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Wednesday, December 6, 2023

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Two images of SDSU's Hepner Hall, from the 1980s (left) and 2022. Two images of SDSU's Hepner Hall, from the 1980s (left) and 2022.

SDSU's Culture of Philanthropy

When state budget support no longer was sufficient to meet basic needs — and loftier aspirations — the university ramped up its efforts to draw outside support.
By SDSU News Team

Part I: The Seeds of Philanthropy


In 1986, a full-time undergraduate student in the California State University system paid a statewide registration fee of $573 for their education, plus modest campus-based add-ons for student government, athletics and the like.


Not $573 a semester — $573 for the whole year.


That was before support from Sacramento fell off a cliff and forced San Diego State University and other public four-year universities in the Golden State to ramp up their efforts to secure outside funding to make ends meet. Today, state appropriations make up only about 22% of the SDSU budget.


But it turns out necessity is more than the mother of invention. 


At SDSU, it also spawned a culture of philanthropy that led to an entirely new fundraising auxiliary and a 21st century fundraising campaign that far exceeded what some feared were unrealistic goals. Those achievements brought about a can-do attitude that became the financial bedrock for SDSU Mission Valley, the biggest expansion of the campus since its move to a barren mesa on the outskirts of town in the 1940s, the new home of Snapdragon Stadium for Aztecs football, and the future site of both market-rate and affordable housing for San Diego and an innovation district of classrooms and labs.


“People are understanding now that if we want to be great, (they’ve) got to participate in the process,” said Ron Fowler, former executive chairman of the San Diego Padres and the largest single donor to SDSU in its history. “We've got to provide the money available to do the discretionary things that could differentiate this university from its peers in the system.”


Fowler was founding chair of The Campanile Foundation, an auxiliary created in 1999 to accept and administer all gifts to SDSU and a major turning point in the university’s approach to philanthropy.


“It went from, ‘Well, I think we can do this,’ to ‘We need to do this,’” Fowler said. “We couldn't be where we are now if we hadn't gone through and accomplished what we did.” 


What they did was to grow philanthropic support from just over $42 million in 2000-01 to $136.3 million in 2021-22, from more than 19,300 donors. The gifts supported more than 2,000 scholarship awards, the development of a San Diego River-oriented park at SDSU Mission Valley, and research databases for scholars at the Fowler College of Business, among hundreds of additional programs.


It’s quite a shift from the 1980s. James Herrick remembers volunteers working weeknight phone banks for the Aztec Athletic Foundation (now Aztec Club) raising money for athletics programs. 


“That was in the neighborhood of half a million to a million dollars, which was considered stellar at the time,” said Herrick, then associate athletics director and now assistant vice president of SDSU Alumni. “The benefit was that you got to go to the alumni tailgate party.”


Part II: A Growing Need


By most accounts the recognition that SDSU needed to seriously step up its fundraising game began under Thomas B. Day, whose 18 years as president began in 1978, the same year California voters approved tax-slashing Proposition 13. 


Day in the 1990s turned to people like Joyce Gattas, who was then dean of the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts (PSFA), to start thinking outside their academic box. Some regarded it as a distraction, but with the help of what Gattas calls “Fundraising 101 workshops,” the culture of philanthropy at SDSU was taking its first steps.


Gattas found the task was a lot easier when listening to ideas from the people who knew the community’s needs best. She joined boards of directors for groups with interests aligned with disciplines in her PSFA.

“While serving on the (San Diego) Convention and Visitors Bureau, fellow board members asked me,‘why do we have to go to UNLV to find students for our industry?’ I concurred that SDSU was exactly the university that should be doing that.”


That was the genesis for PSFA’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management. Gattas took a departure from the faculty-driven path for starting a new academic discipline. She reached out to Patti Roscoe, who was running a San Diego-based international event management business. Together they secured an initial $1 million gift from Robert L. Payne, a local business leader for whom the school later was named.


Internships were a pillar of PSFA, and Gattas recognized the importance of donor-supported scholarships in giving hundreds of students relevant work experiences in their planned careers. Continuing with her practice of connecting with community professionals, Gattas reached out to Jack McGrory, an SDSU alumnus and former San Diego city manager, who then funded internship scholarships for public administration students and a full-time internship coordinator for the school, an idea that spread campuswide.


By the 1990s, Day was telling people like Fowler that state funding for the university was no longer adequate, and attention turned to the need for an independent professional fundraising arm of the university. The idea came to fruition under Day’s successor, Stephen Weber.


Part III: The Modern Approach


The creation of The Campanile Foundation (TCF) in 1999 — separating the fundraising function previously held by the SDSU Foundation — moved the university to a higher level of philanthropic effort that had been familiar to private schools for decades. 


“It was a hard split,” Herrick said. The existing foundation did not want to give up its fundraising role but had clearly made it secondary to its original function to manage research grants and contracts.


“The first four or five years of the process was very, very difficult,” Fowler recalled. Foundation board members were expected to make substantial contributions of their own. The Campaign for SDSU, the university’s first comprehensive fundraising program, was launched in 2011. It came after a quiet, pre-public phase, just as Elliot Hirshman was taking over as SDSU president in the depths of yet another crisis in state funding.


The $500 million goal was considered audacious by some, Herrick said, requiring roughly double the fundraising SDSU was achieving at the time. Fowler said some board members “were definitely afraid of the 500 million. … I think there was a fear of failure, so people didn't really want to have their names attached to something that didn't achieve what they needed it to achieve.”


It wasn’t widely known at the time, but the school deans were given specific goals to achieve.


“Fifty million dollars was my campaign goal,” said Gattas, who today serves on The Campanile Foundation board. “And I thought that this was indeed a substantial goal but it was the right time. We had established a record of excellent faculty, academic programs and research. We had built meaningful relationships with our community”.


But Fowler said the campaign was an important step for SDSU to further differentiate itself from the CSU system’s other 22 campuses, “and to develop a national reputation at the same time.”


Led administratively by Mary Ruth Carleton, vice president of University Relations and Development, the effort pulled in $570 million with three years to go, when the bar was reset to $750 million. 


The campaign ended in 2017 with more than $800 million raised.


Over the years, SDSU emphasized the importance of private support to provide a college education to promising students who can’t afford the state’s modern-day fee levels. Hundreds of scholarships are available, many targeted to the special needs of such groups as military veterans and former foster youth. Those often high-pressure, weeks-long phone banks have given way to the wider net of an annual “Day of Giving,” conducted primarily online and allowing contributors to earmark their gifts toward any number of student-centric causes.


Fowler said the success of The Campaign for SDSU paid dividends that were not at all foreseen at the time, playing into perceptions of SDSU’s ability to successfully develop the city-owned property once occupied by an NFL stadium and its sprawling parking lot.


“I don't think Snapdragon (Stadium), (SDSU) Mission Valley or any of these things would have happened if we had not developed the confidence that we could succeed,” Fowler said.


Under the leadership of SDSU President Adela de la Torre and Adrienne Vargas, vice president for University Relations and Development, fundraising at SDSU has stepped up. The record $136 million raised in 2021-22 was up nearly 5% from the previous year and included a $14 million bequest to the astronomy department. 


Read SDSU’s 2021-2022 Impact of Philanthropy report.