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The Forward in Faith Campaign

March 22, 2021 - 13 minute read


BMC at night

Concordia University Irvine has completed a comprehensive fundraising campaign, raising over $100 million for student scholarships, campus improvements, athletics, the endowment, and academic program support of all kinds. It represents a major milestone in the University’s history — and an achievement which defied most expectations.

“It was an ambitious comprehensive campaign with a goal that many thought was impossible,” says past president, Dr. Kurt Krueger, who helped initiate — and name — the campaign. “When we stepped out in faith, we knew the Lord would provide.”

Eight years ago, CUI’s leadership began discussing the possibility of a fundraising effort that would encompass numerous significant goals. Tim Jaeger, Vice President of Advancement, Marketing and Communications, has served on the advancement team he now leads for 22 years. Jaeger had the foresight — or perhaps the temerity — to propose a figure most people in that meeting found eye-popping.

“When the $85 million number was proposed, people thought we were crazy,” Jaeger recalls. “The number seemed so astronomical, so big, and it was unprecedented. We are a relatively young university. This far surpassed anything we had ever attempted.”

But the Advancement team had arrived at that goal with much forethought, and the broader leadership team acknowledged that CUI did indeed enjoys a growing base of committed supporters who were coming of age in their own careers. The $85 million certainly was a significant stretch — but was not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

“We were ready to step out in faith and do something significant, and we felt we had donors and board members who were ready to come alongside us and reach beyond what we would normally consider,” Jaeger says. 

With more hope than certainty, the team set the goal. With that, CUI embarked on a fundraising effort which far exceeded anything the institution had ever attempted. “It was a goal that would put us in a new league with larger private and public universities,” says president, Dr. Michael Thomas. 

Sophia Flores

Sophia Flores

That is, if it could be achieved.

Doubling Down On Mission

In its first step toward the goal, CUI zigged where other universities might have zagged. 

The “safe” step would have been to immediately construct a science building, which is where much emphasis in higher education is right now. But instead, CUI’s leaders and donors decided to invest in a grand flagship building which would anchor the campus both spiritually and physically in theology and music — the very foundations of a Lutheran education. Among the many people impressed by this choice was the then-prospective president, Dr. Michael Thomas.

“I thought, ‘Who does that?’” recalls Thomas. “President Krueger, the cabinet, regents and trustees did something other universities wouldn’t normally do: they doubled down on Concordia’s identity — its mission, vision, and values — and built a theology and music building full of classrooms, practice rooms, and an industry-level recording studio. Other universities might have built an engineering or science building (and we’re going to do that at Concordia Irvine!). But the Lord used people who believe in the mission, vision, and values of this University and prompted their hearts to erect a building which showcases and lifts up Christ College within the University. It says something that the most gorgeous building on our campus is dedicated to music and theology.” 

While CUI is moving deliberately into the expanding fields of science — launching an Engineering major this fall and a Computer Science degree two years ago — emphasizing music and theology first in a large fundraising campaign made a statement. Rev. Dr. Steve Mueller ’86, the Chief Mission Officer and Dean of Christ College, says the emphasis was well-placed, given Concordia’s unique position in the education marketplace. 

“Students, faculty, and supporters come to Concordia for the culture and because we stand for something,” Mueller says. “They are not just looking for a certain degree or a pretty campus, but for a specific kind of environment. This is a campus that understands its mission and has been steadfast. We are a Christian university, dedicated to the Great Commission, and we welcome any student who will engage with us. We are true to who we are, which includes being hospitable, loving and merciful.” 

Mueller has been a member of the CUI campus community for 30 years, first as an undergraduate student, then 26 years on faculty. At a time when society is increasingly fragmented and polarized, Concordia offers a principled, unifying, and welcoming atmosphere, he says. 

“It’s different here,” Mueller says. “There’s a culture of care. Each person matters and the Gospel is at the heart of it. We offer a better way forward. The more time people spend on campus, the more they see how true that is.” 

Still, it was a move that put Concordia Irvine in a distinct — and perhaps distinctive — place within higher education when most universities were prioritizing popular majors that would seem to ensure greater financial stability. 

For Concordia, it was a step of faith from a sure foundation.

Ghazal-Pakbaten

Ghazal Pakbaten

Overcoming Hurdles

The entire campaign was predicated on faith, and would require faithful giving to come anywhere near its goal. Forward in Faith sought to impact the campus comprehensively in five main areas: 

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was simply the age of the school. Concordia Irvine is a relatively young institution, with an alumni base of just 23,000 people. The vast majority of its undergraduate alumni are under the age of 30 and just entering their personal and professional prime. 

But Jaeger and others in the leadership and advancement teams sensed that “we had the beginnings of a new kind of giving culture.” “We had a community of volunteers and a growing number of opportunities for involvement. There were donors who were ready to step forward and do some significant things. That was foundational to moving us forward.” 

The basic goal of the campaign, which they kept always before them, was to benefit all students as much as possible. This included scholarships, new buildings and facilities, program enhancements, and more. The campus community responded with enthusiasm and support, and what commenced in 2014 was a tremendous all-hands-on-deck effort from teams across campus. 

“Deans and faculty members wrote grants. The music department and theater department were always there to support donor events. Everybody was all in,” Jaeger says. “A campaign like this takes a university, and the different members of our community partnered well together. We began to achieve our goals because of those partnerships.” 

Within the first few years, during which the Forward in Faith campaign remained in its “silent phase,” it became clear that it was attracting support across a wider-than-anticipated spectrum, from those writing ten-dollar checks to those giving millions, from longtime friends to brand-new donors. The ambitious goal began to seem attainable.

A Major Statement

Joe Navarro

Joe Navarro

Soon, the building to house music and theology — dubbed the Borland-Manske Center — began to rise up from the soil beside the CU Center. The massively impressive structure seemed to symbolize the rising strength of the University and the growing success of the campaign. 

“The Borland-Manske Center is beautiful, functional, and a great gift to the campus as a whole,” says Mueller. “It provided a new and exciting hub for theology, church vocations, and abbey west campus ministry. Its classrooms are used by students of all majors. As it came into being, it was a practical and profound fulfillment of Concordia’s mission and ministry.” 

Meanwhile, the campaign was firing on all cylinders as people stepped forward to demonstrate “amazing generosity,” Mueller says. 

“It was just stunning to see what God was doing, and the huge step forward this was going to be for Concordia Irvine,” he says. “God was clearly at work through a bunch of people with a big vision.” 

That was reflected not least in the growth of the endowment which, because of far-sighted donors, swelled nearly threefold from $14 million to $44 million in just a few years. This immediately began empowering scholarships of all kinds and putting CUI at a new level of long-term strength, not just financially but in its ability to attract top students and athletes. 

“I can put faces on that,” Mueller says. “I began to see that money at work, in students I’m not sure would have been at Concordia without the scholarships that are funded by endowments from the Forward in Faith campaign.” 

Not only that, but the Borland-Manske Center, a $30 million structure, was completed in 2019 without any long-term debt. 

“To be in higher education and to build a building with no debt — it’s really remarkable,” says Jaeger.

Final Results

In January 2020, Forward in Faith quietly passed its original goal — the one which some probably considered wishful thinking early on. Then, during a highly unusual, pandemic-ravaged year, the campaign’s momentum carried forward, resulting in a grand total of $100,057,784.05 given by donors in various ways and for various causes — right down to the nickel. 

“The numbers speak to tremendous donor loyalty and people believing in our mission,” Jaeger says. “The Concordia family is coming together to achieve great things, and the impact is really on students and generations to come.” 

For Dr. Thomas, one number in particular is very special: 10,000. 

“For me, it’s the more than 10,000 individual donors that is really amazing,” he says, referring to the number of individuals and/or families who supported Forward in Faith. “It means we have such broad-based support and groups of people giving everything from $5 to $10 to the larger donations. You don’t get to $100 million with 10,000 individual donors without a lot of buy-in. Ten thousand people have bought in to the mission and values of this place, and were willing to put their money behind it.” 

Over half of those 10,000 donors were first time givers to Concordia Irvine. Seven families made million-dollar-plus gifts. More than 30 new endowments were established through Forward in Faith. More than 130 individuals or families put Concordia in their estate plans.

Those statistics describe an energized and confident community, coming together to support an unprecedented effort to move into a new era of Lutheran education.

Students, The True Winners

For students, the benefit was immediate. 

“To open our doors to students who have financial need, we have to be able to supply them with scholarships so they can access an undergraduate residential campus,” Thomas says. “Scholarships make that possible. A robust, permanent endowment spins off a certain amount of proceeds annually; therefore we can in perpetuity award that money as scholarships to students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.” 

Alec Leissring, an English major graduating this May, was able to attend CUI specifically because of an endowed scholarship. 

Alec has served in student leadership as men’s ministry coordinator for men’s campus ministry. “I’m thankful for people’s generosity.”

Joseph Navarro, who manages a job skills program in Los Angeles County, earned his Master's Degree in Education in School Counseling from CUI. A scholarship enabled him to enroll in the EdD program just last year. Navarro is an experienced leader in counseling and works with at-risk young men and women. 

Alec Leissring

Alec Leissring

As a first-generation college student, Navarro is rewriting his family legacy by escaping the poverty and crime so prevalent in the East L.A. area where he grew up. Now, he has created and led intervention programs, started an education-related business, and teaches parenting classes in addition to managing the job program. CUI’s doctorate program has introduced him to concepts he uses at his job every day, managing his staff, creating policies, and planning strategically, he says. 

“I’m a total advocate,” he says. “I have dedicated my life to mentoring young men and women.” 

Ghazal Pakbaten came to CUI four years ago from Iran on a tennis scholarship and was named Freshman of the Year for the entire PacWest conference, ranking #9 in the nation for NCAA Division 2. She will graduate this May with a degree in business

“I have grown so much since moving to the U.S. as a scared 18-year-old,” she says. “From the beginning there has been such support for me. The people at University Services, where I work, are like parents to me, helping me through everything. My teammates and coach were so welcoming. They made it easy for me to get used to the new culture. Concordia has high-quality people, I think because it’s a Christian school. People are faithful and help each other.” 

Another scholarship recipient, Sophia Flores, a music major from Sacramento, says she has never experienced such a loving and Christ-like community as at CUI. 

“As a music student, I considered attending universities with larger programs, but as soon as I toured CUI, I immediately knew that the music faculty would continuously give me new opportunities and challenges to best prepare me for my future as a music teacher,” she says. “The best part of my experience has been the loving community of faculty and students. The encouragement I receive from my professors and peers has been crucial to my growth as a musician and keeping my musical experiences Christ-centered.” 

Sophia is convinced that “the remarkable level of musicianship is largely due to CUI being an intentional place for Christ-like love and community.”

A Brighter Future

As the University leadership reflects on what Forward in Faith accomplished, they also look toward the future the campaign has made possible. Dr. Thomas says the word that sums it up for him is “grateful.” 

“I’m grateful to the leaders that came before — Kurt Krueger and the team he assembled who built and nurtured the relationships it takes to bring in that kind of philanthropy,” Thomas says. “In the end, it’s not so much about the money but about carrying out our mission for students. It signals the strength and commitment of the community that supports this university so we can keep providing a top-notch Lutheran education to deserving students.” 

Jaeger says the campus community at CUI is profoundly grateful to all friends, donors and supporters, including the campaign cabinet, who made possible something which seemed impossible, and positioned the University for greater success going forward. 

“We’re still building strength from this,” he says. “More people are learning about Concordia and our mission, so we are bringing more people into the family. We’re taking the baton and running with it during our time. It’s about staying true to our mission, never wavering, and always loving and caring for our students, faculty, staff, donors and friends.”  

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