UM launches most ambitious fundraising campaign in history; $400M target by end of 2020

The University of Montana on Friday announced its most ambitious fundraising campaign in school history, intended to raise $400 million to benefit students and retain quality and accessibility.

The seven-year philanthropic effort, called Campaign Montana, aims to achieve the university’s largest monetary goal yet through donors by the end of 2020.

During the campaign’s so-called “quiet stage,” about $325 million has already been gifted and pledged since 2013 through the UM Foundation, an independent nonprofit organization.

“The simple reality is that today, the proportion of the cost of a student’s education in the Montana University System that’s funded by the state is one-half of what it was in the 1990s,” UM President Seth Bodnar said in an interview. “So the importance of private support, to help students who maybe don’t have the financial means [or] have access to a world class education, it’s more important than it’s ever been.”

The money will go to a variety of programs and initiatives, including student support programs, advising, internships, study abroad opportunities and scholarships. The funding will also support interdisciplinary programs like the Neural Injury Center and building upgrades like those planned for Dennis and Gretchen Eck Hall.

Bodnar said he hopes to achieve his vision of a UM that puts student success first, drives innovation in teaching, research and learning, and improves a student’s experience inside and outside the classroom.

Investing in the quality of the programs at UM while allowing it to be accessible to many is the top priority, he said.

The wildlife biology program, for example, is the best of its kind in the world, Bodnar said, and it’s affordable and accessible to students.

“That is very unique and that’s what’s so special about the University of Montana. We continue to talk about our ambition to be a national model for how we marry quality with accessibility, because when you do that, you transform not just individual lives but entire communities,” Bodnar said.

Student success also requires excellent guidance, UM Provost Jon Harbor said, and UM plans to implement a professional advising program that partners a student with an academic adviser and a faculty mentor. That will enable students to graduate on time and be confident in their chosen career path.

“We want to be able to afford to have every student meeting with an academic adviser who is focused on that function in addition to working with a faculty mentor,” Harbor said. “And the research shows that when you have professional advising for students, the outcomes are better.”

So far, about $100 million of the campaign’s fund has been used for student scholarships. In fact, that’s been the most successful aspect of the campaign so far, said Kate Stober, UM Foundation director of communications.

“People feel very special and honored to be able to support a student in that way. A $1,000 gift to someone who is trying to go to school can mean the world,” Stober said.

While there are about a third fewer students than there were a decade ago, Bodnar said the university’s quality will continue to improve with the help of its donors.

About 60 percent of the university’s general fund comes from tuition, with 40 percent coming from the state. Donors help provide financial aid and other improvements for students, specifically.

According to the instructional budget released last week, Bodnar said that, even with a lower budget, UM will still spend 14 percent more on instruction per student than was spent about a decade ago.

Over the course of the past five years, donors have supported 15 new endowed faculty positions in programs they’re passionate about. Faculty chairs, professorships and faculty fellowships are planned for additional investment.

“As we continue to grow, we’re going to continue to invest in faculty resources, continue to enhance that student experience and this campaign really enables us to do that on a much bigger scale,” Bodnar said.

Cindy Williams, president and CEO of the UM Foundation, said that many donors like to look ahead, and see how their funds could help the university in the future.

“Campaigns and higher education for other large nonprofits are designed to help the institution invite its constituents to look ahead to the opportunities that are before it to advance strategic priorities,” Williams said.

Another priority is investing in the Excellence Fund, which will allow the university to use money for challenges and opportunities that weren’t part of the budget. The President’s Lecture Series and responding to a department’s needs are a few examples of Excellence Fund uses.

Bodnar said he’s excited to see the changes in the future and looks forward to seeing a donor’s funds turn into something that will benefit students for a lifetime.

“At the core of everything that we’re doing is student success,” he said. “So how do we have a transformative student experience in and out of the classroom?

“When we think about the direction of the University of Montana is headed, it’s really to distinguish ourselves by the transformational experience that we enable students to have here. Again, it enables them not just to succeed and get their degree, but to succeed through the course of their life.”