Cardinal, Gold and Bold: Campaign Success at USC

Two and a half years after the public launch of the Campaign for USC, the Trojan Family has already pushed USC more than halfway to its target.

March 10, 2016 Alicia Di Rado, Sam Lopez

The smart money in 2011 seemed to be on USC’s doubters. As the nation’s economy slowly climbed out of its doldrums, many suspected the slight economic uptick was a momentary bounce before another recession. Yet that September USC announced a $6 billion fundraising campaign. The move confounded conventional wisdom: It seemed to be too much to strive for, over too short a time, and it launched while the stock market was on a roller-coaster ride that made investors distinctly uneasy.

Some fund-raising experts are questioning whether the University of Southern California can really reach its audacious goal of raising $6 billion by 2018.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy

“Some fund-raising experts are questioning whether the University of Southern California can really reach its audacious goal of raising $6 billion by 2018,” reported a longtime fundraising writer at The Chronicle of Philanthropy soon after the kickoff. “No private organization has ever tried to collect that much from a single drive.”

Today, USC President C. L. Max Nikias smiles about the word “audacious” and often sprinkles it into his speeches. “We like our goals being called audacious,” Nikias says. “Trojans are bold, and we are ambitious. We have a history of rising to the occasion, stretching back to our founding. The Trojan Family is single-minded in our mission to help USC reach its highest potential.”

There are 3 billion reasons Nikias exudes confidence. Last November, three years since taking office and two years after publicly launching the Campaign for the University of Southern California, Nikias announced that the Trojan Family had already contributed more than $3 billion toward the campaign’s $6 billion goal. To his way of thinking, reaching the halfway point in the campaign so quickly should be no surprise.

Growth Mode

The Campaign for USC started unconventionally. Most major fundraising efforts begin with a quiet phase that lasts a few years before the campaign organizers go public, giving them a chance to raise a substantial slice of their goal and providing a head start for success. USC raised money for a year before announcing its effort.

Only three universities have ever attempted to raise similar totals: Stanford University, which surpassed its $4.3 billion goal by $1.9 billion when its campaign ended in 2011; Columbia University, which raised $2.1 billion more than its original $4 billion target by the time it closed its campaign in 2013; and Harvard University, which kicked off its $6.5 billion campaign last year. Stanford had already raised more than half its goal when it went public, and Columbia had hit 40 percent of its objective. USC, in contrast, had raised about 20 percent of its goal before launch.

So what spurred USC leaders to launch their effort? It came down to a simple equation: “Our ambitious vision for USC’s academic future far exceeded our ability to pay for it,” Nikias says.

Hiring high-profile faculty members, attracting scientists with robust research operations, building labs and advanced workspaces so creative thinkers can do their best work, fostering talented students with great potential—it all takes money. So does building new student facilities and creating a powerful health care system that’s integrated with the university’s biomedical research. With growth surging in all areas, USC leaders were hungry for more, and there was no time to wait.

“USC is at a point where I think all of the stars are aligned,” says Dana Dornsife, namesake of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “You only get those chances once in a while, and you better either move right then or you’re going to miss your opportunity.”

University Professor Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist who joined USC in the mid-2000s, sees the fundraising effort from a faculty perspective: It’s critical to raise funds for endowments to attract top thinkers and teachers, as well as to create the space for them to inspire the next generation and build knowledge. “If you have the proper amount of ambition, the resources never match what those ambitions are,” he says.

And there’s that word again: ambition. Donors often talk about it—about the importance of continuing to build and move forward. “If you want to be in the elite,” says Ed Roski, past chair of the USC Board of Trustees, “it takes investment.”

A heritage of defiance also plays a part. The university has a habit of striving to grow during what might be termed “unusual” times.

Go Bold

When USC was founded in 1880, the university had great ambitions but only modest resources. The foremost universities of the era had tremendous advantages—faculty and intellectual capital, buildings and land, strong reputations and money. While industrialization was spawning tycoons, a gulf was growing between rich and poor, and the memory of a national depression was fresh in the minds of many.

Despite the economic uncertainty, USC’s chief founder, Judge Robert Maclay Widney, burned with the belief that the burgeoning city of Los Angeles needed a university. He inspired businessmen Ozro W. Childs, John G. Downey and Isaias W. Hellman to provide land for the original campus and additional residential lots. Widney personally committed $100,000 to begin USC’s endowment.

Eighty years later, President Norman H. Topping launched USC’s first big campaign with a goal of $106.7 million. Time magazine wrote that USC faced difficult odds, even if it gave itself 20 years to shoot for its goal, and that some of USC’s rivals were “incomparably better.” But, the magazine added, “If he gets the cash, Topping’s master plan could revolutionize USC.”

Topping reached his goal in five years, and the plan transformed USC from a respected regional university into a major research university. “Boldness paid dividends,” Nikias says.

Launched by USC President C. L. Max Nikias in 2010, the Campaign for the University of Southern California has already surpassed $3 billion just three years into its quest for $6 billion.

Then there was the five-year-long campaign kicked off by President John R. Hubbard in 1976 as the U.S. struggled with an energy crisis and the effects of recession. It raised $309.3 million and was the second-largest campaign up to that date.

A subsequent $557 million campaign under President James H. Zumberge in the late 1980s significantly grew endowments for faculty and expanded both USC campuses. At the time, it was the largest campaign goal ever in higher education, and the final tally of nearly $642 million shattered USC’s previous fundraising record.

The nearly decade-long campaign that followed in the 1990s under President Steven Sample—which raised a then-record $2.85 billion—forged the modern university by attracting five naming gifts for USC’s schools. It also created new centers where scientists conduct influential research, like the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, and where students shape their future, such as Jane Hoffman and J. Kristofer Popovich Hall.

Looking Ahead

Early in the Campaign for USC’s planning stages, Nikias told an assembly of university leaders, “This is an unprecedented opportunity, a defining moment, a critical juncture in our history. If we stand still, this opportunity will pass us by. We cannot be cautious. We cannot be tentative. We must be bold.”

Al Checcio, senior vice president for university advancement, says the campaign’s success ultimately comes down to the energy and commitment of the university’s biggest allies: its hundreds of thousands of alumni and supporters.

The single largest gift in the history of USC came from Dana and David Dornsife to name the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. Their $200 million gift supports the academic heart of USC.

“USC has always believed that setting ambitious goals is the first step toward achieving them,” Checcio says. “As it has in the past, the Trojan Family responded to the call for support in a big way, pushing the campaign past the $3 billion level in record time.”

The university’s trustees have been a driving force, notably through their own gifts, which total more than $800 million for this campaign alone. “Our trustees have also been visible and active leaders,” Checcio says, “and have inspired growing volunteer and financial support from USC’s school boards and from alumni, parents and friends worldwide.”

The campaign aims to advance USC’s missions of teaching, research, patient care and public service. It’s organized around four themes: endowment for faculty and research; endowment for student scholarships; immediate support of academic priorities; and capital projects and infrastructure, including new buildings for instruction, research, patient care and residential housing.

Now, looking at another $3 billion to raise, Nikias continues to be confident, perhaps even brash at times. He points to history for proof of the Trojan Family’s commitment, and he cites the Trojan Family’s belief in the difference-making potential of USC’s community of scholars.

“We’re changing the future of this university,” he says. “Together we are building a legacy that will last beyond our lifetimes. “Destiny always bends in the direction of those who take risks. This is our moment.”