A talk with Shelley Semmler, vice president of institutional advancement, on why she works so hard to raise funds for the College.
She's dynamic and fun-loving, hard-working and sociable. She's tiny but indomitable, and has boundless energy. She is on the road almost as much as she's in her office -- some months even more. And she loves Ithaca College.
Since 1999 Shelley Semmler has been vice president of institutional advancement and a tireless representative of the College, in Ithaca and around the United States. As leader of alumni relations, development, and marketing communications, Semmler and her team spend a great deal of time on the road, raising awareness and support for Ithaca College. Recently the ICQ managed to get her to sit still long enough to answer a few questions about the present and the future of the College to which she devotes so much energy.
ICQ: Why did you come to Ithaca College?
Semmler: After working 20 years in development at Cornell, I arrived here and fell in love with the place. Ithaca College was so appealing because it was just the right size. You can definitely accomplish more in a community like this. I get to interact directly with the deans and the faculty and the students. As a result, this is a place where one person -- or a team of very dedicated people, such as I have -- can make a real difference.
Q. What do you hope to accomplish in advancement?
A. Advancement encompasses alumni relations and marketing communications, as well as fund-raising. Our job, basically, is to reach out to all the people associated with the College and share with them our excitement about what it has become and is becoming. We need to show our alumni and friends -- and students, too -- all the ways that Ithaca College is better than ever at preparing well-rounded community leaders, and that supporting our mission is still a solid investment in a productive future. If we are successful in doing that, we will go far toward instilling a culture of philanthropy at IC.
Q. What do you mean by "culture of philanthropy"?
A. Developing a sense of ownership and commitment to the College. I'd even go so far as to say "duty." That's a pretty strong word, and I hope it doesn't put anyone off. But that's exactly what we are talking about.
We've been making steady progress. Five years ago 16 percent of alumni were giving back. Today the figure has climbed to 20 percent. That may not sound dramatic, but it represents an improvement of 25 percent! Still, we have a ways to go. Some institutions achieve giving rates of 50 percent or more. It's interesting to note that Ithaca College has so many very young alumni. Forty percent of our alumni base graduated in the last 10 years. These are people who may not yet be in a position in their careers to give much back. But giving is not about the size of the gifts so much as it is showing one's desire to support the College. When the established generations, who benefited from the help they received yesterday, give back to help the generations of today, that's a culture of philanthropy.
Q. There has been a lot of buzz about the new sustainable School of Business building, the athletics and events center, and other changes in the works. Why is growth necessary for IC?
A. Ithaca College, of course, is a nonprofit institution, however, we also exist in a competitive environment. We compete to attract the best students and faculty. To do so effectively we need to provide an array of facilities and programs that's comparable to other schools. If we don't, we won't stay in business. In the past when we've needed to make improvements in order to stay competitive, we've taken out loans or borrowed money from elsewhere in the budget. But that formula simply won't work any longer. For starters, it's not smart business; the College is also at the limit of our borrowing capacity. Don't misunderstand me: Ithaca College is financially solid, but there's no way we can continue to put up buildings or fund major improvements from annual revenues.
Q. Tuition brings in a lot of money; isn't some of the tuition income devoted to growth?
A. It's understandable to assume it could be, especially considering how high tuition costs are these days. The truth is that tuition covers only about 80 percent of our operating costs. We need to find the rest elsewhere, primarily from donor contributions. This gets at the heart of an old axiom, "Colleges are run by tuition dollars, but built by alumni and friends." Think of it this way: when students come to IC, their tuition is earmarked for day-to-day expenses. But when they arrive, the buildings and facilities are already here. So who paid for those? And who funds improvements or replacement buildings? Not to mention new programs and course offerings, research facilities, technologies, performance venues and enhancements, and so forth. For those, we largely rely on donations from previous generations such as alumni, friends, and parents. That's how this arrangement works: the established generations give back to help the younger ones. And when generations become established we hope they remember the help they received as students and do their part to continue the cycle.
Q. How does the endowment fit into the picture?
A. The endowment is an untouchable block of funds that over the years has been built up by contributions from generous alumni and donors. We never disturb the capital but use the income for scholarships and other programs. There's a simple relationship at work: The larger the endowment and the more it produces, the less we need to borrow from operating funds when the need for scholarships increases. Today it's an unfortunate fact of life in this country that financial assistance is being cut back by the federal and state governments. Yet the need for assistance remains just as great. So we find ourselves increasingly helping worthy students in need by making up some of the difference from the operating budget. Ithaca's endowment is not as large as those of many other institutions of our size. It's now clear that at some point we will need to make a serious effort to grow the size of the endowment to give the College a more secure footing and preserve our ability to continue helping students.
Photos by Sheryl D. Sinkow
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