Robert Morris hits $100M campaign goal a year early

Smart marketing around a vision for the future helps Pittsburgh-area university reach target during pandemic.
By: | December 9, 2020
Photo courtesy of Robert Morris University

In November of 2019, Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh set a goal of $100 million in a campaign pitch to help fund academic programs, scholarships and facilities.

The timing, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic struck across the U.S., offered a sizable hurdle in RMU’s quest to hit that target on its 100th anniversary in September of 2021.

However, just over a year into that mission, the university is celebrating the achievement of surpassing the benchmark in its RMU 100: Ready to Rise campaign – $100,256,000 in gifts and pledges.

“We are humbled and grateful at the generosity of our donors, who contributed to the university even in the midst of a global pandemic and recession,” said RMU President Chris Howard. “It is a testament to how much this community cares about our students, who are the biggest beneficiaries of this campaign.”

The milestone monetary value was boosted by the generous outpouring of support of those donors – more than 14,000 who contributed an average of $6,280. Robert Morris officials noted that a similar campaign that ended in 2012 took in $40.5 million.

“This is a moment of great pride for Robert Morris University,” said Richard J. Harshman, chair of the RMU Board of Trustees and a 1978 graduate of the university. “RMU has not only transformed the lives of students and alumni like me, but it has also transformed all of our communities.”

How they made it happen

Robert Morris, located in Moon Township, Pa., began as the Pittsburgh School of Accountancy in 1921 and transformed over the years to a junior college and then to a residential university in 2002. Matt Millet, vice president for development, says RMU’s development and growth have made it “a newer school in the sense of the traditional experience.”

Alumni have seen changes happening through the years, including the construction and opening in May 2019 of The UPMC Events Center, which hosts its NCAA Division I basketball and volleyball teams and a variety of live entertainment events.

So, when it came time for Robert Morris to launch the campaign, selling that transformation wasn’t difficult because part of it was happening on campus.

“What we really did is we connected all those people that had different experiences to what RMU has become and could become through this vision, with these new facilities,” Millet says. “I think that was a really powerful concept … people sort of envisioning what was lacking in their college experience and what it could be for the future people that attend RMU.

“We had Bob Dylan, we had Bryan Adams, we had a new boy band at the event center. I think that really inspired people to reimagine their college experience, and then what it would be like for residential students into the future.”

To get the word out on the campaign, Robert Morris’ marketing team leveraged social media along with a lot of personalized outreach.

“We went out and found some of our biggest donors and reengaged them,” Millet says. “Where they had been on the boards of other universities or the companies they were leading didn’t think of us as a Division I athletics institution, we just put ourselves back in front. We also did a good job of shifting our professional focus for them to think of us as only being 10 miles away from the city. We made that 10 miles seem like a mile.”

What it is supporting

Thanks to the influx of support, RMU’s endowment rose by $16 million, most of which will be distributed through future scholarships. The boost from the campaign with support a number of initiatives and programs, including:

As Millet points out, many of the donations that will make those above projects a reality came through its “top pyramid of best supporters.” He says they were instrumental in helping them achieve that goal during the pandemic.

“The best supporters have really rallied around causes they believe in,” he says. “This campaign saw our biggest corporate gift, our biggest foundation gift and our biggest individual gift. It’s really unique how everybody rallied around the vision.”

The campaign will go on until that September 2021 target date, with the hopes of more donations, although the challenges for universities continues because of the impact of COVID-19.

“We have many needs, like every other institution right now. I think all the traditional things universities do in the fundraising world, Days of Giving and things like that, you’ll see a decline in the overall participation,” Millet says. “We’re going to continue to try to engage the masses. That seems to be a harder demographic given the pandemic. The best supporters have not been as impacted. They understood our need, especially during these times.”