UMKC Foundation struggles during coronavirus

Photo: UMKC Foundation President Lisa Baronio remains confident that the UMKC Foundation will receive donations in the future despite the coronavirus pandemic. (UMKC)

Thomas White

It’s Friday, March 13, and UMKC Foundation President Lisa Baronio is in her office for the last time. 

Things should be back to normal in four to six weeks, she thinks, maybe April or May. The chancellor had notified her UMKC was moving to an all virtual format. She’s one of the last people in the building, and she’s scrambling to secure everything she needs to take home.

“How does any of this work? What is a Zoom meeting anyway?” Baronio recalls thinking. 

For the UMKC Foundation, a thorny path awaits. The organization’s sole duty is to drum up donations for UMKC, money used for scholarships, program and faculty support, endowments, building maintenance and construction projects. April doesn’t bring the good news she had hoped for, however. The stock market falls out and this virus isn’t going away. 

“Everyone just lost 25% to 30% of their portfolios. How are they going to give a dime to higher education?” Baronio said.

Despite this, the foundation had a record-setting year for donations, $59 million. The foundation’s success was not without a major caveat though. Most of the fundraising included in that figure took place before March 2020, including two large gifts of $21 and $15 million. The last quarter of the fiscal year for the foundation is March to June, and fundraising during that time slowed dramatically. 

The next fiscal year is filled with uncertainty. Baronio met with UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal and the foundation’s board in July to set a fundraising goal. She was uncomfortable setting a goal given her lack of a crystal ball. She doesn’t know when the coronavirus is going to end, doesn’t know when there will be a vaccine and doesn’t know when donors would be comfortable meeting with them again. She set a two-year goal with yearly markers instead.   

UMKC is unique in that 90% or more of its fundraising dollars do not come from alumnus, according to Baronio. Much of the money donated comes from foundations and organizations rather than individuals. Those groups that reliably donate to the university have shifted focus since COVID-19 has arrived on the scene. 

“They are saying ‘wait, wait, wait, we still love you, and we want to support the university, but not right now,’” Baronio said. 

Many donors have diverted the funds that previously went to UMKC to the health and human services sector, hoping to curb the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In response, the UMKC Foundation had to get creative and pivot.

They created a student emergency fund and focused more efforts towards alleviating food insecurity by stocking UMKC’s food pantry. The emergency fund targets students who may be working in retail and restaurants who experience reduced hours or job loss. Baronio said $300 to $500 can be the difference of whether these students decide to stay in school or not. 

“Those are lower gifts,” Baronio said. “But they are in areas where people are able to give to those things that touch their heart at this moment, but also support UMKC at the same time.”

To avoid concerns of meeting with donors to secure funds, the foundation solicits smaller donations through social media pages and text-to-donate campaigns. 

These fundraising efforts have been something of a success in an otherwise uncertain time, though the foundation hasn’t had many large gifts as they navigate trying to help students stay healthy and in school. Despite the current lack of donations, Baronio remains optimistic that donors will land on their feet and donate again. 

“When you get to a certain point in life, you can only have so many coats, so many cars, so many boats, so many houses,” Baronio said. “By establishing a scholarship or endowment, donors can know that they are changing multiple people’s lives, and that’s invaluable.”

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