Despite Tough Economy, University of Cincinnati Overcomes Challenges to Endowment Campaign

When revelers and party-goers celebrated the new year a few weeks ago, they also celebrated the end to one of the most difficult years in American history.  The financial impact of the “Great Recession” is something Americans won’t soon forget – though unfortunately, the country isn’t out of the woods yet.

Not surprisingly, many non-profit organizations are struggling to make ends meet, even though the assistance they provide is critical.  Take, for example, endowment funds of higher education institutions.  In the Great Recession, colleges and universities have struggled to meet fundraising goals – in fact, according to U.S. News and World Report, there was an estimated 22.5 percent drop in endowment funds between July 2008 and Dec. 2008.   These private gifts are critical to funding scholarships, keeping college costs low, improving facilities and strengthening ties to student life and surrounding communities.  A decline in funding will undoubtedly cause these university initiatives and expenses to suffer.

Despite these obstacles, a fresh perspective can breathe new life into endowment campaigns. For example, the support and vision of university leadership is crucial to achieving fundraising success.  Additionally, novel ideas to encourage support can make a robust campaign even stronger.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the University of Cincinnati (UC), which is in the midst of an aggressive $1 billion fundraising campaign: Proudly Cincinnati. Proudly Cincinnati is the institution’s ambitious plan to support its goal of becoming the finest urban research university in the country.  Only two percent of public universities have even attempted such a feat – and UC launched the public phase of its campaign in 2009, in one of the worst economic periods this country has ever known.

In addition to the recession, the Proudly Cincinnati campaign faced another big hurdle in 2009: the departure of UC President Nancy Zimpher, who first launched the historic campaign.  Given the importance of the campaign to the university’s future, its board of trustees carefully weighed each potential candidate to find the best person to lead the university and Proudly Cincinnati through its remaining years.  After an exhaustive search, UC named Gregory Williams its 27th president.

Williams’ experience and respected reputation in higher education fundraising played a key role in the university’s selection of him as its incoming president; he holds the record for the largest individual gift ever received by Ohio State University and attracted a number of high-profile donations during his tenure at City College of New York.  It was the board of trustees’ belief that Williams could infuse the Proudly Cincinnati campaign with a new sense of excitement, as well as renewed support from university leadership. 

“President Williams has a bold vision for the future of higher education,” said UC Trustees Chair H.C. Buck Niehoff, who led the effort to appoint UC’s newest president.  “He is a noted scholar with a remarkable record for building enrollment while ensuring academic excellence and diversity. He also has a substantial background in leading successful fundraising efforts. We were looking for that kind of symbiosis between vision and proven excellence, to inspire university leadership and help meet the aggressive goals established by the Proudly Cincinnati campaign.”

President Williams hinted at his confidence in the future of the campaign during his first public comments to the university, the news media and the community, when he said, “Hello, my name is Greg Williams and I am Proudly Cincinnati.”  His words made an immediate impact, reinforcing for the university community – both on campus and beyond – the importance he placed on a successful Proudly Cincinnati effort.

Williams further reinforced his dedication to the campaign today, when he helped launch a celebration of Proudly Cincinnati by announcing the campaign has officially passed the halfway point with approximately $638 million in donations to-date. In addition, he shared his vision of the future of the campaign by issuing a challenge to the UC community that aims to make Proudly Cincinnati an indelible part of the fabric of the university’s campus.

The university’s student community took Williams’ challenge seriously by introducing a new component to the Proudly Cincinnati campaign, Proudly Pennies. UC students pledged to make every penny count by instituting a campus-wide effort to raise 1 billion pennies – the equivalent of $10 million.

According to Tim Lolli, UC Student Body President, UC students felt the time was right to launch this important component to the Proudly Cincinnati campaign. “We as students are an integral part of the University of Cincinnati community, and we believe it is our responsibility to help mobilize support of this great university,” said Lolli. “Proudly Pennies is the student body’s contribution to making this great university even better.”

The addition of Proudly Pennies to the university’s $1 billion campaign isn’t the only new idea the foundation recently brought to the table. The foundation’s key leadership have gone viral as a way to connect with faculty and staff. Examples include a new Web site that makes it easy for participants to invite personal and professional networks to contribute to the campaign; and faculty and staff volunteers who encourage participation among their colleagues. The results have been impressive: in 2009, the campaign saw a 22 percent increase in the number of faculty/staff contributors, and more than $1.3 million in contributions over the previous year. 

Even though, according to a recent article from CNN, only 16 percent of non-profits expected to cover their operating expenses for 2009, UC’s foundation has managed to buck the trend and significantly increase funding despite a myriad of obstacles.  In a year that could have gone very poorly, the University of Cincinnati has found ways to strengthen its ties to its giving audiences, as well as instill a sense of pride and excitement to those important to the success of the Proudly Cincinnati campaign.  The path ahead may look shaky to other non-profit organizations, but to the University of Cincinnati Foundation, it is a year rife with opportunity.

About the University of Cincinnati
Ranked by the National Science Foundation among the top 20 public research universities in the United States, UC's faculty have distinguished themselves worldwide for their creative teaching and research. The University of Cincinnati serves a diverse enrollment of more than 37,000.

About the University of Cincinnati Foundation
The University of Cincinnati Foundation is leading Proudly Cincinnati: Tower of Strength, Rock of Truth, the University’s most ambitious campaign in history, supporting the vision for UC to become the finest urban research university in the United States. Proudly Cincinnati’s goal is to raise $1 billion by 2013. To date, more than $500,000,000 has been raised for scholarships, innovative teaching and groundbreaking research. For more information about the Proudly Cincinnati campaign, visit

About Proudly Cincinnati
Proudly Cincinnati: Tower of Strength, Rock of Truth
is the University’s most ambitious campaign in history, supporting the vision for UC to become the finest urban research university in the United States. Proudly Cincinnati’s goal is to raise $1 billion by 2013. To date, more than $500,000,000 has been raised for scholarships, innovative teaching and groundbreaking research. For more information about the Proudly Cincinnati campaign, visit

Related Stories


Local 12: Nature still healing after Tristate storm that killed 4

April 12, 2024

Local 12 and other news media highlighted a long-term study by the University of Cincinnati examining the recovery of a forest damaged by a deadly tornado 25 years ago. The study found that the storm provided an opportunity for some nonnative, invasive species.

Debug Query for this