On October 27, the University of Kentucky, along with donors and community partners, celebrated the achievement of the $2.1 billion goal for Kentucky Can: The 21st Century Campaign — the largest fundraising campaign in the Commonwealth’s history.
The comprehensive campaign focused on raising support to fuel all parts of the institution’s mission: education, research, service and care.
Since the launch of Kentucky Can in 2018, the university has created opportunities for students through scholarships, conducted world-class research to address the state’s most challenging issues and helped build healthier communities across the Commonwealth.
“When we embarked on this campaign, we recognized with both humility and fortitude that these efforts would help write the next chapter for this university and the communities it uplifts,” said UK President Eli Capilouto. “That is our north star — to advance Kentucky. This campaign fuels those efforts; it always has been about empowering the incredible talent and impassioned hearts on our campus, so determined and equipped to build a better future for the Commonwealth.”
Although the campaign reached its conclusion, the work is only beginning.
“This campaign demonstrated the grace, grit and vision that define this community,” said Jake Lemon, UK’s vice president for philanthropy and alumni engagement. “That same unwavering commitment to advancing Kentucky will fuel our next chapter, as we have more lives to touch and more communities to serve. This is only the beginning.”
It is a beginning that has garnered widespread participation and engagement.
More than 162,500 unique donors contributed to Kentucky Can. This number includes nearly 71,000 UK alumni (including nearly 22,000 new alumni) and represents supporters from all 120 Kentucky counties, all 50 states and 50 countries from around the globe. More than half of these supporters made their first gift to UK during the last five years of the public campaign.
Support from these donors can be seen across campus, impacting every student, faculty and staff member, as well as the Kentucky communities the university serves.
The impact is especially evident in the following three areas:
Student access and success
One of the campaign’s most significant impacts has been increasing student access to higher education and cultivating Kentucky’s best and brightest minds. More than 53,500 donors contributed to student support as part of Kentucky Can, giving more than $495 million to support students with financial needs.
By providing scholarships to students who need them most, the university has been able to recruit, retain and graduate more students. This includes first-generation college students — the first in their families to attend and graduate college — who account for 25 percent of all UK students. More than $26.9 million in donor funds were awarded to first-generation students during the entirety of the campaign.
The university also launched UK LEADS — a nationally-recognized program — to reduce unmet financial need by using data-informed analytics to better understand the impact of financial need on student success. In all, more than $24.5 million has been raised by donors to support the LEADS program, with more than 1,500 LEADS scholarships awarded to students.
With the support of these scholarships and programs made possible through Kentucky Can, UK, for the first time in its history, marked a six-year graduation rate of 70 percent this fall, placing the institution among the top 20 percent of universities in the country.
“We often describe our success in numbers,” Capilouto said. “But it is important to remember that those numbers represent lives — lives that have been transformed by the attainment of a college degree. They are lives that build up the workforce Kentucky so desperately needs. They are our brothers and sisters who will use their education to serve communities across our Commonwealth.”
Stability and prestige
UK continues to attract and retain the finest faculty and establish state-of-the-art facilities and programs, enhancing the university’s academic standing and overall campus experiences.
Kentucky Can raised more than $559 million to support faculty endowments and academic programs, which are critical to students’ experiences while earning their degrees.
Additionally, the campaign was designed to inspire collaboration among academic colleges and disciplines. This transdisciplinary approach to education, research and service is central to both the campaign and the university’s mission of advancing Kentucky. This is evident through UK’s health care enterprise, where UK’s world-class faculty and researchers are helping treat more patients, ensuring clinical excellence and providing advanced, sub-specialty care to the Commonwealth.
More than $4 billion has also been invested in infrastructure across the campus — including more than 8 million square feet of new and renovated construction. Philanthropic support has significantly helped UK in taking creative approaches to make these infrastructure improvements over the last several years, holding down costs and increasing access.
These investments — made both in the physical transformation of campus and in endowments for named colleges, departments and professorships (including the historic gifts to the Martin-Gatton College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the Stanley and Karen Pigman College of Engineering) — further drive UK in attracting, retaining and graduating more students.
And it’s just the beginning. With state and community support, UK is planning for the construction of even more facilities, including a $380 million Health Education Building, announced today, which is scheduled to be completed in 2027.
These investments continue to set the foundation for UK’s students, faculty and staff to achieve greatly.
Innovation and impact
Research at UK has incredible momentum. In fiscal year 2023, grant and contract awards totaled $479.3 million — a record high. By fostering innovation and advancing interdisciplinary research, UK faculty, staff, providers and even students are rendering world-class care and developing solutions to improve the lives of all Kentuckians. Kentucky Can has played a critical role in supporting UK’s research mission, from health care to industry and workforce development. By endowing chairs and professorships, philanthropic donors are helping UK attract and retain top researchers who are contributing to fields that matter most to Kentucky, represented in UK’s eight Research Priority Areas — cancer; cardiovascular diseases; diabetes and obesity; equity; energy; materials science; neuroscience; and substance use disorders.
For example, philanthropy is vital to UK’s Markey Cancer Center, as donors were key players in the center’s 10-year effort to achieve Comprehensive Cancer Center status, the National Cancer Institute’s top designation.
At the UK Sanders-Brown Center on Aging, philanthropic gifts enabled the center to expand their capabilities with a multi-photon microscope, allowing researchers to see nuances of how the brain functions, offering new insights into devastating diseases like Alzheimer’s. Sanders-Brown was then able to leverage this gift to attract more than $35 million in grant money from the National Institutes for Health — a huge return on an investment.
Support for UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research has given undergraduate researchers a distinctive opportunity to explore their own research ideas and receive entrepreneurial mentorship through the Lee T. Todd, Jr. Student Innovation Scholarship.
The first student to receive this scholarship, Lucas Bertucci, not only had the chance to conduct groundbreaking research, but helped launch a new Kentucky company, Verdant Beneficiated Resources, which is working to recycle solar panels. Verdant is hoping to build a new industry here in Kentucky and employ a new generation of Kentuckians.
And the new James B. Beam Institute is educating the next generation of distillers, providing hands-on training and research in a variety of fields, including marketing, horticulture, hospitality, law, science, engineering, creative writing and business. The institute's cooperation across disciplines, with faculty and philanthropic support, allows it to be a one-stop shop for a Kentucky industry seeking both UK talent and sustainable solutions.
Just The Beginning
At the beginning of a new chapter, Lemon invites the UK community to envision, together, what the next chapter may entail.
“There is a great deal of power in the question, ‘what’s next?’” Lemon said. “Imagine the impact of continuing our trajectory of scholarship support. After all, Kentucky is welcoming incredible economic opportunity and billions in investments. But to continue that pipeline of opportunity, our state must significantly increase its skilled and educated workforce. Imagine how many lives can be changed by equipping the next generation with financial literacy and a head start on investing in their own futures, through programs like ‘UK Invests.’ Imagine the difference we can make in the health outcomes of our citizens if we continue leading the way in training more new medical professionals and in providing advanced subspecialty care that offers healing and hope. Imagine the solutions we can develop by further investing in our researchers who are on the cutting-edge of discovery. Our friends and partners are committed to helping us build this future for Kentucky.”
Lemon, who became vice president for philanthropy and alumni engagement in May 2023, will lead the institution’s efforts in developing this next chapter, in alignment with the university’s strategic plan.
“I invite everyone — with bold aspirations and steadfast belief in the power of this place — to join me in asking ourselves one question, 'what’s next?”
For more information about Kentucky Can and UK Philanthropy visit https://kentuckycan.uky.edu/your-gifts-at-work/kentucky-can.