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While donations to colleges and universities saw the greatest decline nationwide in more than 50 years, Utah universities are holding their own and some are even seeing increases in contributions.

The Council for Aid to Education's annual "Voluntary Support of Education" survey found an 11.9 percent decline in contributions in 2009. Information provided by several of Utah's universities and colleges, however, tells a more nuanced story.

Many things can affect donation amounts. A capital campaign, for instance, will bring more attention to a university's needs. The proposal of a new building draws donations — sometimes even naming rights. And, as in the case with Utah Valley Community College, becoming a university can bring an outpouring of support from a community.

But nothing is bulletproof against a down economy.

"We did experience a dip in giving last year," said Marc Archambault, vice president for development and alumni at Utah Valley University. "We had more success with some gifts, but overall cash gifts were down."

Fred Esplin, the vice president for institutional advancement at the University of Utah, tells a different story: "Even during the recession we've seen growth in both the number of donors and the amount of money they have given to the university." Esplin said private giving is up $2.7 million so far this fiscal year.

Things may be turning around for UVU as well. "We see a significant rise in giving this year. We see it coming up to about where it was in 2007 and 2008 — and maybe even exceeding that. … What has been especially encouraging is we have seen a significant increase in overall giving in a couple of important categories," Archambault said. "For each of the last three years we've seen the number of donors climb. … That is a good thing and is liable to persist as the economy improves."

But even if the economy improves, there are some economic challenges for universities.

"I don't think that anyone thinks it is very likely that state support for higher education can significantly increase in future years — there are too many pressures on the state — if anything, it could decline," Archambault said.

And while donations appear to be coming back up, many are designated for scholarships and don't go to general operating expenses for the university, colleges or departments. "Most of our money is probably coming in for scholarships," said Joan M. Scheffke, the associate vice president for university advancement at Utah State University.

Although the dollar amount of donations varies among universities, the increase in the number of donors seems to be across the board. The U. has seen about 48,000 new donors over the past five years, for example.

Scheffke said USU was also seeing an increase in the number of alumni donating: "Through Nov. 30, we had an increase of 5.9 percent in alumni donors. … We will see if that trend continues when we update our numbers at the end of December."

And more donors sooner or later may lead to higher donations. Overall cash donations to USU are up 9.7 percent over last year. "That's pretty good," Scheffke said. "Cash from alumni is up 17.8 percent."

"Like everywhere else, BYU is seeing some of the same trends," said BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead, "I think the dollar amount for BYU is down some, but on the positive side, the number of donors has stayed the same. So we are still having people give that gave in the past." Total contributions by all BYU alumni in 2009 were $22,977,800.78.

BYU is also seeing an emerging trend. "We are having a record year for people giving on the Web," Hollingshead said.

Esplin said the U.'s success comes from "the generosity of the people of Utah, who by nature do a great deal to support the common good." He also credits efforts to reach out to alumni and a major capital campaign that is raising awareness of the university's needs. It should also be noted that the U. includes other entities that by themselves attract large donations — such as University of Utah Health Care, which includes four university hospitals and various clinics and specialty centers.

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The Council for Aid to Education's figures for 2009 show donations at the U. were $106,855,882. BYU's were $53,100,142; USU, $30,677,039; UVU, $10,187,181; and Westminster College brought in $7,840,094. The council's figures are difficult to compare over time because they do not have figures for every university every year. In fact, it appears that nobody is really tracking the individual contribution numbers for the various Utah universities — making it somewhat difficult to compare how many donations are coming in year-to-year or university-to-university.

And keeping those donations coming in is more important than ever to USU's Archambault: "We need that private support to deliver that quality education that all our students deserve."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com