Despite drop in giving, USC 7th in nation

Amid the worst drop in private donations to universities in more than 50 years, USC has emerged relatively unscathed, placing seventh on the list of top fundraising universities in the country despite a reduction in giving.

An annual survey by the Council for Aid to Education found that the recession has hit university donors’ pocketbooks — private donations to American universities fell by 11.9 percent this year, the highest decline in the survey’s 53-year history.

At USC, donations dropped only 9.8 percent. The school received $368,981,377 in 2009, earning it the seventh-place spot.

“During tough times, the Trojan family is willing to reach out,” said Courtney Surls, vice president of USC development. “That says a lot about how dedicated the Trojan family is to the success of the university.”

The survey found that personal donations experienced the steepest decline, with alumni donations down 18 percent.

At USC however, the number of people donating actually increased, though the total amount of the donations declined. For alumni, parents and friends, the number of gifts given in 2009 increased by .05 percent while the number of gifts given specifically by alumni increased by 1.32 percent.

Scott Mory, CEO of the USC Alumni Association, said alumni support has been consistent.

“At the end of the day, USC has an extraordinarily loyal alumni base, and the university is doing amazing things that alumni want to be a part of,” he said.

Donations, the majority of which come from individuals, are used to sponsor a range of university programs like scholarships, research, athletics and campus life. About 62 percent of the donations’ yield goes to expenditures like scholarships and research, 23 percent goes to buildings and renovation and the rest goes to the endowment.

Robert Abeles, interim senior vice president and chief financial officer, said the amount budgeted based on gifts is different from the actual amount of donations because the money is not all spent immediately. He said the impact of the decline in gifts, which currently account for 8.4 percent of the budget, is small.

“[The] decline is about $6 million, so that is not significant when you’re looking at a budget of approximately $2.7 billion.”

Surls echoed this.

“USC’s operations are funded by a variety of sources,” she said. “In general, a decrease in gifts might limit opportunities to fund new initiatives, [but] it’s not a noticeable change.”

Surls also added that, while the survey indicates a decline in donations, the overall trend is upward. She said that there are fluctuations in gifts every year, so it is important to look at the trend in donations over a period of time to get a real sense of how the university is doing.

“You can’t look too much from year to year,” Surls said. “You really have to look at these numbers over a period of years, and we are steadily always increasing.”

Historically, Surls said, it has held that, as the United States comes out of a recession, donations return at higher levels than it was at before the recession. Still, donors will have to gain confidence in external economic factors like the stock market and gross domestic product before donations rebound to previous levels.

“Realistically, when the economy is down, there’s a psychological impact. It’s going to take some confidence in the economy before we see the levels we’re used to,” she said.