Shifting Focus

April 19, 2010

It’s been an interesting year in the life of a capital campaign for the State University of New York at Binghamton, which has seen its share of good and bad news. An anonymous gift of $6 million -- one of several mysterious donations made to colleges with female presidents -- buoyed the spirits of foundation officers. But the economic recession made fund raising a challenge, and the campaign may be further complicated by an athletics scandal that drew national media attention.

For better or worse, however, the campus is moving forward with a decidedly nontraditional public campaign launch, hoping to shift the focus to all that is “Bold” and “Brilliant” about Binghamton.

Binghamton has spent the past five years of a seven-year campaign in the “quiet phase” -- a period where donors are cultivated and gifts are collected without a formal kickoff. That phase will come to an end April 22, when the university begins a two-year public phase designed to be a final push toward the $95 million goal. While these public kickoffs are commonly black tie affairs, Binghamton -- a relatively young institution founded in 1946 -- is abandoning that model for a more virtual approach. Rather than reaching out just to a core group of donors, the university will target students and alumni through an online “event” featuring chat rooms for old friends and videos about faculty scholarship areas.

The Web interface will feature 16 “Party Rooms,” designed to connect alumni who shared the same residence halls or majors. The hosts of these “parties” could be faculty advisers from the residence halls or famous alumni like the actor William (Billy) Baldwin, who has been invited to participate.

“We are a young university, and we don’t have all the ivy-covered buildings,” said Lois DeFleur, president of Binghamton. “We’re a little over 60 years old, and I think this [virtual kickoff] fits.”

Photo: SUNY Binghamton

The State University of New York at Binghamton will use Web-based tools for its capital campaign kick off. As seen here, visitors to the launch Web site will be invited to learn more about what faculty like David Campbell, an assistant professor of public administration, are teaching students. Faculty will also be available for online chats to further discuss their work.

Binghamton still plans to thank about 40 key donors at a party in New York City on the night of the kickoff, but that event will be scaled down, officials say. The kickoff event for another Binghamton campaign 10 years ago ran $360 a person. While Binghamton could spend about the same amount total this time around, the campus aims to lower its per-head cost to between $150 to $180, reaching twice as many people through a virtual campaign.

Hosting a more technology-driven kickoff is part and parcel of Binghamton’s image-conscious campaign. The campus has steadily moved toward a more research-focused mission, and the campaign is playing up innovation as a theme. Matthew Herson, who heads the Herson Group, has helped Binghamton with the technological aspects of the launch.

“Most of the places I work for are still using print [for donor outreach],” he said. “I don’t think print is working much anymore. The medium is the message. If you’re an institution at the forefront of technology and innovation, maybe you better use it.”

DeFleur: Despite Controversy, Time is Right

Shaping the image of the campaign presents peculiar hurdles for Binghamton, which is in a period of leadership transition and controversy. DeFleur, now in her 19th year as president, announced her pending retirement in January as a scandal within Binghamton’s men's basketball program began boiling over. While DeFleur cited personal reasons for her retirement, the announcement came about a month before an independent audit blasted athletics officials for bending admissions rules for players and suggested that the veteran president had been slow to act in response.

DeFleur won’t step down until July, so she will still be in place as president when the public launch occurs. Asked whether it would make more sense to delay the launch until after she’s gone, DeFleur said key campus leaders and volunteers think “this is the right time.”

“We need to move forward,” she said.

DeFleur said she has not been involved recently with athletics donors, but said that’s “not really” a product of the basketball controversy. As for donors outside of athletics, DeFleur said conversations with them have been largely positive.

“They have the broader perspective,” she said. “And they say these are growing pains, and it’s too bad. But this is not what’s at the heart of Binghamton.”

No donors have pulled gifts or threatened to do so in light of the basketball controversy, DeFleur said.The fund-raising apparatus at Binghamton, however, has not been spared controversy. Elizabeth Williams, a major gifts officer for athletics, has filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and suggesting that she was encouraged by athletics officials to “look good and flirt with donors.”

The extensive audit of men's basketball, commissioned by SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, did not explore Williams's allegations, noting that they were the subject of a lawsuit now pending in federal court.

Consultants: Stress Broader Mission with Donors

The best strategy for Binghamton moving forward will be to stress to donors that the recent controversies concern only a smidgen of the campus’s overall operations, said Robert Hartsook, a fund-raising consultant who works with colleges and other nonprofit groups.

“I’d apologize. I’d do all the things they’re probably doing,” said Hartsook, chairman and chief executive officer of Hartsook Companies, Inc. “If I was running the thing I would say to my alumni, 'We’ve cleaned this up, we’ve made some serious mistakes.' I’d bring the whole subject back to students, student aid. I’d get back to those issues [of scholarships and faculty support] and I’d say, 'We’ve got to take care of these things; these are tough times.' ”

Modern capital campaigns are typically well on their way toward completion before a public phase begins, and Binghamton is no exception. DeFleur said that about 85 percent of the $95 million goal is already in hand. That’s good news for a campus weighing whether to move forward during a difficult period, Hartsook said.

“If they are 80 percent [or more toward] their goal, then my inclination would be, let’s get it done,” he said. “Let’s suck it up and let’s get through this.”

Myrna Hall, senior consultant with Marts & Lundy, said it’s important to communicate openly and honestly with donors about steps that are being taken to address issues that may be generating bad press. Hall spent nearly eight years in development at the University of Colorado at Boulder, which had high-profile controversies in athletics during her tenure.

“People make mistakes,” Hall said. “It’s the communication and keeping in touch with our donors, our philanthropists, [that’s important]. Even at Colorado, what we found people wanted to know was what we were doing about it.”

At the end of the day, donors want to support the causes and programs they care about, Hall added. A scandal may be fleeting, but an endowed gift or major contribution toward a new building can be lasting, she said.

“You’re hoping the donor again steps back,” she said, “and says the bulk of the institutional mission and goals still lines up with my philanthropic mission.”

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