TURLOCK -- Signing a contract to bring Sarah Palin to town thrust the California State University, Stanislaus Foundation into the spotlight last month.
But the foundation, established in 1960, has been working for years to bring money to the university.
With the economy in turmoil and the state slashing spending, that money has never been more important. It's also never been more scrutinized -- lawmakers and lobbyists want foundation records made public.
University officials maintain that the foundation is a private entity and that opening financial records will discourage donations from people who prefer to remain anonymous.
"There is more need than there is money," said foundation President Matt Swanson. "Especially with big gifts, what we need to be able to preserve is the ability to protect the donor's anonymity. That's our biggest fear."
Opponents point out the close relationship between the two entities, with overlapping staffing and offices. They say money spent on a state-funded institution should be public.
Although the administration building houses the foundation office, and officers are also university employees, the entities are kept separate.
For instance, university spokeswoman Eve Hightower, a state employee, coordinated interviews with Swanson during the media maelstrom that arose when the foundation signed the former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate for a June fund-raiser.
Hightower said the foundation and university have "service agreements" in place "for the foundation to reimburse or duly compensate the university for any staff support or services."
A former member said university President Hamid Shirvani is adamant that the foundation, on which he serves as chairman, pay its own way.
After his arrival in 2005, Shirvani upset some foundation members when he instituted a requirement that each contribute $5,000 a year. More than half the 40-member board quit. Shirvani created an advisory council for people who wanted to take part in the university but didn't want to pay.
"He changed the way it worked," said Bill Mattos, foundation president at the time. "He didn't want any parties or travel excursions. He wanted this to make money. Some people didn't really like the way he changed the foundation."
Mattos wasn't one of them. He now serves on the advisory council.
But he said he wasn't pressured to leave.
"That was my decision," he said. "He has a pretty refreshing group of people on the board now. They're a lot younger than me."
Members serve three-year terms; some stay for several. Swanson said people must be invited to serve; a foundation member nominates someone, then the board vets him or her and the invitation is issued.
More invitations may be issued later this year. Shirvani said he is considering expanding the board, generally kept to 20 to 25 members, to 30 or so.
"I'm trying to spread it as much as possible, and I don't want it to be Turlock and Modesto," Shirvani said. "I want it to be everywhere."
From $10M to $4M
In addition to expanding the university's support base throughout the state, it's a good time to have more people asking for money: The economic downturn has contributed to a drop in donations -- the foundation's proceeds have fallen from a high of $10.3 million in 2004 to about $4 million in 2008.
That's one of the reasons the foundation aimed for Palin.
"This has been a really, really good opportunity," Swanson said. "A lot of new people that have never given to the university are paying to come to this event or buy a table. We're getting to know some new people who could be future donors."
The foundation can pay for scholarships, endowed chairs, amenities and buildings. But it can't replace classes, faculty and staff cut because of the withering state budget.
Shirvani pointed out the distinction. If the university wants to attract star faculty, the foundation can't provide a bump in salary. "But maybe the foundation gives that $100,000 or $200,000 and buys computer equipment for a state-of-the-art lab that otherwise we couldn't have."
Objection to secrets
The announcement last month that Palin was coming to the university engendered two kinds of protests -- those who felt she wasn't an appropriate speaker for the university's 50th anniversary and those who objected to a clause in the contract that prevented the foundation from saying what it was paying her.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is among those who object to foundations that serve public institutions keeping financial secrets. He has proposed laws that would force campus foundations and auxiliaries to open their records.
"There is not a fine line or even a blurry line between the foundation and the public university; there is absolutely no line," Yee said.
Shirvani said the line is there, and it's clear.
"The primary mission of the foundation is to raise money from the private sector," Shirvani said. "To supplement university funding. It is completely funded by private donations."
Shirvani said he isn't planning any major changes in how the university or the foundation is run. And he won't shy from headline-grabbing speakers in the future, although he is discouraging any confidentiality clauses.
"Universities are the places that different viewpoints are heard and students are exposed to a variety of perspectives," Shirvani said. "I think it's healthy for our university to have a controversial character."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.