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Duke fundraising adjusts to scandal

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By Ret Boney

DURHAM, N.C. – The development office at Duke University has seen little impact on fundraising since the eruption of a scandal involving the school’s lacrosse team, a university official says.

Acknowledging it is still early, Peter Vaughn, executive director of alumni and development communications at Duke, says fundraising is in “full swing,” and communication with alumni, parents and donors is critical.

As of last week, Duke President Richard Broadhead had sent two email messages to about 85,000 alumni and parents, and the school had created a web page containing official statements on the case, Vaughn says.

“We’ve had a lot of comment from alumni,” he says.  “The majority of that has been in favor of the way the university is handling it.  Using that as a gauge, we ought not to feel an awful impact on philanthropy from this.”

Duke and its nationally-ranked men’s lacrosse team were thrust into the national spotlight when an exotic dancer, hired to perform at an off-campus party at a home rented by lacrosse team members, said she was sexually assaulted at the home on March 13.

While DNA samples collected from team members do not match samples from the alleged victim, an African-American mother and student at N.C. Central University in Durham, the local district attorney has said he will continue to pursue the case.

In response to the allegations, Broadhead cancelled the remaining games in the lacrosse team’s schedule and organized five committees to investigate and report back on various topics, including the response of the president’s office to the situation.

In addition, one student received an interim suspension after a violent and graphic email he sent in the hours following the alleged attack was made public.

Two members of the lacrosse team were charged with first-degree rape and kidnapping this week and the district attorney says he is working to gather evidence to charge a third.

Both charged players deny any wrongdoing.

The events of the past few weeks have strained community relations and racial overtones and national media attention have focused a bright light on the university.

“This place is pretty transparent and pretty convinced that reaching out and saying all that we can is a better way to do it,” says Vaughn.  “A big part of the problem is that we don’t know what happened.  We’re waiting for the Durham police to finish their investigation.”

While some donors have reduced or cancelled their commitments, Vaughn says, there has been “no quantifiable influence so far.”

And while the development office has several major gifts underway, he says he is unaware of any that are being held up by the scandal.

The school is in the final stretch of its annual fund campaign and has raised more than $19 million of its $23.8 million goal and is ahead of last year’s pace, Vaughn says.

The university is also raising $300 million in endowment dollars for financial aid, and is halfway to its goal.

Fundraising consultants who have worked with Duke do not expect a long-term negative impact from the scandal.

“What Duke has done very well is to communicate with constituents to let them know what they’re doing,” says Carol O’Brien, president of Carol O’Brien Associates, which is currently working with Duke, although not on the response to the lacrosse scandal.

“They did not shut down,” she says.  “As they began to understand what was going on, they moved quickly to communicate.”

O’Brien expects a “very small number” of donors to pull their donations, she says, but believes most constituents will remain supportive.

David Ross, president of Ross Johnston & Kersting, a fundraising consultancy located in Chapel Hill, agrees.

“I don’t see any long-term impact because of the way they’ve handled their various programs and the way the president has dealt with this,” he says.

Ross says the lacrosse team is not representative of all athletic teams at Duke, a concept he believes alumni and parents understand.

Vaughn says the university has seen “an enormous amount of alumni interest and opinion,” and he considers a concerned alumni base as one that cares about the university.

He says he expects the university to share with alumni and parents the findings of the five committees established by Broadhead, some of which are scheduled to deliver reports in May.

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