Investing in Partnerships, Community, and Student Success

Foundations of Consequence

By Kevin P. Reilly    //    Volume 32,  Number 2   //    March/April 2024

  • Be strategic in building the team on the board to accomplish the goals you have set.
  • Create the structures and entities you need to govern the work of the foundation and minimize risk for both the foundation and the university.
  • Partnerships and planning based on related institution and community priorities are a winning strategy.

In recent years, college and university foundations have been playing an ever more central role ensuring that institutions fulfill their missions. Their monetary and moral support have been vital in everything from helping hold down tuition increases, to building cutting-edge facilities, to strengthening community partnerships and attracting state and federal dollars. This is a snapshot of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (UW-Eau Claire) Foundation, a recipient of AGB’s 2024 John W. Nason Award for Board Leadership.

The foundation has made itself consequential by adroitly piecing together partnerships between the university and community entities that drive student success and workforce development. The university is a public regional comprehensive institution with nearly 10,000 students enrolled across some 120 baccalaureate and master’s programs. The foundation’s experience in enhancing the value of UW-Eau Claire for its students and region holds lessons for other foundations contemplating or engaged in similar efforts.

The foundation had been a fairly passive organization until 2002, when it embarked on its first comprehensive campaign, raising more than $50 million. Shortly after that, three stars began to align: a local museum’s examination of how residents felt about Eau Claire’s cultural life, the Clear Vision Eau Claire multi-year community visioning project, and the campus’s first master plan. The last projected out 20 years, calling for new facilities on campus and shared facilities off campus in partnership with the community. UW-Eau Claire is landlocked, with little potential to grow beyond its original boundaries. So, extending its footprint into the community was necessary for its own growth and renewal. It was ironically a deficit the foundation turned into an asset, both for the university and its wider environs.

But how? The campus master plan identified a number of needs that pointed to a potential role for the foundation. I’ll focus on just three:

  • Improved student housing. Space to build new housing on campus was limited and no options existed to house large numbers of students in the community. As a result, the quality of existing residence halls continued to deteriorate since taking one offline for major renovations was impossible. The master plan called for the development of an off-campus apartment complex close to campus in partnership with a private developer or nonprofit entity.
  • New science building. To be funded by the state and built on the lower section of the campus along the Chippewa River, a new science facility would support the hundreds of collaborations the university’s STEM and Health Sciences programs have generated and replace a building with limited capacity.
  • Multi-purpose community event center. This would replace an aging facility on campus, which happened to be the largest indoor arena in northwestern Wisconsin. It would be off campus in a location convenient to the university and attractive to people from the city and the region.

The nature of these projects made it clear that if the foundation were to be effective in advancing them, it needed board expertise and entities to invest in and manage real estate. The foundation board created a real estate committee with some newly recruited board members, and an LLC was created to purchase an unused priory three miles from campus to be turned into the university’s first single-occupancy student housing. Keith Donnermeyer, former chair of the foundation board, recalls there was a healthy skepticism among board members about entering into complex real estate deals.

The foundation’s CEO, Kimera Way, put it more bluntly, describing the board’s mood as mostly fearful of the unknown. She highlighted the seriousness of the risk profiles the foundation undertook, probing hard its possible exposure and that of the university. The university’s leadership shared the institution’s limitations regarding funding and building projects. The board gained a much clearer understanding of the foundation’s potential role in underwriting partnerships with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations to undertake and conclude successfully these three projects and more. As a result of this painstaking work, the Blugold Real Estate Foundation (BGREF) was formed as a supporting entity of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation to acquire, develop, and hold real estate benefiting the UW-Eau Claire foundation and university. The priory project led to a partnership with a local developer to acquire prime downtown real estate for a performance and fine arts facility and a building with first-floor retail spaces and five upper floors of student apartments.

Donnermeyer, Way, and current Chancellor Jim Schmidt all emphasized the need for first-rate real estate, legal, and financial advice. The chancellor noted that he made a particular effort to familiarize the foundation with the details of the university’s financial situation. With those guardrails, all the parties concluded that if they stayed true to the master plan roadmap and the community’s vision for its future, with their touchstone the best interests of students and community residents, the foundation could be a key driver in the transformation of the university and the revitalization of greater Eau Claire. To date, the foundation’s efforts have impacted some $700 million in capital improvements with more than $80 million funded by gifts.

An innovative collaboration with the Mayo Clinic is emblematic of how the foundation has helped weave capital improvement, student success, and workforce development together into a powerful brew of shared community optimism for the future. The university, the foundation, and Mayo first came together seven years ago behind a vision of “an innovation hub focused on excellence in community health-care research in northwestern Wisconsin.” Dr. Timothy Nelson, director of research at the Mayo Clinic Health Care System Eau Claire and himself a UW-Eau Claire graduate, knew that he and his colleagues wanted to connect their high-powered research to rural health care and clinical community practice. Dr. Nelson, aware of The Wisconsin Idea that the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state, believed that a thoroughgoing partnership with UW-Eau Claire was the best way to accomplish this goal.

For its part, the foundation got to work investing in advocacy to secure state funding for the campus’s new science building (mentioned earlier), designed to support new health sciences degree programs, research, and outreach key to the Mayo collaboration. Of course, it had to be mindful of the restrictions on the limited amount of foundation resources that could be spent on lobbying (another one of those guardrails). But the investment clearly paid off. Construction of the new Science and Health Sciences Building is slated to begin this year. The $340 million building will be the biggest investment of its kind ever by the State of Wisconsin.

The foundation also has been at the center of the development of the multi-purpose community event facility described above. Called the County Materials Complex to recognize the lead donors’ contribution of land, this $120 million project located in a previous industrial site will be the cornerstone for rejuvenation of another district of the city. It will hold 5,000 people and be home to university basketball, major community events, concerts, and indoor graduation ceremonies. The Mayo Clinic will have a sports medicine/diagnostic imaging center attached to the facility’s fieldhouse. The Blugold Real Estate Foundation and Mayo Clinic formed a nonprofit, non-stock corporation that owns the development. The project is possible thanks to the generosity of alumni John and Carol Sonnentag, who donated land and $40 million to fully fund the project’s philanthropic goal. It will open summer 2024.

The students who will enjoy the benefits of these capital improvements have been kept at the core of the Mayo partnership. One example is the Biomedical Innovator Program. Each year ten incoming freshman are chosen to be Innovator Scholars, hailing from a variety of health-related majors. They work alongside Mayo physicians and medical students on significant research projects, with the supervision of UW-Eau Claire faculty. Many of them become co-authors of research studies in major health sciences journals—as undergraduates. The foundation, Mayo, and the university are funding full tuition scholarships for these students.

Mayo staff love the energy and new ideas these students bring to their research and practice and hope to recruit them after they complete their studies. The program assists Mayo in attracting top-notch doctors who want to work in a quality research environment connected to a university, its students, and its community. Leaders of both the university and the Mayo Clinic noted that each believes they get the better part of the bargain.

Over a 15-year period, the UW-Eau Claire Foundation Board has met critical university and community needs while remaining strategically aligned with the university. The board’s expanded role in capital project development was absolutely critical to accomplishing key improvements at a time when state-funded projects were delayed for years. Every project it has invested in was motivated by a singular vision to create the best student experience. That these projects also have improved the life of the community in the process is an intended consequence.

Kevin P. Reilly, PhD, is president emeritus and regent professor of the University of Wisconsin System and senior consultant and senior fellow with AGB.