Leveraging a Donor Network to Fund Innovation: Lessons Learned from the Success of the Jefferson Trust

Funding for Innovation: Image of Dollar Bills Falling through the Air
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University budgets are tight, so how do you set aside funding for innovation? Here's one strategy from the University of Virginia, which has issued 141 grants in a little over a decade to fund strategic projects at the institution.

In an earlier paper, we highlighted several distinct approaches institutions had taken to setting aside funds to pursue innovative, growth-minded strategies. Some advocated the rigorous discipline of setting aside a percentage of operational budget each year to allow the institution to take calculated risks on new projects (this infographic summarizes the approach); others suggested the power of a president's network of donors who give specifically to an innovation fund.

One well-known variation on this second approach is the University of Virginia's Jefferson Trust, which has issued 141 grants in a little over a decade to fund initiatives and programs of strategic interest to the institution. Though unique in its structure, much of UVA's model is replicable for other institutions. To learn more, we reached out to Wayne Cozart, the executive director of the Jefferson Trust, in the following interview.

An Interview with Wayne Cozart

Daniel Fusch (Academic Impressions). Wayne, it's wonderful to talk with you again. Can you tell me a little about the philosophy behind the Jefferson Trust, and how it is structured?

Wayne Cozart. We all know state institutions will never see the kind of support from state governments that they have seen in the past. We know publics must rely more on philanthropy. So the Trust was born out of necessity. In our case, after the dot.com bust in 2001, when the state of Virginia cut back appropriations severely, our dean of arts and sciences came to the alumni association and said, "If you give me $200,000, I can save 14 professorships." That is what sparked the conversation. The board recognized the importance and came up with the idea of a venture-capital trust to fund strategic needs and initiatives that could not otherwise be funded.

They came up with the concept of a trust overseen by a board of trustees. The trustees could join the board with a $100,000 gift or more, and would have a 3-year term with an option to renew for a total of 6 years. Their role would be to continue to build the endowment and to take part in the decision making about where to allocate those funds. For all intents and purposes, the Trust operates as an interlocking directorate, an LLC of the alumni association. Over the past 11 years, we have raised the endowment $24 million, and as of last year, we have given out a total of 141 grants in support of all 11 schools, several student initiatives, and related foundation initiatives.

The mission is broad: We will consider a grant that will improve the quality of the institution and that might not be funded otherwise. It is venture capital. We are interested in (1) advancing the reputation of the institution, and (2) making sure the grants involve students as much as possible. (Thus, we look at grant applications from students as well.) We have an oversight committee that specifically looks at grant performance, failures, successes, and we have pulled back money twice over the past 10 years, for two grants that were lying fallow. Again, drawing on a venture-capital approach, we also use the oversight committee to look into what kinds of grants we should be looking at. What kind of grants are historically more successful for UVA?

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