With nine hours to spare, St. Thomas University has met a challenge grant goal of raising $25 million in eight months.

An anonymous donor had pledged the cash last year, provided it all be raised by midnight March 1. The donation tally hit $25 million by about 3 p.m. the day before, allowing fundraising staff to get a happy night's rest.

"Everyone was so excited,'' said Steve Hoeppner, executive director of development at St. Thomas. "It was fun to be able to call people and say, 'If you want to donate to something you care about, someone will double your gift.'''

About 800 donors doubled gifts to about 230 campus programs, making this an unusual challenge grant, Hoeppner said. Instead of requiring that the $25 million underwrite his own campus priorities, the philanthropist let others decide.

The challenge grant was part of a $500 million capital campaign launched by the university in 2007. Its biggest winners will be students needing financial aid. About $130 million, the single largest slice, will help students pay tuition and other costs, said Hoeppner.

Another $66 million will pay for a student center, and $52 million more will underwrite an athletic complex.

While thrilled with the anonymous $25 million grant, the university said it wasn't the largest contribution. That was made by Minnesota philanthropists Lee and Penny Anderson, who pledged a lead gift of $60 million for the campaign. Another $50 million was given by a second anonymous donor.

Hoeppner said the challenge grant allowed the university to avoid the fundraising slump that often happens midway through capital campaigns. The university had raised $390 million when the challenge grant kicked off, he said, and has more than $440 million today.

So do Hoeppner and his staff now get a breather?

"Unfortunately, we don't get to take a trip to Disneyland,'' he joked. "Now we need to raise $60 more million in 19 months -- without the benefit of the match.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511