School group's reason for Palin speech: It needs the money

McClatchy NewspapersApril 2, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Tax records show that the California college foundation now drawing fire for paying Sarah Palin an undisclosed sum to speak at Stanislaus State University has been facing leaner times.

Overall collections by the California State University Stanislaus Foundation fell by more than half over the past decade, those records show. Fewer contributions, in turn, crimp the foundation's ability to help students and the Turlock-based university.

In fiscal 2001, the foundation reported collecting $8.9 million in gifts, grants and contributions. By 2004, that jumped to $10.3 million. But over the next several years, the foundation's fundraising slid, hitting about $4 million in 2008.

Between 2006 and mid-2008, meanwhile, the foundation also reported to the Internal Revenue Service that spending on scholarships and related services fell 40 percent.

Now, the non-profit foundation hopes to regain momentum with Palin's June 25 appearance. The former Alaska governor and one-time vice presidential candidate is the featured guest at the university's 50th anniversary gala.

"We are proud and honored to welcome such a well-known figure to the CSU Stanislaus campus," foundation president Matt Swanson said last month when Palin's appearance was announced.

Palin's high-profile reputation has already paid off in some ways. One university official said Friday that the $500-a-head event in the school's 300-seat cafeteria was sold out but that names were being taken for a waiting list; university spokeswoman Eve Hightower later indicated the event wasn't sold out.

The black-tie dinner and dance is certainly swankier than past foundation fundraisers, like a big crab feed held several years ago. Not all buzz, though, is positive. Some, in particular, question the speaking fees Palin has commanded since she quit her job as Alaska governor 18 months before her term expired.

Because the Stanislaus State foundation is technically distinct from the public university, it need not reveal Palin's speaking fee. But according to an unrelated lawsuit filed in Tennessee's Williamson County, Palin earned $100,000 when she spoke at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville in February.

The lawsuit was filed in late March by a businessman who helped put up the deposit for Palin's speech.

Asked Friday about Palin and the foundation, a university spokeswoman confined herself to a previously released statement and declined further comment.

"(Our) event is self-funded," Swanson stressed in the prepared statement. "All funds used have been given for the purpose of putting on this event in order to raise money to benefit university programs and student services."

As one retort, a Facebook page titled "Sarah Palin, Terrible Choice for 50th Anniversary of CSU Stanislaus," had 2,562 members as of Friday.

For foundation officials, the controversy could be a price worth paying if it boosts their non-profit coffers. Documents filed annually with the IRS, called Form 990s, show how those coffers have fared.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2008, the foundation reported spending $2.9 million on program services. This included $968,000 in scholarships and $2 million for other student assistance and campus activities.

In 2007, the foundation reported spending $3.1 million on program services. During 2006, the foundation spent $5 million on program services.

Former foundation board member Gary Conover, a lobbyist with Western United Dairymen, said Friday he didn't know why funding shrunk, though he noted it coincided with "a change in leadership" at the university. Stanislaus State President Hamid Shirvani took office in 2005.

"When the new president came in, he instituted a new policy for membership on the foundation board," Conover said. In the aftermath, more than half of the board members quit.

During the same period, some other educational foundations have enjoyed greater success.

Gifts, grants and contributions to the California State University Fresno Foundation, for instance, have consistently surpassed $28 million over the past decade, tax records show. The smaller Chico State University Foundation funding has likewise remained relatively steady over the decade.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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