Aztec Proud. A public university
transformed by philanthropy.

The Campaign for San Diego State University

An interview with Mary Ruth Carleton, Vice President for University Relations and Development and President & CEO of The Campanile Foundation.

At the end of April, San Diego State University celebrated raising $800 million dollars – exceeding its $750 million goal in its first-ever, university-wide fundraising campaign. The announcement was made by President Elliot Hirshman at an event with some of SDSU’s more than 70,000 campaign donors.

As government funding cuts continue to significantly impact public universities, creating a strong culture of philanthropy is a rapidly rising priority. However, like other public universities, SDSU has traditionally not relied on charitable giving to sustain and grow its mission. In the absence of a long-standing history of successful campaigns, SDSU’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable.

We asked Mary Ruth to share her perspectives on how and why the University realized a history making campaign – one that should inspire others who are working to create a culture of philanthropy that will sustain public universities and their missions for decades to come.


What was the primary challenge you believe you faced as you began preparing for the campaign?

“Experience. Our staff was fairly new to preparing for a campaign, as was our board. Everyone had good thoughts and good hearts, so it was a matter of working with them to identify and focus on philanthropy charged initiatives. Aligning volunteers, executive leadership and staff and setting a clear direction very early on is critical to effective campaign planning. It takes patience and determination, but it is a phase of preparedness you cannot skip over.”


I understand that more than 74,000 donors contributed to the campaign, and that number included more than 53,000 new donors. To what do you attribute your success in securing so many new philanthropic relationships?

“This university is beloved in San Diego, and we have a lot of alumni here. So we started to tell our story about why we needed their support. We shared our students’ journeys, and we highlighted life-changing scholarships made possible through philanthropy. We debunked the old urban myth that public universities have money in their coffers. Not only did donors respond generously, we were able to further raise our academic standards – making everyone even prouder to be part of the growing SDSU family.”


How does your organization measure impact and then relay that back to your donors?

“We invite donors to experience it for themselves. For instance, we have all of our scholarship donors meet the students whose aspirations and potential are fueled by the SDSU community – all made possible by these donors’ generosity. In addition to the personal connection between donor and student, we literally tagged every element of the campus that philanthropy has made possible by hanging large decal-style signage that reads Aztec Proud. When you walk around our campus, the impact of philanthropy on people, programs and projects is evident at every turn.”


What do you feel is currently driving giving to higher education in general, and what changes do you see in the future?

“I think we need to pay attention to diverse populations, who have different ways of thinking about philanthropy. Budget cuts aren’t going away, so we need to continually evolve our fundraising programs to make sure donors understand why and how to support us. I see continued support for financial aid to students, and I feel grateful alumni will continue to want to give back in some way. This means we must focus on students throughout their time at school – helping them understand their role in a culture of philanthropy, both as recipients of high quality education and as alumni who can make the same possible for others. Annual giving rates aren’t rising from alumni. As a sector, we have to really work on that. Alumni boards and staff need to embrace the contributions they can make to fundraising. In fact, at SDSU, Alumni Relations reports to me and is responsible for the annual fund, crowdfunding and student philanthropy. It took us 10 years to get to this point, but it was well worth the effort.”


What are some of the milestones you all celebrated along that way that may not be apparent to outside observers?

“We have been intentional about celebrating anything and everything we could. When we went over our $300 million mark, we sent out lunch invitations and had a huge pizza and cake celebration. Recently the former chair of our board and his wife hosted a reception for current and former staff. They asked our basketball coach to come and talk about how important our team was to the University, and we surprised guests with a performance by our marching band. We can’t invest huge amounts of money in these celebrations, but we want people to feel appreciated. We work very hard to make sure they do.”


Are there lessons learned that would benefit your colleagues in professional development in Higher Education or other sectors?

“Do not deviate from the plan. Stick with it even though you’re waking up in the middle of the night…pretty much every night. We didn’t panic when we lost 30 percent of our endowment. Instead, our President and I had this saying, “Unless they say to you ‘never darken my door again’ – don’t give up!” Even when potential donors said no, we stuck with our plan – they were still part of our family. I’d also say, trust your ideas and instincts. As an experienced fundraising professional, you need to help others come to understand how to define strategic priorities that will inspire giving.”

Learn more about The Campaign for San Diego State University here.