David Gilder/shutterstock

David Gilder/shutterstock

For our latest look at the ongoing fundraising boom among regional public universities, let’s turn our attention to Montana, a state with a vibrant and rapidly expanding culture of philanthropy.

A little over a year ago, the University of Montana (UM), a flagship institution of the Montana University System, launched the public phase of Campaign Montana – Think Big. Be Bold with the goal of raising $400 million by the end of 2020. The campaign, managed by the University of Montana Foundation, had already raised $325 million during its “quiet phase,” which began in 2013. In mid-October, UM announced it had eclipsed the $400 million threshold roughly a year before its targeted completion date.

The university, naturally, announced it would “continue to partner with alumni and friends to advance these priority opportunities through the campaign’s conclusion next summer.”

Familiar Drivers of Success

The university’s success bears all the hallmarks of the fundraising boom: grateful alumni, buoyed by a strong stock market, giving back to their beloved alma mater; a resilient state economy; and a savvy fundraising strategy focused on student success that generated nearly 37,000 gifts under $100.

Back in 2017, my colleague Alyssa Ochs took a look at Montana’s robust philanthropic climate. The state, she wrote, was home to just over a million people, but charitable giving rose 61 percent over a two-year period. At the time, around 20 percent of Montana grants backed education, representing almost one-fifth of total funding, according to Philanthropy Northwest data.

Positive demographic trends have further accelerated in the subsequent two years. In 2018, the Kauffman Foundation ranked Montana eighth in its “rate of entrepreneurs,” defined as the “percentage of the population that starts a new business.” That same year, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked Montana as the 13th fastest-growing state and ranked Bozeman—home of Montana State University—as the fastest-growing city of its size in the nation.

This growth—and the accumulated wealth that comes with it—underscores another key characteristic of the regional fundraising boom. Rather than migrate to the usual coastal enclaves, alumni are remaining in-state and contributing to a surging regional economy in which their alma mater serves as a critical nexus point. In a 2018 speech to business leaders and lawmakers, UM President Seth Bodnar, citing Stanford’s symbiotic relationship with Silicon Valley, said he wanted to nurture a similar dynamic in UM’s home city of Missoula. “How can we catalyze that ecosystem in the most effective way that we can?” he asked.

Since 2013, UM donors have created 15 new endowed faculty positions, helped renovate or construct five facilities, and given $100 million for scholarships and other student support. In 2016, UM received a $24 million pledge from Phoenix venture capitalist Bill Franke and his family to benefit the school’s College of Forestry and Global Leadership Initiative. As I noted at the time, Franke didn’t attend UM, highlighting yet another hallmark of the higher ed regional fundraising boom—universities’ growing proficiency in cultivating huge gifts from non-alumni.

And the Money Keeps Coming

In October, the UM Foundation announced more than $7 million in gifts, including $5 million from the Terry and Patt Payne Family to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture; $1.25 million from Dennis and Gretchen Eck to support the Safe. Empowered. Accelerated Change Initiative, a new program that prepares women to become next-generation leaders; and $1 million from alumni Sam and Julie Baldridge to fund an expansion of UM’s Clinical Psychology Center.

At first glance, these aren’t the kinds of eye-popping dollar amounts that we’ve become accustomed to across the cash-flush higher ed fundraising landscape. But the idea of scale is very important here. Montana is the 43rd most populous state in the nation. The University of Montana serves approximately 11,000 students and it has stiff in-state competition: Montana State University, which serves 14,000 students, has raised over $413 million in its own comprehensive fundraising campaign, having surpassed its original $300 million goal in October of 2016. Comparing UM to another UM—the University of Michigan, which has raised over $5 billion—is like comparing apples to oranges.

Moreover, UM, like other smaller public universities, had seen its enrollment decline since 2010. And while officials cited an uptick in freshman admissions in the fall of 2017, Bodnar has said that “unfettered growth” wasn’t a long-term goal for the university. As Bodnar himself noted on the campaign’s website, “a little generosity goes a long way,” and donors, as we’ve seen, have responded to this message.

Alumni and Campaign Montana’s co-chairs Mark and Cheryl Burnham made a similar call to action, encouraging donors to consider the most effective way to make an impact now that the campaign passed its original goal. “We have a golden opportunity to redefine success,” Mark Burnham said, “but it will take each one of us grabbing the part of the dream that resonates with us personally and giving to make it a reality. We must commit to 110 percent for our students and our University.”

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