, too.

In addition to raising funds, what are your goals for the campaign?

When we first articulated the goals for the campaign, the first one was to raise $110 million by June 30, 2005. The second goal was to raise funds for critical programs and projects at the university. Everyone was aware of those two goals, and we worked hard to meet them, and I think we have had some success. The third goal of the campaign, as stated originally, is my favorite: to expand fundraising capacity throughout the university. It is my hope that at the end of the campaign, all of the schools and colleges and units that do independent fundraising at George Mason will have a sustainable broad-based major gift program. That will be the greatest legacy of this campaign. The $110 million investment is important–it has done a lot of good things, and it will have an impact for a long time to come. But the real impact will be when units can consistently, year after year, raise major gifts that affect their programs on an ongoing basis.

What have you done to work toward the third goal of creating sustainable fundraising programs within the units?

Most of the academic units have a director of development working side by side with the dean and the faculty to do fundraising focused on the particular needs or opportunities the unit faces. That was seen as necessary right away. Some people were hired in the early stages, and staff has been added throughout the campaign. As well, the resources of University Development are focused on supporting the unit’s fundraising efforts. So, today, instead of a small central staff pursuing fundraising opportunities, we have a dozen deans and their fundraisers working with the central staff to proactively take their case for fundraising to the community. This has all happened under the umbrella of “The Campaign.”

What motivates people to give to George Mason?

That’s a good question, especially for George Mason. In higher education it is always assumed that the alumni of an institution are the backbone of a fundraising program, and yet the relative youth of our university makes alumni fundraising a greater challenge. This said, we are more than 30 years old now, and one of the important stories of this campaign is how the alumni of George Mason have begun giving in much greater numbers and with much larger gifts over the course of the campaign.

People often wonder why someone who didn’t go to school here would give. There is a group of people, business and civic leaders in Northern Virginia, who have been with George Mason since its beginning. They helped found the school, and they take pride in the way it has grown and developed into such a vigorous and robust institution. These people still feel an attachment to the university, they want to participate in its future, and many of them are generous supporters of the university.

There are other people who care about George Mason as it contributes to the economic development of the region. It is often said that George Mason University and Dulles Airport are the two projects that have contributed the most to Northern Virginia’s economic growth over the last several decades. Area businesses especially want to see Mason stay strong for that reason.

Then there are people who just care about different elements of the university that touch their lives directly–people who come to the Center for the Arts or care about the athletic programs or particular programs in writing or education–and they invest in the program that they are close to.

The faculty and staff of the university have also been supportive with personal gifts. Many give on an annual basis and others have made very generous major gifts to projects they care about.

Will there be another campaign beyond this one?

The adage in fundraising is that you’re always either planning a campaign, in a campaign, or closing a campaign. I think it is very likely there will be another campaign at George Mason. When it will launch, I can’t say. We’ve begun thinking about what shape it might take, and certainly as this one winds down in the summer of 2005, planning for the next campaign will become more serious. Planning is under way for focused mini-campaigns that will unfold as the comprehensive campaign concludes. These efforts will bridge the gap between campaigns.

I think we have a lot to look forward to because of the fundraising capacity that was built in this campaign, the successes we had, and the relationships we’ve begun. I strongly believe that the greatest fundraising successes for George Mason are yet ahead.

For more information, see the Q&A with Judith Jobbitt, president of the George Mason University Foundation and vice president for university development and alumni affairs.

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