Donations of All Sizes and Types are Fueling Environmental Education and Discovery at the Nicholas School

November 22, 2013

By Laura Ertel, Writer

The Power of Philathropy: Donations of All Sizes and Types are Fueling Environmental Education and Discovery at the Nicholas School

DURHAM, NC -- These are exciting times at the Nicholas School of the Environment. Our academic programs are drawing some of the world’s nest students to prepare for leadership in environmental management, entrepreneurship, science and policy. Our alumni are making extraordinary contributions toward improving our world, and our faculty members are leading efforts to understand and address key issues in environmental and human health, climate change, energy, water and marine conservation. 

None of this would be possible with- out the philanthropic support of those who share our determination to forge a more sustainable future for all. 

“Whether directly or indirectly—every success at the Nicholas School results from the generous financial support from our alumni, friends and partners. While philanthropy always has played an important role in meeting our needs, in these challenging economic times, our reliance on private funds is absolutely critical,” says Dean William L. Chameides. “Our need, and our deep appreciation, cannot be overstated.” 

During the fiscal year that spanned 2012–2013, approximately 1,500 donors provided more than $10.5 million to make it possible for the school to bolster student financial aid, advance lead- ing edge environmental research, build facilities that enhance efforts in education and research, and provide students unparalleled learning experiences. These gifts fall into several categories: 

Annual Fund

The Annual Fund is the lifeblood of the Nicholas School, pooling gifts of all sizes to exponentially increase the power of each individual to make a meaningful difference. Annual Fund dollars provide flexibility and are available immediately, enabling school leaders to allocate funds in ways big and small to cover everything that goes into providing an unrivaled environmental education. 

Nicholas School Annual Fund contributors who are able to give at leader-ship levels are recognized as members of Blue Sky ($10,000+) and the Vanguard ($25,000+). And thanks to a generous matching gift challenge by a member of our Board of Visitors, the school was able to double all Annual Fund contributions up to $5,000 and provide a similar match to contributors at other participation levels, resulting in an even bigger impact. 


Endowments are long-term investments in the Nicholas School’s future. The principal is invested, and each year, a portion of the earnings are used toward the fund’s purpose, while the rest is reinvested, helping the fund to grow and provide support in perpetuity. In fiscal year 2012–2013, the Nicholas School received more than $875,000 to support new and existing endowment funds for scholarships, fellowships, faculty chairs, research and other priorities. Among these: a group of gifts to double the size and impact of a memorial endowment that supports international internships and summer research opportunities,  and a new endowment to underwrite an annual lecture series that brings international thought leaders to Duke to speak on environmental topics of significant societal import and engage the broader community on environmental issues. 

Program Support

Gifts toward Nicholas School programs support a wide range of opportunities for students and faculty. For instance, gifts this year helped underwrite a class trip to the Gulf of California, where master’s degree students learned first-hand about the challenges and promise of community-based conservation efforts in developing countries. Another helped purchase two new research boats for the Duke Marine Lab that will be used by faculty and students to study salt marshes, an increasingly threatened ecosystem that is vital to both the marine environment and the lives of coastal communities. Other gifts have helped launch and support the Certificate in Environmental Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which is becoming one of the school’s most popular and influential programs. 

Planned Giving

Planned gifts are a meaningful way to provide for the long-term health of Duke Environment programs. This year, several alumni and friends shared their plans to include the Nicholas School in their estates, solidifying their ultimate intentions to support scholarships and programs at the Marine Lab and other areas of the Nicholas School. 

New Spaces for Learning and Discovery

With the help of donors and the support of university leaders, we are making great progress on fundraising and construction for two new facilities that will transform environmental education and research on both the Durham and coastal campuses. 

  • Duke Environment Hall, the new home for the Nicholas School and the hub of all environmental activity on campus, is rising quickly at the center of West Campus. Several leadership gifts are helping to ensure that Environment Hall—a LEED Platinum designated building—will stand as a bold statement of Duke’s commitment to leadership in forging a sustainable future through research, education and practice. In the last 12 months alone, we have received substantial gifts toward our sustain- able landscape design, roof-top solar array and environmental arts gallery. Naming opportunities are still avail- able, and we still must raise more than $6 million to ensure that this living laboratory for aligning human behavior, functionality and environ- mental stewardship incorporates the most cutting-edge technology when it opens in spring 2014. 
  • Thanks to the support of more than 250 friends of the Marine Lab, we successfully completed our campaign to raise $2.25 million to secure a $4.5 million matching gift from Oak Foundation to build the Pilkey Marine Science & Conservation Genetics Center. A significant and generous gift from a friend of the Marine Lab put us over the top just in time to celebrate at our July 2012 groundbreaking for this state-of-the-art research and teaching lab, which is slated to open in spring 2014. 

Sponsored Research

Sponsored research grants provide vital philanthropic support that enables our world-renowned faculty to advance understanding and find solutions to press- ing environmental issues in areas such as environmental and human health, climate change, energy, water quality, and marine science and conservation. This past fiscal year the school received $3.1 million in sponsored research support, including grants that have en- abled faculty members to expand their groundbreaking investigation into the environmental impacts associated with the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, and to study the ecology and behavior of the Hawaiian monk seal in order to ensure the survival of this endangered species. 

With Duke in the midst of a university-wide, $3.24 billion fundraising campaign, “the opportunities for the Nicholas School to invite new friends to support the school’s mission are greater than ever,” says Kevin McCarthy, associate dean for external affairs. All gifts received through June 2017 will count toward the Nicholas School’s $55 million campaign goal. 

“We have received tremendous sup- port from some of our closest friends and we are also grateful for the loyalty and support of our alumni,” McCarthy notes. “The school has many opportunities for donors to make a real impact on our ability educate tomorrow’s environ- mental stewards and to conduct important research. I hope this fundraising snapshot highlights how your philanthropy can help the school during this important campaign for Duke.” 

To learn how you can make a difference through a gift to the Nicholas School, contact Nicholas School of the Environment Office of External Affairs at 919-613-8003 or e-mail us at, or visit www.

Laura Ertel is a freelance writer living in Durham, NC.