Cash gifts to Maine’s public universities dropped 30 percent last year as the University of Southern Maine finished up fundraising for a major building project.

And donations to colleges and universities nationwide dipped about 12 percent in 2009, according to a survey by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

But at the University of Maine at Augusta, a nascent fundraising operation that formally began in August 2008 started to show modest progress, according to the University of Maine System’s annual report on gifts.

UMA’s advancement office collected $226,000 in cash donations during the 2009-10 academic year, up from $136,000 the previous year, which was the advancement operation’s first.

It’s not a huge amount in the context of the 5,000-student commuter college’s $36 million budget, but Advancement Director Joyce Blanchard points out the number of donations has been growing.

UMA collected 832 donations during the 2009-10 academic year, up from 721 the previous year and 321 in 2007-08, she said.

“Obviously, we didn’t get any huge donations, but we got many, many more individual donations,” Blanchard said.

And UMA administrators say they’re happy to see alumni starting to open up their checkbooks for their alma mater.

“There hasn’t been any history of alumni making contributions here,” UMA President Allyson Hughes Handley said. “We’re growing that.”

UMA has collected $1,000 from alumni each of the past two years, compared to virtually no alumni cash gifts in the three years before that.

That’s a result, administrators say, of intensified efforts to reach out to graduates and cultivate an active alumni association. Alumni, for example, are now targeted by an annual appeal for contributions, and graduates receive invitations to join the alumni association when they’re handed their diplomas.

“They’re the ambassadors of our programs,” Blanchard said. “They are the products of our institutions, so we need to engage them more fully.”

UMA’s advancement office, set up to coordinate appeals and cultivate relationships with donors, currently has one full-time staff member — Blanchard — and will add an administrative assistant in the coming weeks.

While the fall of 2008 may not have seemed like the ideal time to launch a fundraising effort, UMA perservered. “You have to create from the inside a culture of philanthropy,” Handley said. “That just really didn’t exist here.”

Handley said it’s tempting to ask why, after two years, there still haven’t been many large cash gifts. “It’s very rare that an alumnus passes away, and you’ve (suddenly) got a $3 million gift,” she said.

“Those gifts are cultivated over time.”