All Gifts Great & Small: Gifts from Individual Donors Often Provide the Most Support to Higher Education. Networking and Cultivating Personal Relationships Can Give Administrators the Edge They Need to Generate the Most Funds for Their School. (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

Bill and Claudia Coleman did not graduate from the University of Colorado. Their children do not attend there. And they don't make their home in Colorado.

The Colemans--he's a former executive of Sun Microsystems, and she of Hewlett Packard--decided early on that if they ever made enough money to donate to a major cause, it would be to enhance the lives of people with cognitive disabilities. But they hadn't decided on a recipient yet.

Enter University of Colorado. In January the Colemans, who are the millionaire founders of BEA Systems in Silicon Valley, gave the school the largest single donation ever made to a public university--$250 million to develop advanced technology to assist people with cognitive disabilities.

"This unprecedented gift is a tribute to the Colemans' generosity and vision, as well as to the university's growing reputation for work in developmental disabilities and assistive technology," said Elizabeth Hoffman, president of the University of Colorado.

But how the gift came about is a tribute to the fundraising efforts of Hoffman and her staff.

Claudia Coleman has a niece with a cognitive disability, a condition that can stem from a developmental disorder, such as retardation, Down's Syndrome or autism, as well as certain traumatic brain injuries, a stroke, or Alzheimer's disease.

Bill Caile, an alumnus and fundraiser for the university's college of engineering and applied sciences, knew the Coleman family and the issues that interested them. But other than that, the Colemans had no particular connection to the University of Colorado. So Caile, faculty, and staff set about forging the ties.

Bill Coleman was invited to give a lecture to a freshman science class, followed by a tour of the university's Center for Lifelong Learning and Design. This research facility develops computer-assisted learning devices.

"I saw some of the incredible research being done in cognitive science, including the use of computer-based technologies to support lifelong learning and online community building" Bill Coleman said. "I saw a connection with the work that my company, BEA Systems, had been doing with the development of personalization technology for the Internet and possible techniques to help those with cognitive disabilities."

Inspired, the Colemans made a series of relatively small gifts of a few hundred thousand dollars.

"They referred to them in venture capital terms--that they were like seed money," Hoffman said. "It helped get everyone excited about the possibilities." Then the university sponsored a conference last October in Aspen, where the Colemans often vacationed, that brought together professors from the university's four campuses that were working on issues related to cognitive disabilities. The conference included scientists who had sequenced the gene that causes Down's as well as psychologists who worked with the disabled.

"I don't think any of us had any idea about the size of the gift we were talking about," Hoffman said. "I knew they wanted it to be something that would really create an impact, a gift that would transform the field, but I was thinking maybe $10 million. Almost immediately, they began talking in nine figures. A few months later, they were talking in the $200 million range.

"So I did my homework. I knew that the largest gift ever to a public university was $240 million to the University of San Francisco. I said to them, if you make it $250 million, you can make history."

The Colemans visited the main campus in Boulder in January. In a matter of hours, they had a deal.

"It wasn't a matter of ego, it was a matter of making an impact on an issue that was very important to them," Hoffman said. "They wanted to draw national attention to their cause, and this would accomplish that. I knew them well enough at that point to know that they wouldn't be offended by the suggestion. …