MONMOUTH -- Western Oregon Interim President Mark Weiss went fishing in September at a favorite spot along the Alsea River. With him was Ron DeVolder, a board member of the school's foundation and charitable-giving arm.
Weiss said he had been aware for some time that a donation from DeVolder's family was forthcoming. But it wasn't until that trip that he learned the amount -- $2.3 million to assist with construction of a new science facility on campus.
"We didn't catch any fish that day," Weiss said. "But Ron made a joke that WOU did catch a new building."
Western has its share of testaments to philanthropy. A $1.5 million donation in 2000 from Wayne and Lynn Hamersly helped erect the library that bears their names.
Western received six-figures worth of artwork and cash in 2010 from artist Alfred Maurice to create an endowment and student-learning project.
Scholarships are meted out to students every year via alumni donations.
Still, WOU has long sat at the lower end of the scale -- second to last -- when it comes to philanthropic net assets among Oregon's public universities.
And traditionally, giving hasn't always been a major focus at the school or on the minds of some who've come here, opined DeVolder, a 1968 Oregon College of Education (now WOU) graduate and president of Roberts Motor Co. in Wilsonville.
Officials are trying to change that. Western has ramped up in the past two years its annual giving efforts, creating or re-emphasizing several philanthropic initiatives aimed at alumni, staff and faculty.
Western has annually received about $1 million in donations and gifts since 2008. A "reasonable" goal is to double that within the next five years, Weiss said.
WOU is also seeking to enhance the culture of and change perceptions about giving, said Tommy Love, director of University Advancement.
"People believe that unless you give a big gift, it isn't going to make a difference," Love said. "The reality is any gift makes a tremendous impact."
All public universities face the same obstacle when it comes to fundraising -- the mentality of citizens that schools are already receiving what it needs via state taxes, Love said.
But funding for higher education has fallen sharply in Oregon -- and the rest of the nation -- Weiss said. Less than one third of WOU's $50 million in general fund revenue for 2011-12 will come from the state.
Almost all of the balance is from student tuition.
"We don't want to have to increase that any more than we have to, especially when you consider 50 percent of our students are first generation," he said. "If we hike rates, the students we serve won't be able to afford us."
Western has its own unique issues when it comes to alumni donations, such as its relatively small size.
A commuter-campus air and seven name changes during its history have made it hard for some to identify with the school when they're gone, DeVolder added.
"I think graduates should never spiritually leave that place," he said.
Western has an alumni giving participation rate -- the number of actual donors divided by prospective donors -- of 5.2 percent.
The national average for public colleges with similar educational offerings is between 5 percent and 6 percent, according to the Council for Aid to Education.
That figure is key when applying for grants with charitable organizations and foundations, Love said.
"The higher your participation rate is, the more likely they are to support you," he said.
Graphic by Pete Strong
In the above graph, red represents the number of WOU donors while blue is the dollar amount of donations.
During the last two years, Western has seemingly undergone a full-court press when it comes to stirring up interest in giving.
This year will be the first for Western's "1856" campaign, the date the school was founded and the desired number of alumni donors being sought for 2011-12.
Western is also trying to drum up more interest in its WOU GOLD (Graduates of the Last Decade) program, to inspire more recent attendees to give to the university.
The Wolves Club, an official fundraising arm for Western athletics, debuted in 2010 to get WOU on par with the average number of scholarships awarded to athletes in other Greater Northwest Athletic Conference institutions by 2015.
Western provided the equivalent of 42 full scholarships to its sports programs in 2009-10; the GNAC average is 70.
Western -- and most universities -- run their own staff-and-faculty giving programs in which employees can contribute pre-tax earnings toward scholarships for low-income students.
"That might be $25 a year or $1,000, whatever you're comfortable with," said Love, who added the key is getting a broader base of donors.
The university is re-emphasizing its campaign. Weiss and his wife actually donated $20,000 to serve as a catalyst.
"I thought it was a no-brainer because of an increase in salary compensation" for being appointed interim president, Weiss said.
Weiss has publicly challenged staff to participate in the program, which has led to some criticism. Henry Hughes, a WOU professor of English, said despite the economy, he thought the request was reasonable.
"Every college president asks for money -- from everyone, faculty and staff included," said Hughes. "I have a young family, and my donation will be very small, but every bit helps."
Love said the giving message won't be limited to those in the university, but to surrounding communities as well.
"We have to remember we're a major business in the region and that investment into Western is like retaining any other business," he said.