In the midst of a global economic downturn associated with COVID-19, the fundraising totals for Columbia Giving Day increased roughly 9 percent from 2019, and roughly 253 percent from the University’s first campaign in 2012. Giving Day is an annual fundraiser that collects donations in support of undergraduate and graduate schools, athletics, and other departments and initiatives within the University.
Despite some experts’ predictions that a lack of in-person engagement for alumni would decrease donations, Columbia raised a record-breaking $24 million in donations.
Columbia’s successful fundraising stands in stark contrast to the efforts of other institutions, many of which have seen drop offs related to pandemic-related pressures. According to a May 2020 poll taken by the Annual Giving Network, agnresources.com, 49 percent of colleges and universities either postponed or canceled their equivalent of Giving Day as a result of COVID-19. For example, Emory University canceled its fundraising activities earlier in the year. And Boston University canceled its April 2 “BU Giving Day.” In lieu of a yearly donation to the University, Boston University suggested that donors instead give to the Student Life Emergency Fund or the Wentworth Fund in order to directly aid students.
Columbia Giving Day is a cornerstone of the University’s development strategy—one that has often fallen short of fundraising goals for major projects, including the School of International and Public Affairs’ move to Manhattanville and the growth of Barnard’s financial aid fund. Despite its sizable alumni pool, Columbia has experienced struggles mobilizing its graduate network to donate. However, University President Lee Bollinger’s tenure has seen major efforts to improve historically low alumni engagement rates; Columbia now sits third in the nation in donation totals for the 2019 fiscal year behind Harvard University and Stanford University.
While experts claimed back in April that larger philanthropic donations may decrease as a result of a weaker economy, many colleges and universities that held giving days did not see a major dip from last year. Cornell University fell short of its 2019 total by only 10 percent, and the University of Pennsylvania reached 115 percent of its funding goal,
For many universities, giving day is shortly after Homecoming, often the only time alumni return to campus. For many alumni, it is the renewed connection between them and their university’s football team that encourages them to donate. Despite a lack of in-person and all fall sports, Columbia Athletics came in a close second to Columbia College for the highest Giving Day total, with both funds exceeding $3 million.
This year’s efforts to revamp the University’s Giving Day included competitions, called “challenge funds,” that incentivized donors to contribute large amounts in short periods of time. For example, Women Creating Change, a collection of working groups within the Center for the Study of Social Difference, won the “Raising the Bar” Challenge, and a third-party donor gave $8,000 to the school in their name. WCC increased its total donations from 54 in 2019 to 151 in 2020.
House Representative Katherine Kazarian of Rhode Island, BC ’12, said, “I am honored to give every year … Columbia University and Barnard College really shaped my career in politics. My heart always goes for the faculty and staff. The professors I had there really shaped the way I approach problems, and they gave me the confidence to run for office, to think about issues critically.”
Donors are also contributing to Columbia’s efforts to find solutions to the crises created by COVID-19. The Irving Medical Center is creating a “biobank” with New York-Presbyterian Hospital by collecting DNA, RNA, blood, and tissue samples for researchers studying the virus. Outside of Giving Day, the Center has received $2.1 million in contributions from alumni clubs in China, representing over 300 donors. Alumni have also provided a million surgical masks and other pieces of personal protective equipment to hospitals in need. Research at CUIMC developed anti-viral compounds and over $10 million has been raised for a $20 million goal.