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The Journey to a Multi-Million Dollar Donation

Abigail Coursen/KBIA

Large donations from alumni and supporters have become a major source of funding for universities.

Just in the last month the University Of Missouri School Of Music received a $10 million donation from Rex and Jeanne Sinquefield, while the University Of Missouri School Of Journalism received a $1 million donation on April 24.

But there’s a lot that goes into landing a major gift like these. Most of the time, it starts with a phone call.

Thomas Hiles, vice chancellor for advancement at the University of Missouri, oversees a team of alumni and development staffers that facilitate donations between the university and alumni.

He said the first step in generating those big multi-million dollars donations is through building and maintaining relationships with potential donors.

The University of Missouri Advancement and Alumni Relations Office identifies prominent alumni, and starts the conversation.

Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin adds that the university’s reach to potential donors extends beyond just individuals.

“We actually look for our broad community of alumni, we look at foundations, others who might care about what Mizzou does in education, research and service and we simply begin by building a relationship,” Loftin said.

Hiles said the building of relationships may take years but, once they are established and the donor, or foundation, feels a sense of trust, with the university then the advancement office may ask the donor’s permission to come back with an offer.

“We have to ask permission,” Hiles said. “We have to show them respect. So I like to say can we have permission to come back with a proposal for the music school, for athletics, whatever it might be in this category. Not necessarily the dollar amount. The dollar amount is kind of the last thing that we talk about and so usually nine times out of ten they’re going to allow you permission to come back with a proposal….and then we go from there.”

Hiles said once a proposal has been presented the university and the donor will work together to figure out how the money would be best spent.

“The number one thing is, that we need to go out and talk with them because each donor has different interests,” Hiles said. “And what we sort of try to do is play a matchmaker role, in terms of matching up a donor’s passion with a university priority.”

Chancellor Loftin said every donor he has ever met has had a particular thing they want to see done.

This was the case for Timothy Blair, a 1973 graduate of the University of Missouri, whose one million dollar gift to the MU School of Journalism was announced at a recent press conference.

Blair said when he was considering making a major donation, he met with the University Advancement Office multiple times to discuss how his gift could coincide with one of his passions.

“When we began to talk it became very apparent that the passion that I have about LGBT rights, and being a gay man myself, that that’s where I felt I wanted to put my money where my mouth is,” Blair said.

Blair’s million dollar gift will fund an initiative at the MU School of Journalism to study the media’s role in shaping perceptions about gender stereotypes and the advancement of LGBT rights.

Blair said, for him, the donation process couldn't have gone any better.

But even through the generosity of some of MU’s alumni, Hiles said there are misconceptions when comes to individuals who give a multi-million dollar donation to a university.

“There is sometimes the perception that donors give because they want to influence the university or they want to do this or that, or politically they’re involved and yeah,” Hiles said. “They certainly want to have their voice heard as part of their giving but ninety-nine percent of our alums who give do so because they are generous and they want to support their alma mater.”

Chancellor Loftin said for a lot of the donors choosing to give to the University of Missouri is a decision that occurs naturally.

“It’s very natural when you look back at your life at some point and say ‘well how did I accumulate my wealth, how did I get to where I am today?’ A lot of times it traces back to your time at a university, like Mizzou,” Loftin said.

This past fiscal year the University of Missouri was able to raise $164 million from alumni donations, a 19 percent increase from last year.

Hiles said the Advancement and Alumni Relations Office has a goal of raising $175 million this upcoming year.  

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