Jim Piatt is often traveling, meeting with Elon University parents, alumni and donors. But no matter where he travels to or who he is talking with, his message is the same: the importance of an Elon education.
Piatt, who serves as the vice president for university advancement, came to Elon University in 2008. While Piatt has over 30 years in higher education, his work the past 13 years has focused on the Elon University endowment.
A university or college’s endowment is funds donated to support the institution’s mission. At Elon, endowment funds are often used for scholarships, faculty research support, and funding for Elon experiences, such as study abroad. Currently, the Elon University endowment is about $335 million.
“I've really grown accustomed to just deeply understanding the impact that donors can make on a university,” Piatt said. “It’s a powerful thing.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me just a little bit about your role and what an endowment is to begin with?
“My role at the university essentially is the chief development officer, and what that essentially means is I come to work every day thinking about fundraising, about how to finance building projects, grow the endowment, and also work with parents and alumni out in the world, in terms of engagement activities, to share our message about the importance of support.”
“The endowment is something that is pretty complicated, but in its simplest form, an endowment is a series of funds that the university holds in perpetuity — that means they're there forever. Those funds have a purpose, and most of those funds at Elon have a purpose of supporting student scholarships.”
A lot of schools in higher education have had to really dip into that endowment with the whole last year and a half that we've had the coronavirus. Has Elon University’s endowment been impacted similarly?
“Not really. At Elon … that is most of the funds that make up the endowment at Elon are for scholarships. Legally, those are what's called restricted funds, and the only way we can utilize those funds is to support scholarships; we don't have the authority to change that. So, when a donor sets up an endowed fund and says, ‘I want it to be for a student who studies English, or a student who's in the Communications School, or a softball player or something.’ That's what we use the scholarship for, and we can't use it for anything else.”
How did you get involved with the endowment?
“Well, it's a long trail, but I've been in higher education in administrative staff roles for over 30 years, and I came to Elon in 2008 during a recruitment process for this particular job, so I've been in it for 13 years now ... My own personal story is that I enjoy working at the university, particularly on the finance side, and I've really grown accustomed to just deeply understanding the impact that donors can make on a university. It's a powerful thing, whether it's scholarships for students in need, whether it's funds that support study abroad — we have many of those at Elon — whether it's new building funds that help us build things like a building to support the engineering program, or the business school or Schar Center. It's a pleasure to be able to work with donors to help them realize their goals about making a difference in the lives of our students."
Where is our endowment number, and how does that compare to other schools?
“Our endowment right now is about $335 million, and I say about because it's an investment fund, so it changes frequently, but as of this summer, it's hit about $335 million ... It depends on who the competitive set is that you're looking at is. For many years, Elon has been a little bit out of a disadvantage in terms of the overall size of our endowment, and a lot of that had to do when we got started raising money a little bit later than many other universities. So for instance, a school like the University of Richmond, which we compete with for students, their endowment is well over $2 billion. And that means they probably have some more scholarship support to offer their students versus Elon. And, by the way, I'm not telling any secrets there. You can find out Richmond’s endowment just by searching for it, but we are making great progress in our endowment gains, but we continue to work on it, and it will be a priority for many, many years.”
How are you making the pitch for donating to Elon and higher education in general during this time where, financially speaking, people are struggling?
“We focus a lot on how the Elon education is worth it in our messaging, and there's no better way to tell that story than through the lens of students. So, to be very open about this, we will utilize some video resources where students and [alumni] will tell their story about how a scholarship to attend Elon made all the difference. We also do things [where] scholarship students will write to the donors who created the scholarship that that student has received and thank them and send photos of their Elon experience and tell their story back to folks. As that message circulates out there among [alumni], parents and friends of the university, people understand that there's a lot of impact. That's the thing, you can sell as hard as you want, but there's almost no way to replicate how important it is when a student receives support at the university. And when they share the gratitude they have for that support? It's a powerful thing.”
How was that possible? And, you know what, how has the pandemic impacted the endowment at all?
“Yeah, well, again, I would say that because the endowment is largely restricted for certain purposes, that’s what it's restricted for, and we can't use it for other reasons. Probably where that pandemic had the impact the most is simply that in the donor community, people who are considering making a gift to the university or any charitable organization, for that matter, they may have had their confidence shaken a little bit during the pandemic, or at least early in the pandemic. And when donors don't have a lot of confidence in the financial markets, they can be a little more hesitant. We saw just a little bit of that early on in the pandemic. But then it wasn't too long after that, that many of the donors who we had been talking with for quite a while, they came back and said, ‘Yeah, we're interested in continuing these conversations.’”
Was it also because of how the university responded to specific things, did you hear donors talk about that at all?
“You put the finger on it right there. So many folks we've heard from were just tickled that we pushed through, worked hard to remain open, remain face to face, because I think a lot of donors to Elon, just like a lot of students at Elon, understand this place is about engagement and high impact practices. And those things happen because we're in the same space, and I think Elon did a very good job last year. We were careful about a lot of things, but we pushed through and President Book really, I think, led a great effort across the campus to make sure that happened, and our donors recognized that.”
Why should students care about an endowment?
“I'll tell you, when I was an undergraduate for sure, I didn't know what it was, I never even thought about it. For me, and for a lot of students, school is about your classes, right? And your residence hall experience, and where I'm going to park my car if I have a car and those kinds of things. I think the main thing I would say to students today is to think about the impact of philanthropy that surrounds you ... And so whether those donors gave to endowment or whether they made gifts to support some of the technology, or the building space itself, the impact of giving back to the university or giving to the university is felt every single day. For most students, it feels somewhat invisible, but I can guarantee you if you go through a year at Elon, you are going to be in buildings that were supported by donors, you are going to be taking advantage of opportunities that were supported by donors. And as students get to sort of understand that as part of their Elon activity, and then when they become [alumni], and they can maybe get a call from our phone center about, ‘Would you consider a gift back to the School of [Communications] or a gift to the Phoenix Club to support athletics,’ they may be a little more inclined to do so.”
What are some things we can expect to see the endowment being used for?
“Most of the dollars that we've raised in the endowment in the last several years during a campaign, … the Elon LEADS campaign, has been for scholarships. And one of the things that we recently announced is that we reached a benchmark that we had really been shooting for, which is 200 funded, endowed Odyssey scholarships. So support for students in our nationally recognized Odyssey program, you're going to see continued growth there. We continue to raise money for what's called engagement scholarships, which our admissions and financial aid offices use to help students fund college expenses. We continue to grow support in study abroad scholarships, so for students who may have financial need that would need and just aren't able to support that, that trip to New Zealand or that trip to South America, wherever their interest may take them, there are funds available for those students to apply and receive. I think you'll see more of those sorts of things.”
Was there any large fluctuation in how much we have in the endowment in the last year?
“Because the endowment is really tied to the value of the endowment, dollars wise it is tied to the markets. Initially, when the pandemic hit, of course, the financial markets dropped pretty precipitously, but then they came back pretty quickly, and so we didn't really see a big departure of funds. Because there were not as many study abroad opportunities last year, because there couldn't have been, there are funds there for students to to gain support on. So I would say there was not a net loss of any magnitude at all. In fact, there's probably a net gain to the question that you just posed.”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
“If you were a donor, and you said I'd like to endow a scholarship for let's just say, broadcasting, you may come, and you would make a tax deductible contribution, and you may endow a scholarship. Now, here's the thing: once you make that contribution, that fund that endowed fund that you've just created, never goes away. The only thing that we use to support future scholarship recipients are the earnings off that endowment. And so that's how the endowment continues to have its strength over time. The more we can raise more endowed scholarships, and more more endowed dollars, you can see how the net effect right more scholarship dollars coming out. But if you created that endowed scholarship today, it's going to be there forever, and you will receive reports about the students who receive that every single year moving forward in that, like I said before, earlier, that's when you really feel the impact of it."
Baylor Rodman contributed to the reporting of this story.