Well, That Was Fast: How a University Met Its $1.5 Billion Fundraising Target Two Years Early

It's well known that the past few decades have seen a huge pile-up of new wealth in the hands of America's top 1 percent. What's less appreciated is just how widely dispersed this wealth creation has been. To be sure, much of the new money can be found in places like New York and California, but there are now legions of wealthy people living in many places. As a result, we're seeing an upsurge in regional philanthropy in areas like the Southeast and Upper Midwest. The Southwest is also experiencing a philanthropic boom, as we've been reporting.

A rising tide of new foundations and grantmaking isn't the only sign of all the new charitable money floating around in areas once considered off the beaten philanthropic path. Another sign is how well regional universities have been doing in their fundraising. 

For the latest case study, we turn to the University of Arizona, which recently met its $1.5 billion fundraising goal two years early

The campaign, Arizona NOW, was planned as an eight-year effort beginning in 2010. The campaign's priorities focused on providing opportunities for students, supporting faculty and research, and investing in university outreach initiatives. In 2014, the campaign was launched publicly, raising nearly $860 million.

Fast-forward six years later, and the school is uncorking the campaign champagne. How'd they pull it off?

Well, as I said, it helps that the state of Arizona has experienced many years of strong growth in recent decades, a leader in Sun Belt prosperity, and that certainly makes fundraising a whole lot easier. Alumni who graduated quite a few years ago and stayed local have had plenty of opportunities to do well. The growth has been lately been continuing, too, despite how Arizona got badly hurt by the housing bubble. 

According to Lee McPheters, director of the JPMorgan Chase Economic Outlook Center at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, jobs, wages and population should continue to set new post-recession marks for Arizona, which has seen a burst of growth in industries such as finance and health care, construction and service-sector work. Through March, Arizona topped the nation in private-sector job growth, with 3.9 percent.

In short, the campaign's fundraisers had robust economic winds in their sails. It also didn't hurt that the campaign was co-chaired by Sarah Smallhouse and Jeff Stevens.

The former is president of the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, which made several large gifts to support AU student scholarships and to endow faculty positions. Stevens, meanwhile, is co-chair and CEO, president and director of the oil refining company Western Refining, Inc. He and his wife Sharon, made a $10 million lead gift to help fund the construction of the Lowell-Stevens Football facility.

Indeed, the campaign received gifts of all sizes, from over 100,000 donors. In fact, we profiled two of them here on IP—tech entrepreneur Richard F. Caris' $20 million gift to guarantee UA's role in the building of the Giant Magellan Telescope, and another $20 million from Alan C. Fox, president of ACF Property Management, a real-estate investment company in Studio City, California, to the School of Music.

This latter gift is telling because it underscores my final point. It's nice that Arizona is experiencing a boom, but not all graduates, quite naturally, choose to stay in the state. Many, like Mr. Fox and Chicago-based businessman and alumni Karl Eller, who gave $5 million to UA's Professional Development Center, choose to live and make their millions elsewhere. The campaign's success is a testament to its fundraisers' ability to reach these deep-pocketed emigres—and the enduring loyalty to UA of quite a few of them.

In fact, it's only fitting that the gift that pushed the campaign across the finish line was a $2.5 million commitment from alumni Peter Salter and his wife, Nancy. Salter is a UA alumnus and founder of global medical devices company Salter Labs based in—you guessed it—California.