Protecting our community’s most vulnerable. Helping students pay for college with scholarships. Funding groundbreaking research. Each of these – and more – are priorities of UNLV philanthropists.
But as the world scrambles to adapt to the reality of the global coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, university and nonprofit leaders are left wondering, “What happens to philanthropy now? Will donors still give?”
Such questions about the future are often hedged with the caveat that we simply don’t know what will happen next. Yet we can turn to reference points for context — the historical trends in giving, and studies just beginning to identify the emerging philanthropic trends. And we can look to how UNLV donors are responding today.
Donors are leading the way
“Philanthropy in times of crisis is another example of the old American spirit, according to which we do not expect the public sector to solve all our problems, but we turn to one another in private life to provide assistance,” said David Fott, UNLV professor of political science.
Fott and his wife, Stacey, recently donated to the UNLV Medicine Fund for Patient Care. Their impulse was to support the university and combat COVID-19 simultaneously. The Fotts are not alone.
UNLV donors are making gifts to emergency funds, scholarships, mental health services, and even medical and community research. The university’s faculty and staff are among the first to recognize the challenges that lie ahead – and among the first to give, too.
“Donating helps address the financial challenges faced by students,” said Peter B. Gray, professor of anthropology, adjunct professor at the UNLV School of Medicine and a donor. “As administrative and faculty discussions about the current and longer-term impacts unfold, we know that we are not returning to last year's normal. The health, economic, and higher education costs of this pandemic are enormous. Donating helps address those funding gaps.”
In fact, philanthropy has already made a significant impact on UNLV’s ability to respond to the crisis. Unrestricted funds – funds given to the university to use at its discretion – have allowed leadership to address the campus’ unexpected and emerging needs.
“I am deeply moved by the generosity of our donors,” said Victor Wei, interim vice president for UNLV’s Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement. “They made it possible for us to pivot quickly and build an infrastructure for online education this spring.
“Moving forward,” he continued, “we know that philanthropy can change the course of a student’s life. Scholarship and emergency funds can make the difference between losing hope and pressing on.”
Looking at the numbers
To date, UNLV donors’ giving trends align with what’s taking shape nationally despite the fact — or perhaps because of it — that Nevada’s economy is predicted to be one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic, and likely will take longer to recover.
The desire to be philanthropic is not diminished in a crisis or economic downturn, say many experts on giving, but they do make adjustments.
In an April survey, a Fidelity Charity study found that 54 percent of donors indicated that they will maintain their charitable giving levels this year, and another 25 percent intend to increase their giving. Giving USA, a think tank supported by The Giving Institute and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, reports that the charitable sector is seeing “record levels of seven-figure gifts” so far.
Other experts say the big donors may hold back until the markets stabilize, but the middle income households may be most inclined to give.
But many individuals and corporations simply will have less to give.
Facing this prospect, universities are beginning to reconcile with a likely decrease in giving overall. UNLV experienced a decline in giving during the recession of the late 2000s, but the impact didn’t hit for several years. In 2009 and 2010, the UNLV Foundation — which oversees the fundraising for the university — saw charitable giving rise by 15 percent year-over-year. But in 2011, total charitable dollars dropped 30 percent to $30.3 million.
In the fiscal year, ending June 30, 2019, the UNLV Foundation raised $74.4 million. There are several weeks to go in the current fiscal year, so it’s unknown how fundraising totals ultimately will shake out.
Shifting and recommitting to charitable priorities
In a time of crisis, donors’ philanthropic priorities can shift. They often begin to seek ways to protect a community’s most vulnerable, and that has been true at UNLV, too. Since mid-March, the university fundraising program has directed more donors to give to “emergency funds,” or funds established to help meet immediate needs students are facing, including the urgent demand for loaner laptops to complete courses from home this spring.
“The students served by UNLV include more first-generation and at-risk students than most institutions, and many are struggling more than ever during this unexpected crisis,” said Jean Vock, a 30-year veteran of higher education administration and UNLV’s chief financial officer and senior vice president of business affairs. Vock and her husband recently gave to support the Food Pantry: “It is essential to have basic needs met so our students can focus on their education,” she said.
The health and wellness of UNLV students is also a priority of donors Jeanne and Don Hamrick, who recently gave to the College of Liberal Arts emergency fund. Jeanne Hamrick, a philanthropic consultant who earned a master’s degree from UNLV in counseling and educational psychology, said: “Keeping our students mentally healthy, flexible, and emotionally healthy, and giving them some tools to use at this time means we can work through the rest of it. The challenge is really giving people that assistance to stay healthy.”
Donors Gerry and Jenny Shear had determined that mental health care and research are among their top philanthropic priorities even before the pandemic. Since then, they’ve stepped up their giving to The PRACTICE. Their recent gift ensured that the clinic could stabilize operations and even move toward outreach, providing individual and group therapy through telehealth appointments. Thanks to the Shear’s generosity, neither current clients nor students experienced disruption in their care and practice since the pandemic hit Las Vegas.
“Mental health, in general, is probably where cancer was 35 years ago. It’s an area that’s under-resourced, under-funded in every way, and we have significant crises with our most vulnerable populations,” said Gerry Shear, MBA ’10.
The PRACTICE’s Executive Director Michelle Paul agreed. Nevada ranks last in the nation for access to mental health care despite a tremendous need, she said. The COVID-19 crisis only heightens the demand for services.
“The crisis is anticipated to have long-term consequences on the community's collective stress and its citizens' mental wellbeing,” Paul said. “We will be here to help as much as we can.”
Paying it forward
Indeed, in a world facing a plethora of unknowns and worrisome realities, philanthropy still serves as a touchstone for a community’s resilience and strength to persevere. It’s a reminder that what you give will one day be repaid.
“I remember when I was young and my family didn’t have money,” said long-time UNLV donor Brenda Frank, formerly a single mother who worked a day job and attended night school to complete her education. “If it weren’t for other people helping me, I couldn’t have gotten my undergraduate degree or my graduate degree.”
Frank and her husband, Russell, retired to Las Vegas from New Jersey. Supporters of the Honors College, HOPE Scholars, College of Sciences, and College of Fine Arts, they recently increased their scholarship funding for honors students majoring in the sciences.
“I was raised by my grandparents, who had very minimal resources,” said Russell Frank, who serves on the College of Sciences Advisory Board and continues to take university classes in many disciplines. “If people in our community needed help, somehow they would find a way to help them.”
“I want others to have the same opportunities,” Brenda Frank echoed. “Life is not easy for the majority of UNLV students. They need to be respected and nurtured by our community. If they are, they will acquire skills. And they will give back post-graduation by becoming active participants in the community.”
Marian Alper and Stacy Willis contributed to this story.