Our Clients: Montana State University – Billings

Billings, Montana


The People, Pride & Promise of Montana State University – Billings
MSU-B’s First Comprehensive Multi-Million Dollar Campaign

Beginning New
In the late 1990s the Montana State University-Billings Foundation launched a multi-million dollar campaign in support of its students, faculty and staff – unfortunately that effort was unsuccessful. The failed campaign resulted in the departure of the foundation’s professional leadership, and caused an erosion of confidence in the work of the foundation among different campus and community leaders. The public image of the university suffered.

“Five years ago, when the bottom fell out of that campaign, we were all wondering where to go, what to do. What was our plan for moving forward?” said Bill Brown former MSU-Billings Foundation Chairman. “I don’t want to overstate the situation, but mentally we were really down. Some people have asked why we simply didn’t just walk away in 2000 and say enough was enough. A number of us had taken some lumps, but I am happy to say that it just wasn’t in our nature to give up. We simply were not going to walk away.”

“It was imperative that we get into the world of fundraising,” said Dr. Ron Sexton, Chancellor. “From the mid-1980s to the late 90s, college students in Montana had been forced to go from paying for less than 20 percent of their college education to more than 40 percent. State and federal support of higher education was changing. There had been a sea change in the world of higher education and we were not navigating it well. We had to become good at raising charitable gifts.”

The plan? According to Brown – and his successor as Chairman of the Board, Bruce Parker – the plan was to identify and hire the most qualified, respected individual they could find for the position of foundation president and CEO. They would work with him or her to develop a master plan for the foundation in support of the university.

“A few people, including several of us, questioned our sanity,” quipped Parker. “I can remember thinking, ‘We failed out of the chute and now we’re going to spend more money, more time and invest more resources to launch another multi-million dollar campaign? It sounded strange to more than a few people.

“But I was with Bill Brown. We could not simply give up on helping the university,” continued Parker who eventually became Campaign Chair for the “People, Pride & Promise” campaign. “I’m not a graduate of this university, but this is a state university in the largest city in the largest county in Montana. It is a major asset to Montana and the five states in the northwest-central region of this country. This university deserved our time, our energy and the funds we sought to make it all a reality.”

In 2000, Marilynn Miller, a seasoned and successful Montana nonprofit executive, was identified and targeted by the MSU-B Foundation Board of Trustees as the next ‘first step’ in the road to fundraising success. She had successfully directed two other nonprofit organizations and led both through campaigns. As a native of the state, she already knew much about MSU-B and a lot about Billings and Montana.

“I was curious to say the least,” said Miller when she received the phone call. “Bernie Harrington, Chancellor Sexton and others were people I knew and respected. However, the foundation – and by extension the university – had challenges. But I was encouraged by their desire to rebound from everything that had happened and I was at a point in my life where challenge is what I sought.”

Under Miller’s direction, and through her collaboration with volunteer leadership, the next year saw meaningful changes. Edits and additions were made to the Foundation ‘s operating structure and personnel. Significant volunteer leadership was engaged and Hartsook Companies, Inc. – the firm that would provide fundraising counsel throughout the “People, Pride & Promise” campaign – was engaged.

According to Miller, the foundation’s volunteer leadership and the university’s administration were intent on helping students, the university, the city and the state. “There were plenty of skeptics. But there were also others who could see an expanded university doing more – more to help business; more to expand culture and the arts; and more to lift up families and their children. Montana owes a lot to those individuals who saw what was possible for MSU-B.”

“We were on our way,” said Chancellor Sexton. “We needed the new financial resources a campaign would produce. We needed new people engaged in the life of the university and we needed the profile and excitement that only a well-run, professional foundation and a comprehensive campaign could bring to this wonderful institution.”

The Silent Phase Begins
On June 25, 2004 a crowded campus ballroom was the host venue for a gala event to publicly announce “People, Pride & Promise: The Campaign for Excellence at Montana State University-Billings.” The event drew alumni and friends from across the state and the nation to hear that the campaign had crossed the $14 million mark on its way to a goal of $21 million. The three years leading to the public announcement had been an adventure.

According to Parker and Brown, once Miller was in place as MSU-B Foundation president and CEO the debate ensued: should a multi-million dollar campaign be launched?

“I know there were prominent individuals who questioned our decision to launch this campaign after the first one failed so quickly and completely,” said Miller. “But there is truly no better vehicle or strategy for creating focus, energy and commitment from individuals than a comprehensive campaign.” That sentiment, however, was not shared by everyone.

“Good questions were being asked,” said Bernie Harrington former trustee and alumni board president. “In the end, I think we knew it had to be done for the good of the students, and the future of the City of Billings and, in fact, the state. The bottom line is that we are a bunch of stubborn people and we truly believed a campaign could succeed. We knew it was necessary for us to move forward – despite the skepticism.”

Robert Swanson, President of Hartsook Companies, reinforced Miller’s and the others’ arguments for a campaign strategy.

“The Foundation had done some wonderful things through the years,” said Swanson. “During her first year, Marilynn Miller and the Board had aggressively addressed the internal shortcomings of the organization. And of course, the university had thousands of graduates and sits in the largest city in the state. Campaigns create focus and direction. They also require universities to listen more closely to their different constituencies and engage volunteer leaders across a broad spectrum. MSU-B needed a campaign to move forward.”

Working with the university, the foundation set goals for the campaign. A scholarship goal of more than $7.6 million, a capital goal of more than $6.8 million and ‘special projects for excellence’ goal of $6.5 million were set for the comprehensive, integrated campaign.

“One of the dynamics that Hartsook brought to our table was the integrated approach to building the campaign,” said University Chancellor Ron Sexton. “Different fundraising goals, and different strategies for reaching those goals, were meshed and a comprehensive set of initiatives were set forth. Major gift solicitation, the annual fund program, planned giving – it was all pulled together. My belief is that this approach gave everyone more confidence and a greater understanding of how the goals could be met.”

Confidence and understanding would be key components in the university’s and the Foundation’s drive to engage alumni and friends in the early stages of the campaign’s silent phase. The initial framing and structuring of campaign processes, procedures and strategies assumed greater importance.

Framing & Structuring the Campaign
The silent phase included the development of a broad base of strategies to enhance the identification, cultivation, solicitation and appreciation of donors as it related to not only the campaign, but the Foundation in general. Persistent skepticism, according to Campaign Manager Kathie Riggs, had to be addressed as standard – and sometimes not so standard – strategies were adopted and implemented.

National Campaign Leadership Council (NCLC). The NCLC, a nationwide volunteer leadership council of more than 50 alumni and friends from 11 states was created. “For people in Billings and Montana, the NCLC communicated that there were people from across the country who cared about the university,” said Riggs. “That was important given our background.”

Staffing. A campaign director, administrative assistant, annual fund director and major gifts officer were added to the foundation staff. “There was some consternation about investing new dollars in the foundation’s operation,” said Miller. “However, we had businesspeople on board who understood the proverb, ‘it takes money to make money.’

First Monday & Other Cultivation Strategies. “If our consultant, Robert Swanson, said it once, he said it 100 times: ‘Communication is the essence of appreciation’ and we bought into that,” said Riggs. “Some 900 targeted prospects received a monthly memo for four years from us called First Monday. In addition, the alumni publication was revised and included a section specifically on the foundation. An eight-minute cultivation video [in both DVD and VHS format] was created. We also conducted leadership receptions in 11 states to connect personally with alumni and friends.”

Theme & Message. “The ‘People, Pride and Promise: The Campaign for Excellence at Montana State University-Billings’ message really crystallized the spirit of this endeavor,” said Riggs. “Not only was it catchy, but it allowed us to talk about our great people at MSU-B. We could talk about our pride in our past as a university and in our alumni. We could also talk about the promise of MSU-B’s future and the future of every new graduate. It worked and it still works.”

Campaign Management Tools. “Certainly our success has something to do with our management of information and processes,” said Miller. “If you want to make widgets, you have to track the manufacturing process. If you want gifts, you have to track identification, cultivation, solicitation and appreciation processes. We developed meaningful management processes and procedures.”

Policies & Guidelines. “Revised and expanded policies related to gift acceptance, donor recognition/appreciation, named gift opportunities and a variety of other issues were adopted,” said Riggs. “The process was educational for volunteer leaders and helped them to better understand fundraising.”

The silent phase of the campaign extended over 36 months as foundation and university staff and leadership worked diligently to build the campaign framework. A goal of 100 percent trustee participation was established and achieved. Campus administrators and faculty were engaged as donors. The largest gift in the university’s history was secured. A National Campaign Leadership Committee was recruited. Activity was endless. In 2004 came the public announcement.

Campaign Goes Public
The campaign kick-off in June of 2004 signaled the start of a new era for the foundation and the university. A year of reorganization and two-and-a-half years’ worth of silent campaign work proceeded the watershed moment. The announcement communicated to the city, state and nation that MSU-B was worthy of charitable support. The public announcement confirmed that the university had a passionate and dedicated volunteer leadership. It had a professional staff overseeing operations. The foundation and university had the desire to respond to constituent needs.

“We have not done many events of this caliber at the university,” said Miller, of the kick-off gala. “The turnout, the media attention and the sense of accomplishment exceeded all our expectations. The event was a testament to the many friends and alumni who refused to let the MSU-B Foundation be just another average organization.”

National Campaign Leadership Committee Member Dave Warne said the event was a milestone for the university and the city. “Billings is the largest city in the state. To have a vibrant and dynamic college sitting in the heart of the city is important. It educates. It provides artistic and cultural opportunities. It’s a major component of the regional economy.”

The campaign kick-off gala garnered statewide media attention and university and foundation outlets also trumpeted the news. At that point in time more than 13,000 gifts and pledges exceeding $14 million had been made to the campaign. The stage was set for the final push.

The foundation had refined its operations during the quiet phase of the campaign and was prepared for the final 24 months. “Finish Strong” became the slogan as the final $7 million was pursued. Maintaining the focus and the energy of volunteers and staff was a challenge.

“I know it’s true for every campaign and it was for us too,” said Campaign Chairman Bruce Parker. “The idea of exceeding the $21 million goal became an interesting motivator for many of us.”

“You had to be impressed by their commitment,” said Swanson. “They found new ways to motivate themselves. Instead of just focusing on gifts, they talked about other goals and objectives. For example, during their final push, they were nearing 100 new endowed funds, so decided to set a goal of 100 new funds. They created smaller committee structures to encourage greater camaraderie and responsibility among volunteer leaders. They constantly worked to keep the energy high.”

Finish Strong
Trustees, foundation staff and university officials entered the final year of their campaign with eyes on the present and the past.

“Numbers don’t lie,” said John Decker immediate past Foundation Board Chairman. “It’s 2006 and as we speak, more than $21.7 million in gifts and pledges are in play with this campaign and we have a foundation whose investment assets have gone from $13 million in 2000 to more than $20 million in 2006. We’ve had a lot of people step up to the plate and make a difference in this university, this city, this state.”

The campaign surpassed its original goal of $21 million. “$25 million is not out of the question,” said Swanson. “Of course this campaign has been about much more than gifts. The profile of this university has been enhanced. Many new faces have been involved in the life of the university. Most importantly the university, by way of the foundation, is improving the lives of people and its community.”

Those involved in the early days see the “People, Pride & Promise” campaign as a testament to hard work and a “never-say-die” attitude of volunteer leadership and university administration. “We have a lot of work left to do,” says Parker, “but I believe the hard work of establishing credibility and overcoming stereotypes as a teachers’ college has been accomplished.”

Excitement and optimism crosses the mind of Chancellor Sexton as he reflects upon the university’s first comprehensive campaign. “For us, this campaign does more than raise money. It suggests that what some thought was impossible is possible. Hopefully the message is clear to our students and others. They, too, can overcome perceptions of themselves and have success if they are willing to plan for it, dedicate themselves to it and never give up until they’ve achieved it.”

While Parker and Miller express their optimism, they warn against complacency and overlooking the past.

“The quickest way for a nonprofit organization to lose its way,” says Miller, “is to pat itself on the back too quickly and too often. This has been a tremendous journey. In the end, it was never really about the foundation or the university, buildings or scholarships or endowments. It was, and is, about helping our students and the people of Billings and the State of Montana. As long as that sentiment guides volunteers and staff, this university can engage the time, energy and gifts of alumni and friends.”

MSU-B Foundation, A Brief History
1967 – Foundation chartered
1970 – Foundation awards $4,700 in scholarships
1986 – Foundation assets reach $1 million
1994 – Wine Festival Scholarship Event secures $64,000
1999 – First multi-million dollar campaign is terminated
2000 – Foundation assets reach $12 million
2001 – Silent phase of $21 million comprehensive campaign begins
2002 – Largest gift in foundation history secured
2003 – Wine Festival Scholarship Event secures record $220,000
2003 – Record number of six-digit gifts and pledges secured
2003 – The Beardsley Society (an honorary planned giving club) founded
2004 – Annual fund program secures record $705,000
2004 – Public kick-off of comprehensive campaign – $14 million in gifts and pledges announced
2005 – The Beardsley Society reaches 75 members
2005 – Wine Festival Scholarship Event secures record $290,000
2005 – Annual fund program secures record $1 million
2005 – Campaign reaches $20 million in gifts and pledges
2005 – Foundation’s net assets exceed $19 million


Selected Campaign Highlights
As of February 2006

  • $21.7 million in gifts and pledges
  • 91 new, named endowed funds established
  • 41 existing named endowed funds enhanced
  • A new home for child day care
  • A new women’s softball field
  • A new home for the College of Business
  • Faculty Enhancement Funds established
  • Major renovation and expansion of the College of Technology
  • Honorary planned giving society established
  • Largest single gift in university history received
  • Endowment assets double
  • University celebrates 78th anniversary
  • Annual fund program surpasses $1 million in donations

Annual Fund & Endowment Highlights
Utilizing the concept of an integrated campaign, the MSU-B Foundation expanded its annual fund and endowment strategies during the “People, Pride & Promise” campaign.

  • Annual campus/community drive conducted
  • Annual Wine Festival Week held
  • Annual telefund drive completed
  • Year end direct mail appeal utilized
  • Quarterly Foundation magazine, “Engaged” published
  • The Beardsley Society established to honor all known planned gifts
  • On-line estate planning services established
  • Annual report replaced with Honor Roll of Donors’ publication
  • Foundation Section added to quarterly alumni magazine