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Joel Momberg: The CEO behind the university’s big bucks

Joel Momberg is retiring effective Oct. 31. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

“I’m not being modest, I really don’t think you want me,” were the words Joel Momberg, senior vice president of advancement and the CEO of the USF Foundation, told former USF President Judy Genshaft and former USF Foundation Chair Les Muma in 2008 when he was first offered the position.

Now at the end of his USF career, Momberg has raised a $1 billion campaign, helped complete the final preeminence metric of a $500 million endowment and changed the entire culture of the USF Foundation. 

He will be retiring Oct. 31 after being at USF for over a decade.   

Looking back, as a public relations and advertising major attending the University of Georgia, it was not yet known to Momberg what his fundraising abilities could be. 

After hating his job working at an advertising firm and moving on to teach high school, Momberg was able to land a career that combined both skills at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

“The hospital was looking for a marketing and public relations guy and someone who had knowledge in public health,” Momberg said. “I taught science classes so it was close enough.”

Momberg went on to dedicate 30 years at All Children’s Hospital,  co-founded  the Children’s Miracle Network telethon and led a campaign to raise $430 million for a new hospital.

This caught the attention of Genshaft and Muma. But Momberg had his eyes on retirement.

“Joel and I went back and forth for about a year,” Muma said. “After the foundation chair seat was empty for a second time, Judy and I made the plan to go after Joel.

“We were after his leadership abilities, his ability to raise funds and quite honestly, we were after the network of people he knew in the Florida market.”

After much convincing from his wife, Debbie, Momberg accepted the position.

“You rarely say no to either of those people,” Momberg joked.

In his role, Momberg and his staff raised needed funds for the university as well as helped build the endowment which will be used to invest in future projects, such as at various colleges. He also worked with alumni donations and events.

Momberg’s main goal when coming to USF was to change the culture in the foundation’s relationship with donors. He said he wanted to stay away from “transactional gifts” and increase the level of “investment-level gifts.” 

“Transactional gifts are simply for one purpose, the donations are put toward one project. But,  investment-level gifts are more collaborative,” Momberg said. “Eventually, the transactions became transformational with costs up to $10-20 million.”

In 2007, the foundation reached “a record $75.3 million,” according to the 2006-2007 USF Foundation Performance Report. Now, the foundation is averaging about $80-100 million each fiscal year, according to Momberg.

“We start from zero every year, so it’s not an easy number to achieve,” Momberg said.

Muma said the success of the foundation is partly due to Momberg’s character.

“Joel is just a loveable, funny and friendly type of individual,” Muma said. “You give Joel money that he’s asking for and you don’t even know you’ve given it. He really knows how to raise money.

“He sure has taken a lot from my wife and I, but we have loved giving every dime of it,” he joked.

Momberg said one of his greatest accomplishments at USF was the billion-dollar Unstoppable campaign, which had over 200,000 donors in 2009. The USF website said the goal was to fund initiatives to “enhance health care, science, technology, education, business, the arts and global partnerships.”

USF was one of only three public universities founded since 1956 to raise $1 billion in a single campaign. The other two universities were the University of California San Diego and the University of California Irvine, according to the USF website.

“Being one of those three universities was an exciting moment,” Momberg said.

With the help of Momberg, USF was also able to reach another milestone. In order to achieve and maintain preeminent status, the university must meet 11 of the 12 benchmarks. This summer, USF met the $500 million endowment goal.

“At the end of the fiscal year, we ended up reaching $514 million, which exceeded that goal so it was truly an accomplishment,” Momberg said.

“Unless the state changes it to $600 million, we’re in good shape for a while.”

The endowment has become the third-largest in the state university system, according to Muma. 

Other than fundraising, many people may not know that Momberg has acquired many talents over the years.

He has been in a couple of bands, won two Emmys for writing children’s music and has written two novels — “Home Movies” and “Sammy: The Novel.”

Post-retirement, Momberg said he hopes to pick some of his old hobbies.

“Debbie and I plan on traveling, visiting the grandkids, I have a novel in the works that I plan on finishing, may do some fishing, I love sports — but golfing I can’t stand. I don’t have the patience for that,” Momberg said. “We’re going to be busy, no doubt.”

With a month left in his USF career, Momberg said he is working non-stop to finalize gift announcements and helping the search committee to find his replacement.

“He’s going to be missed, but it’s time for him to move on to the next chapter,” Muma said. “All we can do at this point is wish him the best.

“In just 11 years, he has made a tremendous impact on the University of South Florida.”

It may be surprising to some, but Momberg said he does not want to be remembered solely for the money he has generated.

“The money raised, of course, was amazing but I really hope I changed the culture of giving here,” Momberg said. “That’s the way you can really change a foundation.”