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Forward Together raises $44 million in just under four months

Not much has gone right recently for the Ole Miss athletic department.

The Forward Together Campaign is an exception.

The campaign to raise money for new athletic facilities and to expand and improve existing ones kicked off Aug. 9. As of Nov. 1, it had raised $43.8 million of its overall $150 million goal.

That’s a striking contrast to the most important measuring stick for Southeastern Conference athletic departments — the football team.

A cloud that settled over the football program in September 2010 with an overtime loss to lower-division Jacksonville State has lingered. The Rebels are 2-6 (0-5 in the SEC) and have explored various methods of implosion. There were maulings administered by Vanderbilt and Alabama. There were opportunities blown against BYU, Auburn and Arkansas.

A group of folks called Forward Rebels have taken their discontent to the pages of daily newspapers, using full-page ads to promote wholesale changes within the athletic department. Fundraising in that environment is less than ideal. But by any measure, Forward Together’s first four months have been successful.

“I didn’t (expect to hit the $44 million mark by Nov. 1), and I obviously didn’t know when we started that our football season would go the way it has,” said Danny White, executive director of the UMAA Foundation, Ole Miss’ private fundraising arm that is spearheading Forward Together. “That even further amazes me on how successful it’s been.”

White attributes that to a couple things. The first is the funding model that allows for 80 percent of a Capital Gift Agreement to qualify as a tax deduction. A CGA acts as a traditional seat license, and would secure a donor’s seats in the new club level of Vaught-Hemingway’s south end zone or in one of the new suites. The expansion of the stadium’s south end zone is part of the campaign’s $50 million second phase, which also includes upgrades for the Gillom Center that serves several women’s sports. The $100 million first phase would fund a new basketball arena and renovations to existing parts of the football stadium.

“The CGA is like a gift toward priority seating,” White said. “We were looking at the professional model with a seat license, for a lot of reasons. From a funding standpoint, that gives us the reassurance as far as cash flow goes to deal with debt service when we’re talking about projects that are this size. Another thing, we wanted to give our fans the opportunity to have some ownership over their seats, and be able to transfer them and keep them in their family. A lot of donors in our premium areas have asked about that for a while.

“That’s kind of how we came up with the model,” White continued. “We changed it from a seat license to the CGA. It’s more than just changing the name. The structure is set up a little bit differently. It’s set up like a gift and as a pledge because we really wanted to protect tax deductibility for our donors.”

The next major deadline for the campaign is Jan. 6, when the eligibility for early reward premium seating related to the CGAs expires. Putting a timeline on the completion of the $150 million goal will be easier afterward, White said, because how much money is pledged on Jan. 6 will determine when UMAA actually starts to sell the seats. That’s when the $43.8 million that right now is only a pledge will start turning into cash on hand. “We have very strict rules on what we count,” White said. “We don’t book anything that’s not a signed commitment.”

What has also driven the early success of Forward Together is fan emotion, White said. “We can talk about funding models and other approaches, but the ultimate reason this thing has been so successful is Ole Miss donors and alumni are very generous and obviously very passionate about this athletic department.”

That passion has manifested itself, too, with Forward Rebels’ newspaper ads that for the most part have called for athletic director Pete Boone’s ouster. There is no phone number listed on Forward Rebels’ website. Multiple electronic messages seeking comment went unreturned last week.

“We hear about it all the time,” White said of the negative energy around the football program. “This is not a fun time for anybody that loves Ole Miss. There’s a reason the top programs win as consistently as they do. The schools that have the most money from an operating budget standpoint and raise the most money on an annual basis, they win the most. If we want to compete at that level, we have to continue to build our resource base.”

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