While universities and nonprofit organizations throughout the country have felt the pangs of fundraising losses, FIU has bucked the trend.
Amidst all of the uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, FIU not only achieved its fundraising goals but also set its own new record: nearly $76 million during this past fiscal year.
While university presidents and organizational leaders everywhere would love to know, there isn’t one single reason for this surprising achievement, says George Corton, chief development officer for the FIU Foundation. Like many other fundraising offices in the country, FIU did not have an immediate answer for how to handle soliciting gifts during a pandemic. What the university knew it had to do, however, was stay true to its rock-solid commitment to the surrounding area.
“Almost immediately, FIU began to help the entire South Florida community,” Corton explains. “There was no hesitation. And people took notice.”
Among the most visible and immediate ways the university sprang into action: the operating—by FIU’s own medical students and faculty as well as emergency-management personnel—of a site run jointly with the county health department on grounds adjacent to MMC, where COVID-19 testing of tens of thousands of local residents(and counting) has taken place; the 3D printing of protective face shields that have been donated to nearby hospitals and frontline workers who are most in harm’s way; the delivering of art supplies by personnel of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum to needy children; the conducting of research by FIU’s Biomolecular Sciences Institute to identify, using computer modeling, FDA-approved drugs that could crippled the ability of the coronavirus to replicate; and the list goes on.
“Individuals were impressed to hear about what FIU was doing,” says Corton. “They wanted to know how they could help.”
As word of these activities made its way through the region, potential donors paid attention.
The Helios Education Foundation, a longtime supporter of FIU, had already made a significant gift in support of completion scholarships for seniors and did so again during the pandemic. FIU was among the beneficiaries of a partnership between the organization and the Florida Consortium of Metropolitan Research Universities to provide emergency completion grants to Florida students in need of financial assistance as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Helios Education Foundation believes education is an investment and not an expense,” said Paul J. Luna, the foundation’s president and CEO. “By investing in our FIU partnership amid these challenging times, we are investing in students’ resiliency and commitment to success, an investment we are proud to make.”
In another powerful example of going to bat for its neighbors, FIU stepped in to support one of South Florida’s largest and most vital industries: hospitality. To help a sector almost decimated by the pandemic, the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management partnered with the Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival to create the SOBEWFF & FIU Chaplin School Hospitality Industry Relief Fund, which provided immediate financial support to independently owned and operated restaurants, many of them headed by FIU alumni. With significant funding from partners Bacardi USA and Badia Spices, Inc., as well as others, the fund has aided more than 500 restaurants and bars.
That effort attracted industry-related donors—among them The Gloria Estefan Foundation, television personality Rachel Ray’s non-profit organization, Yum-o! and Voli 305 Vodka, owned by Miami rapper and music producer Pitbull—all of whom jumped at the chance to be part of the solution.
Amidst the hard economic times, others quickly answered the call to the tune of $1.6 million to support nearly 1,000 students who did not qualify for federal assistance or applied after available funds were exhausted. The money allowed students to continue classes and make basic purchases at a time when many had lost part-time jobs due to the pandemic.
The uncertain times also prompted university leaders to rethink how to engage with existing donors. Alyssa Meyer, director of development, regional giving, previously relied on travel and face-to-face meetings in her position. However, having to alter her normal strategy to incorporate more video conferences proved advantageous.
“One of the benefits during COVID is that I was able to meet with more people than I normally would traveling in person,” Meyer says. “People had more time to just schedule a Zoom call, rather than scheduling time to come into the office.”
Certainly, there will be other challenges for the foreseeable future. But with a record fundraising year in the most difficult of circumstances, FIU now has a proven strategy to guide it in the coming months as it continues to advance its mission and help its community.