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Innovative thinking results in bottom-line savings for AAD

It started with a roll of duct tape used to stop automatic toilets from flushing too often.

By taking such simple measures, Cornell's Alumni Affairs and Development (AAD) has shaved off more than $190,000 in operations costs in less than a year.

"A lot of people say it's not worth the effort to go after those small expenses. I think it is," said Julie Featherstone, the division's administrative services director.

The division's efforts may offer a glimpse into the way Cornell will do business in the future, said Charles Phlegar, AAD vice president. President David Skorton announced in September plans to save the university $90 million annually in administrative costs by 2014, Phlegar noted. "I'm proud of the way people in this division have participated in the many measures we've implemented," he said.

AAD began looking for operational efficiencies in February. By March it transferred its business service center to the Division of Financial Affairs. (That change alone is expected to save more than $300,000 per year and free staff to do other types of work.) As part of the division's reorganization, administrative services staff turned their attention to reducing operational redundancies and finding cost savings throughout the division, Featherstone said.

Many AAD staffers suggested that everyone in the division take a cut in pay or benefits to reduce divisionwide costs. Featherstone was thinking of simpler cuts -- in items like bottled water and paper coffee cups. "I told my team, let's not go into some huge endeavor that requires spending money to save money. The first layer here is low-cost/no-cost," she said.

They started with the toilets. After finding out the high cost of modifying the automatic sensors, Featherstone suggested covering them with duct tape. At night, the heat or air conditioning is turned down and the lights off, and the division has installed energy-efficient bulbs. In four months, that saved the division 10 percent on its electric bill and 2.5 percent on its gas bill.

"That's $26,300. That's someone's salary, right there," Featherstone said.

Then the staff discovered they had 498 boxes of obsolete records stored off site in 23 vaults. They have since shredded those documents and identified 658 more boxes of obsolete documents that they will either destroy or send to university archives, saving storage fees of more than $5,000 a year. A new storage pickup and delivery schedule will save another $5,000 annually.

The division has also reduced the number and scale of internal events. It no longer hosts a winter holiday party or provides continental breakfasts, yogurt, Starbucks coffee, fruit, bottled water or bagels at monthly campaign briefings. Most staff events no longer include lunch or transportation to campus. That saved more than $82,000, compared with 2008.

Now staff has a choice of 12 kinds of coffee and five of tea, down from 33 kinds, and few people have complained, Featherstone said.

"The credit goes to everybody at AAD," Featherstone said. By reminding staff how much they've saved, she reinforces the teamwork and goodwill. "You recognize people for these efforts, and it snowballs," she said.

Now, she and her staff are ferreting out such hidden costs as the $8,400 the division was paying annually for phone lines that it no longer used, she said. "In these times, when resources are scarce, I don't care if it's $100, it does make a difference."

Alumni Affairs and Development has saved $191,000 since February in administrative costs. Here are some examples of the savings:

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Claudia Wheatley