June 01, 2018

When alumni give back to their alma mater, they often have a purpose in mind. Some want to direct the money toward scholarships while others want the funds to help out athletics. Some donors, however, allow WPI to choose where the funds are most needed. Called unrestricted giving, those monies help fund projects both big and small that aren’t always as obvious to the eye.

The Daily Herd sat down with William McAvoy, vice president for University Advancement, to learn more about the differences between restricted and unrestricted giving and why all donors are so important to the university’s mission.

WPI recently received one of its largest gifts ever—a $12 million unrestricted gift from an anonymous donor. “Unrestricted gifts at this level of commitment are unusual and therefore appreciated more than ever,” says McAvoy. “But any gift is important. Both restricted and unrestricted gifts are equally meaningful in helping our organization achieve its mission.”

William McAvoy

Why is an unrestricted gift valuable to the university?

Any unrestricted gift of this magnitude is the ultimate expression of confidence and trust in an organization, in its mission, its leadership, its financial management, its vision for the future, and its impact. All the gifts to the WPI Fund are unrestricted. Gifts to the WPI Fund are for use in the current fiscal year and are sometimes referred to as annual gifts or annual giving. People give year in and year out and typically the gifts are more modest in size—anywhere from $25 to over $10,000 in range. Our President’s Circle donors are our leadership annual donors, giving $2,000 and above, in general, with some programs for younger alumni with lower thresholds.

What can an unrestricted gift be used for?

Unrestricted gifts provide WPI the opportunity to determine what the best use of that gift is. We can determine where the greatest need is and determine how that gift can create the largest impact. It enables the university to leverage opportunities for our students and faculty as they emerge throughout the year.

And this recent donor prefers to remain anonymous?

The fact that this gift is anonymous in some ways reflects that our alumni are typically more interested in making an impact than in the recognition they receive for their success in life. As a university, we do like to recognize a donor’s generosity and trumpet their philanthropic commitments. That’s why you see people’s names on buildings or you’ll see named professorships. That recognition raises the bar on philanthropy and creates the kind of culture of philanthropy we want to advance and build upon at WPI.

Can you give us some context with restricted and unrestricted gifts?

Of the approximately $25 million we raise per year, roughly 80 percent or more of that is restricted gifts. Restrictions can be for many purposes. The single largest restriction is typically for scholarships, but it can be to support a building project or a faculty member or research, and so on.

Often times a donor has a particular preference based upon something personal. Maybe it is because they received scholarships, and they wouldn’t have been able to get the education they did without those scholarships. Or they donate to a building so their alma mater has state-of-the-art facilities that students can thrive in. Or maybe it’s to support a professorship named for a faculty member who had a particular impact on their life.

Many people think of tuition as the sole source of revenue that pays for a student’s education, but there are other costs—utility bills, grounds maintenance, facilities upkeep, deferred maintenance, and salaries and benefits—that may not be immediately visible to people outside the university. Other revenue sources are needed to make up the difference and pay the bills, and a big part of those other revenues comes from fundraising.

While these funds seem to support the foundation of WPI, are they also forward looking?

These funds also allow the university to launch new initiatives. For instance something like TouchTomorrow, which began in 2012. That was funded outside the operating budget, so we made a determination to use funds to support that initiative. But it was a new initiative, and it has attracted more and more young people to STEM fields and robotics. It’s a great community event, it has raised our profile as a university, and it has generated more interest in WPI. It’s unrestricted giving that allows those kinds of things to happen.

How else do gifts help the university?

This latest gift is going into WPI’s endowment—that was the only stipulation. The endowment [WPI’s is about $520 million] gives the university a solid financial foundation to allow for all the things we discussed. For better or worse, endowments are something universities are judged on. Having a healthy endowment ensures financial stability through the good times and the bad times.

Participation is also important. Giving participation is factored into university rankings. If alumni are giving back to their alma mater, it’s viewed as an endorsement of the education they received and confidence in their institution.

The fact is, every great university has the philanthropic support of its alumni and friends. Every gift is important to WPI, no matter what its size or whether it is restricted or unrestricted. Each gift makes an impact.

--By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil