‘Lead the Way’ fundraising campaign total surpasses $60 million goal

Balloons fall from the ceiling of the Ramsey Center as the final tally of $61,883,018 raised during the “Lead the Way” campaign is revealed.

David Belcher would be proud. Thanks to more than 12,000 donors — nearly half of those first-time donors — the Western Carolina University family helped the beloved late chancellor meet his pledge of raising millions of dollars in scholarship support to help WCU students pay for their education.

The total amount raised: $61,883,018 in cash, pledges, grants and planned gifts from 12,368 donors. The final tally was announced today (Thursday, May 2) during a community celebration at WCU’s Liston B. Ramsey Regional Activity Center, the site of Belcher’s installation ceremony in 2012 and where he pledged to make increasing student scholarships a priority of his administration. “Lead the Way: A Campaign Inspired by the Belcher Years” kicked off on July 1, 2014, and ended April 15, 2019 – more than two years ahead of its original timeline and $11.8 million more than its initial goal.

“If David were here, no one would be more proud than he at this moment of stupendous achievement,” Susan Belcher, wife of the former chancellor, told those in attendance. “In 2012, David said at his installation address that Western’s No. 1 philanthropic priority will be raising funds for endowed scholarships to make a university education accessible for capable students in perpetuity. In 2017, David said that students are our reason for being. They are our job. They are our success stories. They are a testament to the power of higher education to change lives. This is what makes our support and gifts worthwhile.”

Belcher died June 17, 2018, after a nearly two-year battle with brain cancer.

Lori Lewis, vice chancellor of advancement, said the success of the comprehensive campaign — only the second in WCU’s history — was an historic event that was more than four years in the making. “History is rarely made alone. There are those who inspire, who help ‘Lead the Way,’” Lewis said. “Each gift counted. Each gift mattered.  Each gift was an investment in the future.”

The final campaign total was revealed by WCU students, one number at a time, with the assistance of Chancellor’s Ambassador students, a representative of the Student Alumni Association, Paws the Catamount mascot, Purple Thunder drumline, Catamount Singers and Electric Soul, and members of the cheer and dance teams.

Here are the numbers:

  • Total amount raised during the campaign — $61,883,018
  • Total number of donors during the campaign — 12,368
  • Number of first-time donors — 5,732 or 46 percent
  • Total number of gifts — 51,787
  • Number of endowed scholarships — 176
  • Number of annual scholarship – 24
  • Funds raised for endowed scholarships — $38,157,726
  • Funds raised for annual scholarships — $4,678,206

Dale and Debbie Sims, members of the “Lead the Way” campaign steering committee and co-emcees for the celebration event, tag-teamed to “do the math,” announcing that the campaign resulted in the creation of 200 new scholarships since the official start in July 2014, with a total amount of $42,835,932 raised for scholarships over the past four-and-a-half years.

“Originally, this campaign wasn’t even supposed to be finished until December 2021, and the original goal was $50 million. Last January, we raised it to $60 million,” Dale Sims said.

“Of course, that’s just what Catamounts do,” Debbie Sims said. “We over-achieve. We go the extra mile. I’m not surprised at all that we’re finishing ahead of schedule and above the goal.”

WCU Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar read a message sent by Donna Winbon, who served as chair of the campaign steering committee but was unable to attend the Thursday event.

“The team who made it happen exemplifies the energy, the excitement and the focus that Dr. Belcher ignited in us all,” Winbon wrote. “WCU is changing lives. With the results of this campaign, not only did we blow by the goal but, most important, we set the stage for years to come. As we celebrate today, let’s look forward to the future, when WCU will change many more lives.”

Morrison-Shetlar, who will be returning to her role as provost when Chancellor-elect Kelli R. Brown takes over on July 1, encouraged attendees to share photos in front of a “Lead the Way” backdrop on display at the event through social media using #catsleadtheway.

“To think, we finished our campaign more than two-and-a-half years ahead of the original schedule, and we blew far past the original goal of $50 million. Because that’s just how we do things in The Whee,” she said. “As I conclude my time at the helm of our university, I leave you with this challenge: Keep it up. Don’t stop. Keep the momentum going. Climb higher mountains. Lead the way.”

Representing scholarship recipients, Claire Lemke, who received the Susan Brummell Belcher Scholarship while an undergraduate student and is now studying toward a master’s degree, thanked all those who have made contributions during the campaign.

“To those who have given to students like me, please know that, while your gift may come in the form of financial support, you are also providing positive affirmation,” Lemke said. “Your confidence in us gives us the confidence within ourselves to succeed.”