It Was a Very Good Year: How Did a Regional Public University Make Fundraising History?

 Katherine Welles/shutterstock

Katherine Welles/shutterstock

After a stop in Tennessee and Arkansas, our tour of Southern higher ed mega-giving now takes us to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the University of Alabama (UA) School of Law received a four-year, $26.5 million donation, the largest in its 187-year history, from prominent business executive and attorney Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr.

In acknowledgment of the gift, of which more than $11.5 million has already been received, the UA School of Law will now be called the Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. School of Law at the University of Alabama.

The gift caps a record-setting fundraising haul for the university, which pulled in $224.3 million from more than 62,300 donors during the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year. UA obliterated its previous record of $120.7 million by almost $104 million.

It’s pretty impressive stuff for a university system located far from major centers of wealth. That being said, it’s also an increasingly common phenomenon.

The factors behind UA’s startling fundraising success probably sound annoyingly familiar by this point, but I’ll list them anyway. They include affluent alumni who got rich without graduating from elite universities and are now looking to give back, a surging stock market, retiring baby boomers making the required minimum distribution from their IRAs, universities that never stop fundraising, donors looking to plug gaps in state funding, and the fact that mega-gifts often come on the heels of a series of smaller gifts. Oh, and let’s not forget the growing sophistication and fundraising skills of university leaders and development teams.

The Culverhouse gift neatly fits into this framework, albeit with one minor exception: While his parents attended UA, Hugh Jr. did not.

Not an Alumni? Not a Problem

Culverhouse earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Florida in 1971, an MBA in corporate finance from New York University in 1972, and a law degree from the University of Florida law school in 1974. His law career included serving as a trial attorney for the United States Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement, and then as the assistant U.S. attorney for the United States Department of Justice.

A Coral Gables, Florida, resident, Culverhouse is currently the chief executive officer and owner of Palmer Ranch Holdings, a planned community encompassing some 10,000 acres in Sarasota County. He is also the principal in Culverhouse Limited Partnerships, and invests in real estate, securities and hedge funds.

The fact that Culverhouse didn’t attend UA hasn't stopped him and his wife Eliza from committing more than $35 million to UA over the past two decades.

Culverhouse contributed $147,000 to UA Athletics in 2000 to fund an endowment named in honor of former football player Derrick Thomas for student scholarships. In 2012, the Culverhouses donated $1 million to UA to establish the Hugh F. and Eliza Culverhouse Scholarship to support high-achieving students with financial need.

Starting in 2015, Culverhouse donated $250,000 to endow a women’s golf scholarship in honor of his mother, Joy McCann Culverhouse, who starred as a UA golfer in the early 1940s. In total, the couple has contributed approximately $2.25 million to endow women’s golf scholarships at UA.

The couple has also contributed $5.3 million to the UA Culverhouse College of Business, which is named after Culverhouse’s father, Hugh Culverhouse Sr. The elder Culverhouse was the longtime owner of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a successful tax lawyer, and a philanthropist. Like his wife Joy, Culverhouse, Sr. attended UA.

The couple also provided support to UA Law in the form of a $1.5 million gift to establish the Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. Chair in Constitutional Law.

“The University of Alabama law school is one of the finest in the country,” said Culverhouse. “It is my hope this gift helps bright and talented young people pursuing a career in the law reach their full potential.”

UA’s 2017-2018 fundraising year also received a huge boost from Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson and her husband James, who donated $15 million to the Culverhouse College of Business.

Taken in tandem, the Culverhouse and Hewson gifts accounted for roughly 19 percent of UA’s 2017-2018 fundraising windfall, underscoring the important role of mega-gifts in university fundraising campaigns.

The Ultimate Donor Motivator

There is another contributing factor to UA’s fundraising success—a factor, I may add, that may not be entirely transferable to other universities.

Alabama is, to put it mildly, a college football powerhouse. Since 1892, the program has won 17 national championships. Under its current “God-like” coach Nick Saban, UA has won five national championships dating back to 2009. Saban earns $7.5 million a year. At the time of this writing, the team is undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the country, and favored by many to repeat as national champions in January.

Nothing, I suspect, can motivate UA donors like the Crimson Tide football program.

In August, UA launched the Crimson Standard, a 10-year, $600 million capital initiative designed to improve UA Athletic facilities and “comprehensively elevate the student-athlete experience, recruiting efforts, and the overall game-day experience for all Crimson Tide fans.”

Proponents of effective altruism would argue that that $600 million for a football program—which, after all, serves a mere subset of the larger student and alumni population—could be best spent elsewhere (although, in fairness, the plan also calls for new women's basketball and gymnastics team areas).

At the same time, “It’s no secret that there is an all-out race to have the biggest and the baddest facilities in college athletics,” writes Chris Dodson in Fansided. “Every school is making an effort to improve upon facilities to attract both fan attention and recruits.”

You can probably guess where UA donors stand on the issue.

To date, nearly $143 million has been committed to the Crimson Standard, including a $1 million gift from Nick Saban and his wife Terry. To put this figure in perspective, UA donors provided roughly $32 million for scholarships and $99 million in faculty and program support during the 2017-2018 fundraising year.

UA said the success of the Crimson Standard “contributed greatly” to its record $224.3 million haul across the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

Add it all up, and UA will likely continue to ride the regional philanthropy boom as far as the eye can see. Its fundraising goals for 2018-2019 include, of course, the Crimson Standard—the school is roughly $475 million from its goal—plus efforts to raise $15 million for a new Performing Arts Academic Center and $2.1 million for the Blackburn Institute, a leadership development and civic engagement program.

In related reading, check out this recent piece on rising LGBTQ funding in Alabama, which suggests that new philanthropy in the state isn’t merely relegated to universities and its football-crazed fans.