Shortly after graduating with a degree from the School of Arts and Sciences last spring, Cornel Chiu engaged in his first act as a newly minted alumnus. He sat down and wrote a check to Rutgers. “It is only right to give back to the school so that it can continue to provide the same experiences, and more, for future students,” says Chiu SAS’14, who intends to make a donation every year.

For 35 years, alumna Bernice Proctor Venable has shared the sentiment, having never hesitated in her support of Rutgers: “I was orphaned when I was 13 years old and raised by a foster parent,” says Venable DC’62, GSE’83. “I did not have family members who had the means to support my college education. I would have never been able to attend Douglass College without help from my community, church, and scholarships.”

Giving Charts

These alumni represent two generations of donors who see the value of giving to Rutgers. They also represent, however, a distinct minority among Rutgers graduates when it comes to alumni giving. Only about 8 percent of the alumni body makes donations to the university. Among the Big Ten® universities, Rutgers University–New Brunswick ranks last in the percentage of alumni who make donations. The tepid level of alumni participation hinders Rutgers’ standing in the influential Best Colleges rankings compiled by U.S. News & World Report. That’s because, in evaluating universities, the publication weighs the percentage of alumni who give, not the amount that they give. A rise in alumni participation could thus influence a climb in the rankings of Rutgers University–New Brunswick, which currently stands at 26th in the category of public universities.

In leading the 18-month effort to compile A Strategic Plan for the New Rutgers, a comprehensive document of priorities for the university in the years ahead, president Robert Barchi underscored the need to improve alumni participation. “With more than 450,000 living alumni,” the strategic plan notes, “Rutgers alumni comprise a substantial donor base, and the university could dramatically increase its endowment if trends in alumni support could be reversed.”

The solution is in the hands of alumni, according to Nevin E. Kessler, president of the Rutgers University Foundation, which is the university’s fundraising entity. By giving as little as $25 each year, the gain in the percentage of alumni participation, he says, would improve Rutgers rankings in U.S. News & World Report, which remains a top guide for prospective students nationwide. A higher ranking would add further luster to the reputation of the university—and a degree from it. And alumni participation could play a significant role in the perceived value of a Rutgers education while engendering pride and giving alumni an added stake in the success of the university.

“We have the lowest endowment in the Big Ten,” says Kessler, “and we raise the least amount of money on an annual basis in the conference. Understandably, there are many alumni who don’t have a clue about our low participation rate, and that’s because we haven’t done enough to inform them. But there are alumni, I am certain, who would love to see us not trailing the pack, and they have a role in changing that.”

There are explanations for the relative lack of alumni participation. Although most former students will say they got a first-rate education at Rutgers, they will also point out that the student experience wasn’t so great. For many students who graduated from one of the schools at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, for instance, it might have been dealing with the buses, or the chronic entanglement in administrative red tape, or the general sense of a lack of customer service. These negatives have been addressed. “As students graduate with a great education and a great experience, it will be easier for Rutgers to invite them to make gifts,” says Kessler, pointing out that the foundation and the Department of Alumni Relations have teamed up to begin a student philanthropy and engagement program to raise awareness early in students’ academic careers to help them understand the value of giving and its role in funding Rutgers.

Because student tuition was once far less expensive, graduates from earlier classes might not fully appreciate the growing need to support students today who are confronted with some stark financial realities. As recently as 1990, state support of Rutgers paid for 67 percent of the cost of a student’s education; today, that number has plummeted to 32 percent—a trend felt nationwide as state support for higher education has ebbed. As a result, tuition has climbed steadily, requiring students at Rutgers to shoulder more of the expense of their education and often forcing them to take out student loans.

Alumni might also mistakenly believe that, given the $3 billion Rutgers budget necessary to cover the costs of its research, education, and service missions, their modest gift could not possibly make a difference. But, as Kessler points out, those annual gifts add up fast, considering the enormous size of the alumni body. And that is one advantage that Rutgers has over the majority of its Big Ten peers: strength in numbers.

It could help because most of the Big Ten schools have had a sizeable head start in raising money. Most of them have been closely identified in the public’s eye as that state’s univer­sity, a deep association that, in many instances, goes back to the early 1800s. Rutgers was only formally recognized as The State University of New Jersey in 1956 and has had to play catch-up in raising awareness of its vital role in the state among its constituency. What’s more, many public universities began improving alumni participation even before state appropriations began to flatline nationwide. Rutgers, on the other hand, was slow to develop a culture of giving in a consistent, organized way. The Rutgers University Foundation was founded relatively recently, and for some years it was largely reactive instead of proactive, accepting gifts from alumni and not actively soliciting donations.

“This shift in culture, from being reactive to proactive,” says Kessler, “was evident at a recent alumni event at Rutgers University–Camden, where we explained why it is important to give and made ‘the ask’ strongly. We followed up with a direct mail piece or email solicitation to everyone who attended the event and had not yet made a gift this fiscal year. This is a new approach for us.”

When called on to support a worthy cause, alumni and other donors have demonstrated a willingness to give. During its $1 billion capital campaign, Our Rutgers, Our Future, the university’s most ambitious, and successful, fundraising effort in its history, 50 percent of the donors were giving to Rutgers for the first time. The proceeds from the campaign, which concludes at the end of 2014, support faculty and their research, students and learning, university and community programs, and campuses and facilities.

“I feel really good about where the university is going, and as alumni develop more pride in Rutgers, they will begin to respond and participate,” says Kessler. “The culture is already changing, and Rutgers is focusing strategically on the issue of fundraising as an operation. And that is why I am optimistic that we are making progress. Everybody wants to see Rutgers do better, and they want to be part of it.”

Last summer, in one of the biggest institutional realignments in the history of higher education, Rutgers integrated most of the schools, centers, and institutes of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey to form Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences, giving Rutgers the missing components in its aggressive quest to become a premier research university. This fall, Rutgers University–New Brunswick began competing in the Big Ten Conference; in July 2013, it joined the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, the academic consortium of Big Ten members (and the University of Chicago). And in 2016, Rutgers will celebrate its 250th anniversary, when alumni will have ample opportunity to demonstrate their pride.

Alumnus Michael Persons has shown his pride in Rutgers from the time he graduated in 1975; he has given a donation every year since. The act can be habit-forming. “Just start giving! It doesn’t matter what size your gift is,” says Persons CCAS’75. “It is a window of opportunity to be more involved with our university, especially at this exciting time. Get involved with the community of people who are proud to call Rutgers their alma mater.” •

To learn more about making a donation, visit


Bernice Proctor Venable


Nick Romanenko

Bernice Proctor Venable DC’62, GSE’83
Donor since 1980
“Giving matters because Rutgers is a world-class institution that must have the means, beyond the state's provisions, to continue to compete with its peers, especially the Big Ten schools. Our level of giving pales compared to our Big Ten peers.”



Michael Persons


Nick Romanenko

Michael Persons CCAS’75
Donor since 1976
“I started giving fairly soon after graduating. Of course, the amounts given in the beginning were small, but I wanted to make an effort to ‘give back’ or ‘pay it forward.’ I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Rutgers University–Camden where I learned much and made many lifetime friends.”



Allison Venuto Fistori


Nick Romanenko

Allison Venuto Fistori SBC’05
Donor since 2005
“I choose to make an annual gift to support the invaluable education that students attain at Rutgers. I began giving back immediately after graduation. If I have the ability to make a positive impact on someone’s life by helping them attend and graduate from Rutgers, then I need to make it happen.”



Cornel Chiu


Nick Romanenko

Cornel Chiu SAS’14
Donor since 2014
“I give to Rutgers because of all the experiences it gave me. By giving, the university can continue to provide the same, and more, experiences for others. A little contribution may seem like it won’t make much of a difference, but if everyone gives a little, we can make a change.”



Cecilia C. Arias


Nick Romanenko

Cecilia C. Arias NCAS’05
Donor since 2005
“When a student working for the Rutgers University Foundation called and shared his experiences about how financial assistance benefited him, I thought of my own experiences as a first-generation college student and how grateful I was for the financial assistance I received.”



Maurice Griffin


R. David Beales

Maurice Griffin NLAW’94
Donor since 2009
“By giving to Rutgers, you help the university to build laboratories and buildings—and attract good students and also improve its reputation, which increases the value of the education you received at Rutgers. By supporting your alma mater, you are supporting yourself.”