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Donors Make Full Court Press At St. Peter’s

A few days after an unprecedented two-week run in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the staff at St. Peter’s University was still entering gifts into its database. To say nothing of keeping up with the social media and merchandise sales for the small Jesuit school in Jersey City, N.J.

The Peacocks men’s basketball captured the nation’s attention after upsetting Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue before falling to North Carolina within one game of an improbable Final Four. The Peacocks were only the third No. 15 seed to ever reach the Sweet 16, the tournament’s 3rd Round, and the first-ever to win three games.

“All the staff here has been working tirelessly, I mean that very literally, 24/7, weekends, nights. But we live for this. It’s absolutely incredible. You know it’s once in a lifetime,” Leah Leto, vice president for advancement and external affairs at St. Peter’s University, said during a telephone interview with The NonProfit Times.

Between March 9 and March 26, St. Peter’s received 414 gifts with commitments of nearly $2.3 million, compared with 148 gifts and $475,452 in commitments during the same period in 2021. During the past 20 months, St. Peter’s averaged about $558,470 per month in commitments. The monthly average of commitments is up more than 400% since the tournament began, and the gift count has more than doubled the monthly average.

The advancement, alumni engagement and communications department at St. Peter’s has 14 employees, with seven dedicated to fundraising. In a typical year, they raise between $5 million and $7 million.

The school has a $37-million endowment, which is dwarfed by many of the private and large universities that typically make the annual NCAA tournament, to say nothing of their athletic budgets. By comparison, the schools in the Final Four have endowments of $1 billion, with the largest being Duke University at $12.7 billion.

“We really took advantage of the opportunity and exhilaration of that moment,” Leto said, sending and testing emails about giving to St. Peter’s, athletics, and men’s basketball specifically.

The major gifts team was on the phone “literally morning to night,” the entire week after St. Peter’s 2nd round victory over Murray State, “taking it to another level,” Leto said.

“The momentum of the moment begat other people making opportunities,” she said. “People were calling us” and still are, with St. Peter’s getting outreach from new donors, alumni who have not given in decades.

Giving has been across the board, whether crowdfunding during the tournament, donors who have increased their estate gifts or donations from out of the blue. An out-of-state grandmother called with a message for the basketball team: The young men did a great job and not to feel bad, she plans to make a gift. A family scholarship in memory of a late uncle sent a message to make gifts in multiples of what St. Peter’s scores in its Sweet 16 matchup against Purdue. The son of a former basketball coach pledged $1,600 when the Peacocks gained a spot in the Sweet 16. Some people who were in conversation about making a gift “accelerated their interest,” Leto said.

A handful of people made the largest gifts ever and another person made their first gift in 52 years. A non-alumni who’s a friend of season ticket holders donated $500 with a message: “Thank you for inspiring the nation, you will never know the extent of the lives you touched.”

The crowdfunding campaign for athletics at the start of the tournament has raised almost $19,000 from 106 donors, in addition to another 212 gifts made via its regular giving page. Gift processing is still ongoing and rivals what St. Peter’s would typically see at the end of the calendar year.

Between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 basketball seasons, St. Peter’s saw a 9% increase in alumni donors and 43% spike in non-alumni donors overall, not just athletics.

The Peacocks’ NCAA tournament success comes during an already busy year at the small school in the shadow of downtown Manhattan with an undergraduate enrollment of slightly more than 2,000. The school opened a new basketball gym last fall, marks its 150th anniversary (April 3, specifically), and will hold its Day of Giving on April 6. The silent phase of its next capital campaign aims to go public in December. The previous capital campaign raised more than $64 million and helped to build a new student center on the Jersey City, N.J. campus. The two largest gifts to St. Peter’s, $10 million, were received within the past four years.

“Just because you’re in the national spotlight, that doesn’t equate to a given. You still have to prompt that, tell your story.” Classic principles of fundraising still apply, Leto said, but you do have to recalibrate. “We’re not used to being a national brand,” she said. “It’s just the beginning.”

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