What will it take for LSU to lead Louisiana and impact the world? It’s a more than $1.3 billion question the university system wants donors to answer over the next six years as part of the largest higher education fundraising campaign in Louisiana history.
LSU is still a couple weeks away from officially launching this audacious question-and-answer session, just the university’s third advancement campaign over the past 159 years. More jaw-dropping than how rare these endeavors have been for the state’s flagship institution, is this: The previous two efforts have taken place over the past three decades, meaning for nearly 130 years there was nothing in the way of an official capital campaign. Yes, LSU went after philanthropic dollars, but not in any significant way, instead relying largely on student tuition and state dollars to fund the way.
That began to change in the 1990s with the launch of the nameless “LSU Campaign,” with the target goal of a rather meager $150 million. More prominent was the “Forever LSU” effort that publicly ran from 2006 through 2010 and raised some $764 million.
What’s significant about the upcoming campaign, currently in its advanced phase, is that it’s LSU’s first system-wide campaign, meaning the individual foundations from eight LSU institutions will collaboratively raise money. Other than Baton Rouge’s flagship campus, those include all LSU AgCenter locations, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, LSU Eunice, LSU Alexandria, LSU Shreveport, LSU Health New Orleans and LSU Health Shreveport.
University officials remain reluctant to discuss several campaign details, such as its name, main priorities and per institution fundraising targets. What Sara Whittaker, senior director of communications and marketing for the LSU Foundation, will say is that the six pillars of the effort will differ from three traditional capital campaign priorities of “student support,” “faculty and research,” and “capital projects.”
“It’s very, very closely tied to LSU’s Strategic Plan,” she says. “In terms of how we’re framing the campaign, it’s more associated with outcomes and making life better—for students, faculty, staff and people in Louisiana.”
Though specifics on the campaign’s pillars remain, for now, unknown, the six challenges outlined in the LSU Strategic Plan 2025 are: Advancing Arts and Culture; Bridging the Coast, Energy and Environment; Fostering Research and Catalyzing Economic Development; Improving Health and Wellbeing; Transforming Education; and Developing Leaders.
With perpetual campaigns now the norm nationally, monetary expectations are also rising, with $1 billion campaigns becoming common. Can LSU, with its comparatively lackluster endowment history, keep pace?
To do so, experts say the LSU system must improve its coordinated messaging while also telling donors a unified story worth hearing.
Building the framework
It’s no secret LSU has historically lagged behind its peer institutions, both in the SEC and nationally, when it comes to raising dollars for its endowment. Though it’s only one area of fundraising, it’s universally viewed as “the gift that keeps on giving” because such dollars offer a university a long-term investment.
Essentially, the university is still playing catch-up with its endowment. The soon-to-be-unveiled campaign doesn’t have a hard endowment goal, Whittaker says, though she notes several of the priorities do have related endowment-driven goals.
While the padded support of seven additional institutions should certainly help with the campaign, will the six-year effort be enough to make LSU’s total endowment even somewhat competitive with its SEC peers?
As of June 30, 2018, the university’s $16,180 endowment per student is 13th in the 14-institution SEC, according to data provided by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. Only the University of South Carolina has a lower average. Equally troubling, LSU’s number is some $7,000 less than its closest rival, Mississippi State University, and an eye-catching $350,000 behind Vanderbilt University, the top SEC fundraiser.
The statistics don’t get any better when looking at total endowment, where LSU is ranked last among SEC institutions. Simply put, the $499 million market value of LSU’s endowment in Fiscal Year 2018 can’t stack up to Texas A&M’s $12.8 billion or even the $713 million at Ole Miss.
Still, these numbers are higher than in years past, largely because of the efforts of former Foundation President Stephen Moret, who took over 2015. Though he left less than two years later for an economic development job in Virginia, Moret implemented several transformative changes: modernizing the database the foundation shares with the LSU Alumni Association and Tiger Athletic Foundation; dramatically expanding the number of fundraisers on staff; crafting a blueprint for the future of development at LSU; and improving operations needed to launch the upcoming campaign.
It was also during Moret’s tenure when LSU hired national consultant Marts & Lundy to guide the Foundation through an assessment of its operations. Among the results, says Whittaker, is the organization is now mimicking best practices from its peers.
There have been some early payoffs. LSU’s endowment market value is up $116 million from 2013 levels and its per student figures have grown by $4,000. Still, LSU remains near the bottom of the SEC list.
“Many of our peers were far ahead of us in terms of when they started,” Whittaker offers. “We’re working toward strategic, incremental, year-over-year growth. It doesn’t happen overnight.”
Moreover, Whittaker says the Foundation now has in place the institutional framework that was previously lacking. Its alumni giving rate (13%) now ranks third in the SEC, up from last in 2014.
She remains optimistic about the success of the upcoming campaign, noting that overall goals for both the LSU Campaign and Forever LSU were exceeded.
Telling a story
National experts as well as LSU’s own fundraisers say the key to winning donors is through what’s known as a “donor-centric” approach, a buzzword in philanthropic circles that basically means “ask not what your donor can do for you, but what you can do for your donor.”
It’s an approach—involving surveys and in-person consultations—that’s been embraced for years by other institutions but is a relatively new way of thinking for LSU. Rather than asking if a donor can help fund construction of a new academic building, for example, ask them what kind of capital projects they’d like to see break ground in the next few years.
That’s a simplified example of what’s actually a very nuanced process that, experts say, takes years of buildup and gets to the “why” behind philanthropy.
Linda Durant, vice president of development for the Washington, D.C.-based Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, says it’s all about the right gift officers talking to the right donors.
“The more you talk to them and the more you learn, you start to narrow down your focus,” Durant says.
Why did an alumnus have a propensity to give back to a particular college? Did they have a favorite professor there who made an impact on his life? It’s these kinds of questions gift officers must get to the bottom of, adds Durant, noting the crux of the officer-donor relationship is trust.
LSU implemented this method when forming its current campaign. Marts & Lundy administered a survey last March, approaching 12,165 donors and receiving a 12% response rate of nearly 1,400. The survey asked potential donors how much money they would be willing to spend on the different priorities outlined in the Strategic Plan, as well as which ones were most important to them.
It was this survey and its results, says Whittaker, that led to the setting of the $ 1.3 billion goal and the yet-to-be-released targets per institution.
“What fundraisers are learning is that we can utilize those types of systems to listen to donors,” says Brian Gawor, vice president of research at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a national higher education fundraising consulting firm. “That’s not what we were doing, even just a few years ago.”
How they communicate their philanthropic mission is also important, Gawor says. It takes a compelling vision that resonates with donors, approaching a wide and diverse group of donors and then uniquely tailoring the message to different donor groups about how they can help execute that vision. And that messaging isn’t only for that in-home visit from a gift officer, it must also penetrate the digital lives of potential donors and be reinforced in all university communications throughout the campaign period.
“We want to tell the story of what impact our family of campuses is making on Louisiana,” Whittaker says. “We can tell a much more powerful story together than we could independently.”
Gawor says he’s also seen institutions mix in one-day challenges, such as annual giving days, to ramp up campaign excitement. LSU has also taken on this practice, with plans to host its first-ever annual Giving Day event April 30.
These micro-campaigns are part of the “new normal” for university fundraisers as campaign fundraising becomes a nonstop endeavor.
Whittaker declines to say how much money has been raised thus far. But Durant, based on her 25 years of experience, says LSU wouldn’t have entered into a campaign of this size and scope unless they’d already secured “a significant number of gifts” and knew where some additional dollars were coming from. The magic number fundraisers typically try to hit before going public with a campaign is 40%, according to national research. If that figure holds for LSU, it means the campaign will go public later this month with roughly $520 million already secured or pledged.
Having overhauled its annual giving program and last year exceeding its recent annual fundraising goals, Whittaker says LSU is prepared to go public with the campaign in late March.
“What we’ve learned is that LSU has a lot of untapped potential,” Whittaker says. “But we have to do our part in showing them why investment matters.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated and corrected since its original publication. A previous version of the story included statistics from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock rather than numbers from the main University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville. Also, graphics were removed from the article because of errors relating to the incorrect University of Arkansas. Business Report regrets the errors.