What is The Penn Fund?

Emily Kernan, executive director of The Penn Fund, discusses the mission of The Penn Fund and why donating is such a personally meaningful experience for many alumni.

Snowfall on Locust Walk with small Give Back sign on lawn

The season of giving is upon us. And with it, friendly gifts, kind gestures, and donations that together make the holidays the season of good cheer that it is. 

Here, in a Q&A with Penn Today, Executive Director of The Penn Fund Emily Kernan explains the role of The Penn Fund, which for 92 years has supported the undergraduate experience and helped make countless scholarships possible for incoming students. 

How is The Penn Fund distinct from other fundraising arms of the University?

The Penn Fund is the University’s premier undergraduate annual giving program. There are more than 20 annual funds across campus, and all are very important, but The Penn Fund is the place for undergraduate alumni to give unrestricted current-use dollars that benefit today’s students, or to support scholarships that are aiding undergraduates in the four [undergraduate] schools—Engineering, Nursing, the College, and Wharton.

Is that a key to [how the Penn Fund operates]? That it’s unrestricted?

Simply put, yes. The Penn Fund provides the University with unrestricted current-use dollars, like a traditional annual fund. This is really important because resources can be used wherever they are needed most across campus—in support of the undergraduate student experience. 

In addition to this important purpose, The Penn Fund is also made up of hundreds of endowed undergraduate scholarship funds created by individuals or families. These scholarship funds, when supporting undergraduate students, also count toward The Penn Fund, given the overarching goal of supporting the ability for any and all students to attend Penn.

When you say ‘student experience,’ what does that mean?

We highlight three different aspects: undergraduate financial aid, residential and campus life, and academic enhancement. The Penn Fund touches many areas across campus that support the overall student experience both inside and outside the classroom. Through support of undergraduate financial aid, gifts to The Penn Fund help provide an affordable education at the University. Through support of residential and campus life, gifts to The Penn Fund help foster connections within living spaces and through extracurricular activities. Through support of academic enhancement, gifts to The Penn Fund help create learning centers and update technology.

How is the outreach to young alumni going?

We continue to be excited and encouraged by support from Penn’s young alumni community—in every way. Young alumni participation toward The Penn Fund is consistently above 20%, which is quite impressive. Even though young alumni are regularly on the move, and this may sometimes present a communication challenge, we remain committed to targeted outreach and engagement. We also realize that it is especially important to young alumni to understand how gifts to The Penn Fund impact the University—and thus we aim to provide specifics around how resources are utilized. We partner with current students to share their stories about benefitting from alumni support to demonstrate this impact, as well.

In fact, new this academic year, we also aim to engage undergraduates prior to senior year to build an understanding of the impact of philanthropy at the University through an initiative called Penn It Forward. Programming is purely educational so that current students might learn about what The Penn Fund is, what it supports, and how it enhances their experience today. Seniors for the Penn Fund remains our comprehensive campaign through which the graduating class may choose to support our efforts in any given year. An awesome committee of Class of 2020 volunteers who are passionate about The Penn Fund and personally soliciting their peers are trying to reach ambitious goals for leadership giving and donor participation this year.

The Penn Fund raised about $40 million last year, which is great. How do you set new goals for the coming year?

First and foremost, we consider the University’s budgeting needs and strive to meet them. We also recognize that not every gift is repeatable in its exact amount. Overall, goals are set to be attainable but also to advance Penn’s mission. The Penn Fund’s goals in recent years also have been determined within the context of the University’s Power of Penn campaign through which there is a goal for comprehensive annual giving. In the current fiscal year, The Penn Fund aims to raise at least $38 million from 27,000 alumni donors.

When you hear people explain why they gave to The Penn Fund, what are some common threads?

The main reason we hear from donors regarding why they support The Penn Fund is that they are passionate about providing the opportunity for students of every background to attend the University. Giving to enhance undergraduate financial aid and scholarship support is very compelling—and often quite personal, too, as alumni may choose to give back in this way as they received financial aid themselves. Our lead volunteers, particularly The Penn Fund Executive Board, feel strongly about this compelling reason and the impact associated as well. 

Why might the holidays be a good time to give to The Penn Fund?

The act of giving is such a pure and important one during this time of year. Perhaps some donors think about students finishing the fall semester and recognize that their gifts continue to impact the undergraduate experience when they return to campus in the spring. Others may be motivated, with good reason, to receive a tax benefit when giving before Dec. 31. With any and all reasons in mind, The Penn Fund team is poised to assist those who contribute now and throughout the fiscal year. We remain grateful for gifts of every size, and committed to helping alumni support today’s students. We also are proud to support the University community’s mantra of ‘go, give, lead’, which serves as the call for and recognition of involvement in every meaningful way.