Redbirds Rising: The Campaign for Illinois State succeeded in elevating the University, transforming support for its already lofty educational standards into life-changing opportunities. 

The comprehensive fundraising initiative began as a quiet phase in 2013 with a bold dream of gaining $150 million in private financial support. When the campaign was announced publicly in 2017, more than $100 million had already been raised. By the time of its conclusion on June 30, donors had far exceeded the goal by contributing $180.9 million.

During the campaign’s seven years, the image of a soaring Redbird with outstretched wings spread across campus and publications. The visual came to represent the University’s collective aspiration to enhance scholarship, leadership, and innovation throughout all six colleges, Athletics, Student Affairs, Milner Library, and public radio station WGLT.

“The trajectory of Redbirds Rising echoes that of Illinois State. We’ve gone from a small school on the prairie to a leader in higher education,” said ISU President Larry Dietz. He credits donors for their commitment to the University as he reflects on the successful campaign. “When we set our sights on advancing the University’s mission together, we can create lasting change.”

The statement is supported by the fact ISU’s most ambitious fundraising campaign in the University’s 163-year history was met with enthusiasm by 56,143 supporters. Of that total, 27,254 were first-time donors and 30,554 were alumni. 

Alumna Wonsook Kim participated in a campus celebration of a $12 million gift she and her husband, Thomas Clement, made during Redbirds Rising.
Alumna Wonsook Kim participated in a campus celebration of a $12 million gift she and her husband, Thomas Clement, made during Redbirds Rising.

The unifying effort benefited from 27 pacesetting gifts of $1 million or more, while 26 percent of the campaign’s total came from gifts of less than $25,000. More than 1,500 corporate partners cast a combined $27.9 million vote of confidence in Illinois State’s ability to graduate the next generation of leaders. 

Individuals invested more than $70 million in direct benefit of Illinois State’s students, rightfully believing in their generosity’s potential to change students’ lives. Among those donors is Chris Marks ’95, who created the Jared Iman Washington Memorial Scholarship in 2019 in memory of his friend, fraternity brother, and former educator Jared Washington ’95, M.S. ’99. 

Washington died in December 2018 at the age of 47. Genesis Robinson, a senior and secondary English education major, was the award’s first recipient. “The scholarship gave me the opportunity to continue my education with a strong support system,” said Robinson, noting the financial assistance alleviated stress in her single-parent household.

Robinson is just one of 2,351 students awarded a total of more than $3.3 million in scholarship support from the campaign during fiscal year 2020 alone. The final year of the campaign—though faced with its own unique challenges due to the coronavirus—saw more than $24.3 million raised. A record was set that same year as the University received $19 million in cash receipts. 

More than $12 million was garnered during the campaign to support the teaching, research, and mentoring of students at Illinois State. Faculty and staff responded with their own commitment to the University, creating scholarships, faculty awards, and other investments that included a $1 million
gift from Dr. Carson Varner and his wife, Professor Emerita Iris Varner.

Their significant investment is the largest faculty gift in ISU history. The funds facilitated the creation of the Carson and Iris Varner International Business Institute in the State Farm Hall of Business. 

Redbirds Rising at a glance

million total


first-time donors

alumni donors

27 gifts
of 1 million or more

corporate partners

26% of total came from gifts of less than $25,000

The institute is just one example of how the campaign has impacted the campus and will continue to bring positive change far into the future, from increased student and faculty support to improved learning space and innovative initiatives that will guarantee graduates a competitive advantage. 

Donors’ investment in Illinois State will grow through the more than 200 endowments created during the campaign. Nearly 100 new planned gifts will bolster the University’s future financial position as well. 

“Redbirds Rising has proven Illinois State’s value and excellence,” said University Advancement Vice President Pat Vickerman. “The success of Redbirds Rising invites us all to think boldly and imagine what is next for ISU.”

For Redbird donors, students, faculty, staff, and friends, Redbirds Rising is ultimately a testament to the power of collective action toward a greater good. The campaign’s success proves the sky is the limit for Redbirds when they are empowered to soar. 

To learn more about Redbirds Rising, go to

Redbirds Rising Timeline

July 2013

The campaign’s quiet phase begins with a goal of raising $150 million. The University’s only other campaign, Redefining “normal,” raised $96 million from 1999 to 2005. 

August 2013

Gary Gemberling ’63 makes a visionary planned gift commitment to support faculty, students, and programs within the College of Business. He adds to his commitment in June 2017. 

August 2014

James ’74 and Carol Mounier ’75 support Redbird Athletes with an eight-figure gift commitment to the James and Carole Mounier Golf Scholarship, Weisbecker Scholarship Fund, and Athletics Facilities General Fund.

April 2015

U-High 1963 graduate Clyde Coombs makes a seven-figure bequest commitment to fund the Clyde B. Coombs Endowment Fund for U-High students needing financial assistance.

May 2017

$3 million from State Farm Insurance Companies advances new cybersecurity program.

June 2017

The University celebrates its third consecutive year surpassing $21 million in funds raised, building on an increasing philanthropic momentum.

September 2017

Public phase begins with $103 million raised. 

April 2018

A generous gift from the estate of long-time Mennonite College of Nursing supporter and nurse Margaret Randolph helps fund development of a cultural exchange program. Nine seniors experience professional nursing abroad in May 2019 with trip to Panama City, Panama.

June 2018

Endowment grows to $126.3 million, up from $78.2 million when the campaign began.

September 2018

45,000 campaign donors.

February 2019

A new fundraising initiative, Birds Give Back, raises $625,495 through 1,734 gifts and celebrates Illinois State’s growing philanthropic community. 

February 2019

President Larry Dietz challenges faculty, staff, and retirees to reach a goal of 1,857 donors from the campus community during the campaign’s last two years. The goal is exceeded in November 2019. 

April 2019 

Artist and alumna Wonsook Kim ’75, M.A. ’76, M.F.A. ’78, honorary doctorate of arts ’19; and her husband, Thomas Clement, make a $12 million gift in support of the College of Fine Arts and School of Arts.

June 2019

$150 million goal surpassed, 13 months before campaign concludes in June 2020.

June 2019

50,000 campaign donors from all 50 United States.

June 2019

Fiscal year contributions surpass $36 million for the second time in the previous four years, marking the fifth consecutive fiscal year of raising more than $21 million.

September 2019

During an on-campus celebration of donors Wonsook Kim and Thomas Clement, President Dietz announces the couple’s historic $12 million gift. In recognition of their generosity, the College of Fine Arts and School of Art will forever be known as the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts and Wonsook Kim School of Art.

March-July 2020

$118,706.45 donated to the Redbirds Response Fund in response to pandemic.

June 2020

Redbirds Rising becomes the most successful fundraising campaign in university history. 

June 2020

$148+ million in University’s endowment.

$180.9 million raised