Behind capital campaign, Pelzel works to raise big bucks

by Dax Tejera | 11/18/04 6:00am

Editor's Note: This is the seventh in a multi-part series on the College's senior administration and the issues facing Dartmouth today and in the future.

At a glitzy New York presentation Saturday, Dartmouth officially announced the start of its ambitious five-year, $1.3 billion capital campaign, the "Campaign for the Dartmouth Experience." The meeting was the first of hundreds whereby College leaders will travel across the country to send the message to invest in Dartmouth. At the helm of this massive endeavor is Dartmouth's vice president for development, Carrie Pelzel, who has been charged with the College's most ambitious fundraising goal ever. In an interview with The Dartmouth, Pelzel discussed the goals of the campaign, offered insight into the coming years and explained the importance of spreading the message.

The Rationale

Higher education institutions have long recognized that capital campaigns are the most effective method for fundraising. Pelzel explained that unlike "mini-campaigns," organized to fund a sole building or program, or ongoing and aggressive promotions, capital campaigns are the only fundraising device that galvanize the attention and focus of donors in a way that creates positive growth for an institution. For every 1 to 12 cents she spends, Pelzel said, the institution gains $1.

While they typically cycle on a 10-year interval, Pelzel said that universities are being forced to conduct efforts more frequently as financial challenges mount.

"The pressure to increase philanthropic support is greater than it's ever been," Pelzel said.

In addition to raising tremendous funds, capital campaigns double permanent annual support to an institution. Dartmouth's last capital campaign, "Will to Excel," increased annual giving from $50 million to $100 million. By the end of this campaign, Pelzel anticipates annual giving jumping to $200 million.

The funds attained during the campaign will be strictly divided among four "strategic imperatives," including academic enterprise, residential life, financial aid and annual giving.

Early Success

Before any campaign goes public, a "nucleus" phase is quietly conducted for a period averaging two years with the intent of testing campaign approaches and building momentum for donors. Dartmouth has already achieved 35 percent of its target, beating its own expectations for its nucleus phase at $457.5 million in gifts.

Pelzel said the nucleus phase affirmed the vision for the Dartmouth Experience campaign, demonstrated through a diversity of pledge investments and above-average gifts.

"Virtually every key objective in the campaign received support," Pelzel said. "That says the agenda we're putting forward to the constituency makes sense."

Pelzel did concede that the nucleus phase was the "easy work" of the campaign, and that the next five years would be "much, much tougher." She said the affluent donors who invest during the silent phase of the campaign are far more connected and involved with the institution, and consequently more willing to donate. Pelzel highlighted the Board of Trustees as playing a critical role in the success of the nucleus phase and campaign as a whole.

"Members of the Board of Trustees stepped up early -- very early -- and frankly raised the bar," Pelzel said. "That sent a signal to our major supporters that the board was 100 percent behind us, and that they personally were willing to set an example through their own philanthropy."

Pelzel confirmed that the Trustees play a critical role throughout the fundraising effort, and are on the road with others to sell the message to donors.

Five More Years

The ambitious $1 billion goal of Dartmouth's campaign spans nearly a decade, and while Pelzel remains confident the College will reach the mark, she acknowledged the risk of the unknown.

Pelzel cited the stock market as the primary liability for the campaign, with world events posing another risk. Yet any other hurdle, Pelzel said, can be overcome with the right leadership, determination and focus.

Unfettered by potential threats, she said the centerpiece of the campaign's strategy is education and outreach.

"We educate people about what Dartmouth is today, what it aspires to be and how they can play a role in the life of the institution," Pelzel said.

The principle agents are faculty, administrators and students, who are constantly on the road meeting alumni. Pelzel said students play a critical role in selling the message, and have had an atypical interest in the effort.

"Alumni love meeting and talking with students, so that they can hear firsthand, unfiltered, what life is like at Dartmouth today."

Pelzel praised College President James Wright's enthusiasm about the campaign and cited his involvement as essential. Yet she cautioned that the president's role remains centered on education, not fundraising.

"The number one job of a president is to set the course toward academic excellence and the quality of the student experience," Pelzel said.

"You can't do it unless you really understand the kind of student experience you want to provide -- because your donors aren't going to invest unless you do that."