Mason's endowment numbers lower than other comparable universities

While Mason is on track to reach its goal of increasing endowment by 10 percent, it's still one of the lowest in the state (graph by Niki Papadogiannakis).
While Mason is on track to reach its goal of increasing endowment by 10 percent, it's still one of the lowest in the state (graph by Niki Papadogiannakis).

As part of the university’s new strategic plan, Mason officials are campaigning to increase endowments. Currently, Mason’s endowment is fairly small compared to other Virginia public universities.

Mason is on track to reach its goal of increasing endowment by 10 percent in the next year, but administrators and officials are looking even further into the future.

“It’s not just about this year, it’s about making sure that you do it year after year after year,” said Jim Laychak, the associate vice president of University Advancement.

According to President Cabrera, every fundraiser considers the balance of today’s needs versus the needs of future generations. A decision must be made between how much money to endow and how much is unrestricted.

“The problem we have right now is that we are on an extreme of that continuum,” Cabrera said. “Our extreme is that our endowment is tiny. All of the money we get every year helps to satisfy the needs that we have that year. That is our reality.”

According to Laychak, Mason’s small endowment are due in part to the university’s young age.

“We’re a young school. We’re only 40 years old. If you look at places like UNC, William and Mary, U.Va., they’ve been around since the 1800s, so they have a larger pool. People have been giving for a longer period of time,” Laychak said. “Because we are a younger university, you don’t have people who have passed away and left their estate to George Mason that could then be rolled into the endowment.”

In addition, funding is typically used for current needs as opposed to future ones.

“Because of the changing in state funding, because of tighter budgets, people would say if you’re going to give me 25,000, I would rather just spend 5,000 a year for the next five years, because then I could make a bigger impact as opposed to waiting for the money to earn interest and then only spending $1,000 a year,” Laychak said.

Cabrera said that the university is now emphasizing endowment but recognizes that the university also has current needs. He used an example of a recent $3 million donation in which half of the donation was endowed and half would be used in the next three years.

University officials such as Cabrera and Janet Bingham, the vice president of University Advancement and Alumni Relations, recognize that in order to build Mason’s endowment, a broad base of donors and a culture of giving must be established.

“When people donate, it’s part of getting engaged,” Cabrera said. “That whole expanding the base also means that those people, one day, if they have the right wealth, they may choose to do something big for Mason.”

According to Bingham, every gift given to Mason is important.

“It is imperative to pay close attention to both ends of the philanthropic spectrum-- expand the base of first time and repeat donors to the Annual Fund through creative, tailored appeals and simultaneously establish and cultivate long-term relationships with those who have the resources to make commitments at a higher level,” Bingham wrote in an email. “In addition, we will seek to engage the thousands who fall in the middle.”

According to Bingham, students who donate money to Mason are investing in the value of their diploma.

“Part of what tells the outside world that we are a winning team is that our people, our faculty, our students and outsiders want to ensure the future trajectory of this institution,” Bingham said.

At the Oct. 2 Board of Visitors meeting, board members and administrators discussed whether the focus should be put on expanding the base of donors or going after the bigger donations.

Visitor Tom Davis said that the university needs to expand its base in order to reach a higher endowment.

“You may not be able to give a building or donate millions of dollars, but if you have thousands of people contributing 25 or 50 dollars, it builds a huge base of endowment over a period of time where the university is able to give more scholarships and decrease the cost of education for people in future years,” Davis said. “You can’t do it just by selling naming rights to the Patriot Center. You’ve got to have a broad base participation. Not just for the short term, but over the long term, those smaller donations mean as much as the big donations.

According to Laychak , the university needs more alumni to give to the university and is focusing efforts on increasing alumni donations.

“We probably have anywhere from 5-6 percent of our alumni that give, which is low when you compare that to some of our peers,” Laychak said. “We also have a big pool of graduates that are graduating every year, so the pool gets bigger.”

Bingham said that the university is developing new methods of encouraging alumni donations, including an i-module website that she will demonstrate at the Board of Visitors meeting on Dec. 11. According to Bingham, the university only has about 60,000 alumni email addresses, and the i-module will help to increase that number.

“It’s a way to engage our alumni in a number of different ways,” Binham said. “You can give gifts, you can get information on your class activities, you can get your transcripts, you can also connect with Facebook, Twitter, Smugmug, Instagram, all of those things. It’s a very dynamic site. You can also make donations through this site.”

The university is also focusing on other methods to encourage alumni contribution, Laychak said. This includes sending letters, having alumni volunteers on advisory boards and bringing alumni back to Mason to look at changes that have been made.

“We need to do creative things to engage alumni, help them understand how their contributions make a difference, that type of thing,” Laychak said. “There’s a lot of good things that are happening, and people should be proud of what we’re doing, in terms of our different rankings, in terms of our returns on investment, especially because students that graduate from Mason have higher average starting salaries than any other school in the commonwealth.”

According to Bingham, a 10 percent increase in endowment will have the biggest effect on students, faculty and programs that are affected by the new endowments.

“A 10 percent increase in the endowment adds $240,000 to the university’s annual resource base. That’s an important addition, but not a dramatic one in the context of a total operating budget of $900 million,” Bingham wrote.

Laychak said that it takes time to develop rela­tionships with donors, and the university needs staff to get involved in order to raise money for Mason.

“You’re not just going to go to somebody and say, will you give me $100,000,” Laychak said. “Part of it is we need staff to go out and engage people, talk to alums, talk to people in the community, talk to corporations and foun­dations, talk to them about the great things that Mason is doing, get them excited about different types of programs and get them excited about where they may want to make an investment in George Mason.”

According to Laychak, new staff members support the infrastructure for when large gifts come into Mason.

“Budgets are tight across the university, so we have to figure out how we are going to pay for that staff, but everybody recognizes that if we want to continue growing, we need to figure out how to make an investment in additional devel­opment staff,” Laychak said.

According to Cabrera, giving to the university will contribute to Mason’s goal of becoming a 21st century model for education.

“This is everybody’s university,” Cabrera said. “We need everybody to partner to make sure this university is an amazing example of higher education in the 21st century.”

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