Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

c.2013 New York Times News Service

On the University of Virginia’s website, next to a photo of parents of current students, is a plea to join them in supporting school traditions by signing up for the Parents Committee; a separate link prompts parents to contribute $2,500 to $25,000 annually.

At the University of Michigan, members of the Parent and Family Leadership Council are expected to contribute $25,000 a year for four years, on top of tuition, room and board that can exceed $50,000 annually, according to Matt Burrows, the director of parent and family giving.

At the University of California, Berkeley, the Cal Parents Fund and other campus efforts raised $2.1 million from 4,400 families during the 2012-13 fundraising campaign, in part by offering perks to parents, including special staff liaisons to handle their questions and concerns (for a $5,000 donation).

It used to be that alumni were the main focus of fundraising from their alma maters, but that is less so nowadays. With endowments in the doldrums and government funding curtailed at state universities, colleges public and private are stepping up efforts to tap parents of current students for donations in ways previously reserved for graduates established in careers.

It is no surprise that some parents consider it galling to be asked to donate while paying tuition.

Judy Marrazzo, an entrepreneur who runs GoCampusing, a college touring company on Long Island, N.Y., said she received calls about four times a year to contribute to her daughter’s school, a well-regarded private university in the Philadelphia area that she declined to name while her daughter was still enrolled.

She said she gave $100 once.

“I think it’s terrible,” she said. “I’m spending $60,000 a year and they are asking me for more money. Are they kidding me?”

Parental philanthropy was a fraction of the estimated $31 billion in donations to private and public colleges during the 2012 fiscal year, according to the Council for Aid to Education, a New York City research group. Among colleges that the council tracks, parental giving has hovered under 2.5 percent of donations since 2007, dipping to a low of 2.1 percent in 2009.

Clearly universities see room for growth. College administrators’ attendance at a recurring conference on parent programs, including strategies to encourage parental giving, has increased about 50 percent since 2009, according to its host, the Washington-based Council for Advancement and Support of Education, known as CASE.

Universities’ primary targets are those who can afford to pay at or near the full cost of a son or daughter’s degree, reflecting the belief that such parents might have the means to contribute more.

“That’s not an unreasonable assumption,” says Peter Hayashida, a vice chancellor at the University of California, Riverside, who heads the Commission on Philanthropy at CASE. Once a student enrolls, he said, development offices assess a family’s “philanthropic potential.” That can mean poring over ZIP codes, corporate ties and titles and finding out whether the family has connections to other well-heeled parents.

In wooing such potential donors, networking opportunities such as invitations to the chancellor’s parent donor reception often sweeten the deal (a $2,500 donation gets you that at Berkeley).

Schools frequently court and enlist parent donors as school ambassadors. Three times a year, Kathy LaPoint, a volunteer who has two daughters attending Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., makes the 12-hour round trip to campus from her home in Wellesley Hills, Mass.

As the first female president of Parents Association board, she is a steady presence at campus family activities. She oversees a development committee but is not responsible for any direct solicitation. A separate national campaign committee operates through the advancement office.

Bucknell officials estimate that 41 percent of parents donate to the college, although, unlike Virginia and Michigan, the school does not require parent members to make contributions to join its parents’ board. Bucknell’s president, John C. Bravman, says it is important for such bodies to have a “broad spectrum of parent views and desires.”

“If a parent is tapped out financially, we don’t push them into making a gift and respect their feelings,” Ann DiStefano, director of the Parents Fund and Family Programs, wrote in an email.

All the new focus on parents is not meant to suggest that alumni are off the hook for fundraising appeals. Judging from anecdotal evidence and his own experience, Hayashida said, graduates 25 to 30 years removed from their alma maters are receptive to suggestive questions that might open wallets, like: What do you want the world to remember you for? And what role can we play in creating that legacy?

But with some parents more involved on campus, they just might be persuaded to make donations to their children’s universities instead of their own.