George Mason University, which could count on the local business community's largesse in more prosperous times, is delaying a major fund-raising campaign largely because the current economic downturn is affecting leading contributors.
Real estate developers in particular have been among the Fairfax school's biggest boosters, but many have hit upon bad times and could be hard pressed to make major contributions, according to business executives and university officials.
"A lot of our big helpers are having some problems of their own," said university spokesman Daniel Walsch.
Some other local nonprofit organizations that rely heavily on the real estate industry also are feeling the pinch.
"People in the real estate industry have been among the major givers to all the institutions in Washington . . . and a number of them are just in no position now to make major commitments," said Michael J. Worth, vice president for development and alumni affairs at George Washington University. "We certainly are feeling the effects of it. I'm anticipating we'll have a real downturn."
However, fund-raising problems may be confined to those charitable organizations that have depended on hard-hit industries for the bulk of their revenue. Despite anxiety over the general state of the economy, other charities and nonprofit groups in the Washington area say they do not believe they will see a decrease in contributions.
WETA-FM radio, for example, had its best fall fund-raiser ever this year. "We were really wondering what would happen, and we're pleased as punch," said spokeswoman Mary Stewart, speaking over the jangle of ringing telephones during the public radio station's annual fall fund-raising campaign, which ended last night. By midafternoon, WETA had raised $370,000, more than last year's record $335,000. Stewart projected the total would reach $400,000.
The United Way for the National Capital Area reports that this year's fund-raising campaign, which began on Sept. 7, is running ahead of last year's and has set goals of significant increases in all local jurisdictions.
At Children's Hospital, this year's fund-raising goal is $10.75 million, a modest increase from last year's record $10.23 million in contributions.
"So far, we are doing very well," said Gary Deverman, assistant vice president for development. At the same time, the hospital is reassessing its fund-raising strategy in light of the problems in the real estate industry and will target sectors that have not been as affected by the downturn, he said.
Historically, philanthropic giving across the country generally stays at about 2 percent of the gross national product, according to experts in charities.
"I'm basically optimistic," said Nathan Weber, vice president for public affairs at the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, which chronicles charitable giving. "I think philanthropic giving will increase, but in hard economic times, I don't know if it will increase that much."
Those who traditionally looked to the real estate industry, however, must change their plans.
For about a year, George Mason officials and a steering committee of business leaders have been preparing to launch the school's first endowment drive. They tentatively had discussed raising $100 million by the end of the decade.
Now, planning is being extended through at least another year. It is unclear when George Mason will formally kick off the campaign, although it is still expected to happen by the end of the decade, according to Northern Virginia real estate developer John T. "Til" Hazel Jr., chairman of the steering committee.
"We've got two basic types of money" to solicit in Northern Virginia, Hazel said. "We have real estate money, and we have defense and government contracting money. Both of those areas are in, shall we say, uncertainty at the moment."
The delay comes as George Mason and Virginia's other state universities are being forced to make sharp budget cuts. Last month, George Mason President George Johnson announced that the school will have to eliminate 115 positions, cancel faculty salary increases and possibly reduce admissions to curtail spending by 11 percent.
The school had been looking to the members of the capital campaign steering committee to lead the fund drive with major contributions of their own. The members include Giuseppe Cecchi, president of International Developers Inc.; Myron P. Erkiletian, president of Erkiletian Construction Corp.; Henry A. Long, developer of the Westfields business park in Fairfax and a founder of Long & Foster Realtors; Robert C. Kettler, president of Kettler & Scott Inc.; and Dwight C. Schar, chairman of NVR L.P., the area's biggest home builder.
Kettler & Scott recently lost control of Cascades, a huge planned community in Loudoun County, to Chevy Chase Savings Bank after missing interest payments. Schar's company has been reporting heavy losses this year.
Many area developers and other business leaders have adopted George Mason as a favorite philanthropy, assuming the role alumni play at older institutions. They have viewed George Mason as a plus for the Northern Virginia economy.
At George Washington, people making new pledges of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more are asking to defer the initial payments and spread the contributions over longer periods, Worth said.Staff writer D'Vera Cohn contributed to this report.