The pandemic required a new playbook for reaching out to donors and engaging alumni in the Power of Penn; the results were game changing.
The September 30th event celebrating the conclusion of The Power of Penn: Advancing Knowledge for Good did not come off as expected—certainly not the way it was envisioned at the time the fundraising campaign launched more than three years ago [“Gazetteer,” May|Jun 2018] and perhaps not even as planned in the heady days last spring and early summer when it seemed the coronavirus was in steady retreat.
But the show that did go on—a briskly paced hybrid affair with nearly 300 masked and vaccinated volunteers and staff spread out over the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts’ Zellerbach Theatre and several hundred more participating via livestream—was emblematic of an effort that had plenty of experience in shifting tactics on the fly to overcome the special challenges posed by the pandemic.
Announced with a goal of $4.1 billion, the campaign ended on June 30 having raised more than $5.4 billion—$5,408,980,446, to be exact, and the largest total in Penn history. That money will fund several University-wide priorities, listed as expanding student opportunities, revolutionizing health, advancing knowledge across disciplines, incubating innovation and entrepreneurship, driving energy solutions, and creating spaces to drive solutions. Engaging the Penn community was also a major goal, along with increasing annual giving and gift planning. And each of Penn’s 12 schools and six centers also had its own wish list of critical needs. (For more, see the Impact Summary mailed with this issue or available at yourimpact.upenn.edu.)
Among the highlights:
• Nearly $900 million was raised for undergraduate and graduate financial aid, and 830 new undergraduate scholarships were established. The campaign also put a strong focus on the Penn First Plus program, designed to provide further support for students who are the first in their family to attend college or come from lower income households.
• A dozen new Penn Integrates Knowledge professorships—in which the holders have appointments in multiple Penn schools, fostering interdisciplinary collaboration—were funded. In all, 186 new faculty and staff positions were endowed.
• Penn Medicine raised $1.68 billion, including $1 billion for biomedical research, of which more than $200 million will go to Penn’s ImmunoRevolution aimed at using the immune system to fight disease.
• Facilities projects range from the Pavilion, a 17-story hospital providing the most advanced healthcare; to New College House West at 40th Street; to new spaces for research on energy solutions, data science, and student entrepreneurship; to the Penn Museum’s Building Transformation program of renovations and modernization.
As with the arrival of the Great Recession soon after the 2007 launch of the University’s previous fundraising effort, Making History, “the pandemic was yet another thing we could not have expected, but it really did demonstrate how well the community at Penn responds in a crisis,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann (who started the September 30th event in a Penn sweatshirt and jeans to accept a baton handoff in a relay race that progressed across campus—on video—and into the theater before returning later in the program wearing more formal attire).
“What I felt was great unity of mission, of purpose, and of generosity,” Gutmann adds. Beyond the financial goals, campaigns are “about fostering a heightened sense of community and finding real meaning in one’s connection to Penn. We’re so fortunate to have a community that believes deeply in Penn’s ability to change the world. Their generosity even during a global pandemic signals just how important Penn is in the lives of our alumni and our broader community.”
The new funding for student financial aid “has enabled us to better support all of our students, and especially first-generation and low-income students,” Gutmann says. “As a first-generation college student myself, I really know how challenging it can be to navigate the college experience without a map.” Those students who are at Penn now and in the future can find help in the Penn First Plus center in College Hall, she says, which is also the home of the SNF Paideia Program, focused on “educating the whole person, civic service as well as wellness, and learning dialogue across divides,” and the Office of Social Equity and Community, headed by University Chaplain and vice president Charles L. “Chaz” Howard C’00. “Those are game changers” in the continuing story of making Penn ever more inclusive, Gutmann says.
“The other big game changer is the transformation of our beautiful campus to one that’s got even more to offer everyone,” she adds, highlighting Penn Medicine’s new Pavilion, the biggest capital project in Penn history “and the most lifesaving.” She also points to New College House West, which accepted its first residents in September. Together with Lauder College House, which opened in 2016, it has allowed Penn to provide housing on campus for all first- and second-year students, a requirement instituted this year.
What Gutmann calls the “middle pillar of the Penn Compact,” innovation, also received a strong infusion of support, with a “huge increase” in investments in energy sustainability and technology transfer initiatives spearheaded by the Penn Center for Innovation.
That’s accompanied by new spaces like the recently completed Tangen Hall (“the innovation center for students”), the Vagelos Laboratory for Energy Science and Technology, now in progress, and a new data science building, for which ground was broken in October (during which its name—Amy Gutmann Hall—was announced). Besides the buildings themselves, “recruitment of faculty for these initiatives were all advanced through the campaign,” she notes.
“Penn is at the center of a skyrocketing innovation ecosystem in Philadelphia. We have long wanted to do that, and now you can see it. And it’s been literally lifesaving,” she says, citing Drew Weissman and Katalin Kariko’s work on mRNA [“The Vaccine Trenches,” May|Jun 2021] and Carl June’s on CAR-T Cells to treat cancers [“The T-Cell Warriors,” Mar|Apr 2015]. “And there’s going to be much more to come.”
Gutmann singles out alumni engagement as the thing she is most proud of in the campaign. “Our volunteers just stepped up in an incredible way,” she says. “They played an absolutely essential role in the Power of Penn. And their service touched every area of the University.” There were over 6,500 volunteers involved in the campaign, Gutmann notes. In terms of overall participation, “it was actually hundreds of thousands. I mean, it’s just amazing.
“During the pandemic, of course, we had to master new ways to connect with our alumni. And our alumni just responded, and in full force,” with participation in the thousands for some events she was involved with, she says. Overall, virtual programming attracted three times the number of attendees as in-person events and was especially effective at bringing in new people, with first-time attendees increasing “six-fold,” she notes.
“Everybody yearns to come back to the campus when they can. But a lot of people can’t. And what the pandemic and this campaign proved to us is that, when you make engagement a priority, Penn people respond.”
“Passion overcomes challenges,” says Robert M. Levy WG’74, chair of the campaign and an emeritus trustee, who announced the official total from the stage of Zellerbach, standing alongside campaign vice chair Lee Spelman Doty W’76.
Levy calls coming to the end of the effort an exciting and “somewhat bittersweet” experience. “It’s been a great success, which I think speaks volumes about the strength of the team at Penn and our volunteer group. We have never let up,” he says.
“We had an incredible group of priorities that we knew would resonate with our supporters, we had wonderful University leadership—starting with Dr. Gutmann but extending to all the leaders at the University, great leadership also including the chair of the board David Cohen [L’81 Hon’21, whose term ended June 30] and our trustees, the strong development and alumni relations group headed by [senior vice president] John Zeller that was ready to go, and an incredible group of volunteers.” With that list of positives in place, the campaign was in a position to “take whatever the world would throw at us,” he says.
The campaign’s $5.4 billion total was contributed by nearly 390,000 donors, which included 41,000 alumni making their first gift to Penn. “All gifts matter,” Levy emphasizes. While there were more than 900 gifts of $1 million or more, the vast majority were for $25,000 or less. A successful campaign is one that builds “on the momentum of a connection with the University. Getting a broad group of people participating is a great outcome,” says Levy. “Frankly, this is one of the sources of great pride for me, and should be for all of us.”
Doty praises Penn’s development and alumni relations staff for “pivoting on a dime to doing everything remotely. They just maintained that momentum. It was a different form of outreach”—with Zoom calls replacing volunteer committee dinners, in-person meetings, and other events—“but, if anything, we were actually able to get more participation,” she says.
“It’s been quite a journey, and despite COVID—which I think could have upset the applecart—we just sailed right through and did way better than our expectations,” Doty adds. “I’m not all that surprised, however. I’ve always had high confidence that the Power of Penn would do well, and I would say that’s largely because of Amy Gutmann’s leadership.”
Penn Alumni President Ann Nolan Reese CW’74 echoes that sentiment. “We’re Penn; this is what we do,” she says. “We just found a way to make the pandemic work for us in the campaign instead of being daunted by it.”
And alumni outreach, she insists, is a big reason. “No one is going to persuade me that the financial success of the campaign was not linked to this increased excitement and engagement,” Reese says.
There were 185,000 unique alumni involved in the Power of Penn, and 125,000 unique event attendees, she says. “That’s 40 percent of living degreed alumni who attended at least one event during the campaign.”
The number of regional club events grew by more than 20 percent, to 900 annually, and some 250 club leaders were trained using virtual tools. “Many of those regional clubs are engaging international attendees, who are not going to be able to come regularly to campus” at any time, Reese says. And virtual gatherings also made it possible for US alumni to attend far-flung events at regional clubs in Singapore or India, for example. “When we’re just thinking about live events we can’t think about the sharing in that way,” she says. Overall, alumni from more than 50 countries participated in online events, she adds.
“We are committed to doing this post-pandemic because it’s been just so successful at meeting all of our goals. It’s engagement and it’s also lifelong learning,” Reese says. “The richness of it is not just gathering together. We are also able to bring the best of our faculty, the best of our alums to broader audiences when we use technology.”
The growth in participation in virtual events compared to live ones, particularly for first-time attendees, shows their value, she adds. “This is what I say when I speak to alums, ‘If you want to put your toe in the water, it’s not a big commitment. You’re sitting at home, sign on and get to see the people, get to see the programming, and then you’ll come in person the next time,” she says.
Having an independent focus on alumni engagement in the midst of a fundraising campaign takes a “signal” from senior leadership that “this means something to us,” Reese adds. “It’s hard for people to separate money and engagement, so the messaging has to come from the top.”
Current board of trustees chair Scott L. Bok C’81 W’81 L’84 calls the “extraordinary outcome” of the campaign, despite all the disruptions and restrictions of COVID, “a tribute to the loyalty and the enthusiasm that our alumni have for the University.”
“There’s no one magical gift or magical group that makes it all happen,” he adds. “It’s an enormous effort, and the development team is deep and very experienced. They deserve a tremendous amount of credit—led of course by President Gutmann. There’s just no one who has more enthusiasm for Penn, there’s no one who’s done more for Penn.”
Bok calls Gutmann “the consummate fundraiser, because she first of all has a really granular grasp on all the different aspects of what’s happening at Penn,” he says. “She tells that story to donors at all levels, and I think it gets everybody excited about joining with her in that journey of making Penn an even greater place.”
Gutmann’s impact on the University is “really I think almost impossible to overstate,” he says. But Penn’s transition to a no-loan policy for financial aid looms especially large in his mind. “That makes such an extraordinary difference to students from lower-income and middle-income families,” he says. “To have come up with that concept, to have been willing to make that commitment, and then to go on and find the funding to make it work, I think is certainly one of her greatest legacies.”
“Dr. Gutmann’s impact will sustain way past her departure from Penn,” Doty agrees. “She has been remarkable. She came to the Penn campus with a bold and powerful vision, the Penn Compact, almost 18 years ago and she executed that vision, in my opinion, flawlessly. I’ve never seen anybody with more energy, more enthusiasm, more creative ideas—they never stopped.
“On every single metric, Penn has just gotten stronger,” Doty adds. “Penn was great in my opinion when Amy started, but now it’s phenomenal—and I think it will just keep getting better and better and better.”—JP