Recent economic turmoil has pummeled college endowments nationwide, and the Southern Oregon University Foundation is no exception, posting $2 million less in long-term investments at the end of fiscal year in June 2008. Investments have continued to decline since then, and an extended downturn could reverse some of the enrollment gains SOU reported earlier this fall, said Sylvia Kelley, vice president for development.

Recent economic turmoil has pummeled college endowments nationwide, and the Southern Oregon University Foundation is no exception, posting $2 million less in long-term investments at the end of its fiscal year in June 2008. Investments have continued to decline since then, and an extended downturn could reverse some of the enrollment gains SOU reported earlier this fall, said Sylvia Kelley, vice president for development.

"How much we have available in scholarships absolutely affects being able to recruit and retain students," she said. "Parents are worried about how to pay for their children's education."

University endowments across the country dropped an estimated 25 percent in the first quarter of this fiscal year, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The University of Oregon, with an endowment several times the size of SOU's, reported a 16 percent drop, from $438 million to $367 million.

The SOU Foundation, formed in 1959, is a much younger and smaller organization than many colleges have, which makes it more vulnerable to fluctuations in the economy, Kelley said. At the end of the 2007 fiscal year, the SOU Foundation had $19.4 million in long-term investments, which declined to $17.4 million at the end of the 2008 fiscal year.

Both the university and the foundation award student scholarships, and those awarded by the foundation actually went up from $730,000 in the 2006-07 school year to $855,000 in 2007-08, according to Ron Theberge, director of finance and administration for the foundation. He estimated that scholarships awarded this year were again in the $800,000 range, because the amount given is based on a 12-quarter moving average of available funds. About 400 students receive scholarship money from the foundation each year, he said.

Foundation money is also used to support operations, affiliates such as University Library and Raider Athletics, building projects, and other programs the university couldn't provide without private support, Kelley said.

In tough economic times, the need to raise money increases, and Kelley is plowing ahead in creating a comprehensive five-year fundraising plan with a large focus on scholarship money for students.

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Oh my gosh, how are you going to raise money in this hard economy?'" said Kelley, who moved to SOU from Texas A&M University-Commerce just two months ago.

The university has already received several large gifts this year, and Kelley sees a large untapped market both in and outside the Rogue Valley, she said.

"Regardless of the economy, I wouldn't be here if I didn't think this: There are still huge opportunities for raising money."

She plans to fill empty board positions with members who can forge new business connections and begin more consistent, targeted outreach to alumni, who make up about 25 percent of donors.

Of the approximately 31,200 living alumni with current addresses, about 5 percent of them donate to their alma mater, said Eric Baird, database manager with the foundation.

Kelley would also like to improve procurement of online and small, regular donations, because donors who give small gifts steadily over time are the most likely to make major contributions later on, she said. Major gifts of $25,000 or more make up 80 to 90 percent of the foundation's funds, according to Theberge.

No matter what happens with the economy, the university must think long-term and continue raising private money to serve students, Kelley said.

"Attitude is everything, and I think our board and alumni have taken a positive stance," she said. "We know the economy is going to change and it doesn't do us any good to moan and groan."

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.