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Giving to Cornell surges despite challenging times

Alumni, parents and friends came together to support Cornell students and stay connected during fiscal year 2020 despite numerous challenging factors, including a global pandemic and an economic crisis.

The university received $712 million in new gifts and commitments – the third-highest single-year total ever raised at Cornell – from more than 39,000 donors. This included $43 million in university annual funds, which provide the necessary and flexible support on which Cornell relies. Cornell’s sixth Giving Day was a notable part of this success, with more than $7 million raised from 10,145 donors in 24 hours.

“We closed our unprecedented 2020 year with outstanding engagement and fundraising results,” said Fred Van Sickle, vice president for alumni affairs and development (AAD). “Those numbers are only possible because of our great Cornell community and each donor, volunteer, and staff member who committed to our shared goals.”

Despite the unusual circumstances and the cancellation of many in-person events, Cornellians of all ages stayed connected to each other and the university, and engaged in new ways.

When the Ithaca campus shut down in March, students scrambled to get home. Alumni and friends came together to support Cornell’s access funds, to help students with travel and other unexpected costs. These gifts assisted students who were facing financial challenges to get home safely and continue their studies remotely.

“I have always been a firm believer in the impact that philanthropy has on our students, faculty and programs,” said Gary Davis ’76, co-vice chairman of the Cornell Board of Trustees and chairman of the committee on development. “But the challenges we have faced as a society and a university this past year has made that support even more critical as we’ve worked to ensure the well-being of our community, the access for our students regardless of financial situation, the continued pursuit of the educational mission for our students and faculty, and the investment in research and outreach to address our most pressing societal issues.”

Many groups rallied to help, including the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW), whose members directed all of their spring 2020 current-use fundraising efforts to the Access Fund in Student and Campus Life. They raised enough to award a $50,000 grant to the fund this fall in support of first-generation and low-income students.

“We all are navigating through challenges with innovation and creativity, and Cornell proved to stand out as a leader,” said PCCW chair Karen Stewart ’86. “PCCW supports that leadership by shifting our year-end fundraising efforts toward Cornell students, helping them to succeed in learning in this new virtual environment.”

Supporting Cornell’s students continues to be a fundraising focus for fiscal year 2021, as many students face increased financial burdens during the pandemic. The Cornell Promise campaign aims to help all undergraduate students complete their studies at Cornell, regardless of their financial situation.

“I have never before been more gratified to give to Cornell,” Davis said, “and I have heard from many other alumni, parents and friends who feel the same.”

More than 88,000 alumni engaged with the university in fiscal year 2020, including 18,500 digital event attendees from early March through June, at more than 100 online events.

Cornell’s first Virtual Reunion attracted more than 7,000 Cornellians and their families. Attendees were especially grateful for a series of digital programs aimed at starting community conversations focused on social justice, equity and inclusion.

This type of engagement with Cornell is expected to continue throughout fiscal year 2021 as alumni look for ways to stay connected with each other and the university in meaningful and safe ways.

“We enter fiscal year 2021 with formidable challenges,” Van Sickle said, “but I am confident we will come together to achieve meaningful results for Cornell.”

A version of this story appears on the Alumni Affairs and Development website.

Kaitlin Provost is a writer for Alumni Affairs and Development.

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Abby Butler