Prepare to persuade

Helping mid- and senior-level campus administrators gain comfort and experience with fundraising

The University of Florida’s last fundraising campaign, completed in October 2012, surpassed its $1.5 billion goal and finished nine months ahead of schedule at $1.72 billion. Despite this tremendous success, the next campaign will deploy a new tactic—a fine-tuned army of the university’s leaders prepared and practiced in the strategies of fundraising.

“When we conducted a post-campaign review, two things caught our attention and caused us heartburn,” says Tom Mitchell, vice president for development and alumni affairs. “During the seven-year campaign, whenever we had transitions in deans our fundraising results dropped. We also found that our program and institute directors played a key role during the campaign, and we had not provided them with much professional development.”

Increasing competition for private philanthropic dollars—and donors who often require detailed information and direct contact with the programs they support—is driving higher ed institutions to deploy powerful fundraising teams comprised of many administrators from outside the college advancement office.

“Experienced, knowledgeable college leaders have a major impact on the bottom line,” says Penelepe Hunt, a senior consultant at Marts & Lundy, a New York- and New Jersey-based philanthropy consultancy with higher ed clients. “Big gifts of eight or nine figures always involve a relationship between the donor and someone in academic leadership.”

This fact was verified by a study of 1,500 institutions that received million-dollar-plus donations between 2000 and 2012. The study, conducted by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and Johnson Grossnickle and Associates, found that colleges attracting top dollars tended to have long-term presidents articulating clear, compelling missions for the institution.

In higher education, the share of senior leaders age 61 or older in four-year institutions increased to 26 percent in 2013, and 58 percent of college presidents are older than 60, according to American Council on Education data.

Community Colleges are facing the same leadership challenge. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, about half of presidents surveyed in 2012 planned to step down within five years. This is also true for a large number of senior administrators.

“The high turnover is generating a critical need to prepare those in the pipeline, because many are ascending to be president much faster and have not gotten the opportunity to develop a skill set that allows them to deal with the complexities of fundraising,” says Angel Royal, AACC chief of staff.

In addition, college presidents identify fundraising as their second most time-demanding responsibility, according to ACE’s “American College President – 2012” study. Yet fundraising was also the area they said they were least prepared to tackle.

Although job descriptions and postings for college leadership positions increasingly include fundraising experience as one of the top responsibilities, Hunt says it’s uncommon for senior academics to have had any development experience. “Suddenly, their first day on the job, they’re expected to be seasoned major gift officers.”

And, whether or not an administrator aspires to the presidency, it’s smart for institutional officials to equip those in a broad array of campus leadership positions with the skills they need to identify and woo potential donors.

Fundraising 101

At the University of Florida, the titles of those being given core fundraising skills include vice presidents, deans, directors, department chairs and select faculty. In preparation for its next big campaign, officials launched the University Leadership Program in January to assess the current level of fundraising expertise among these key organizational stakeholders.

Individuals will get instruction tailored to their needs, with certain skills likely being reviewed with all of the participants.

“We will talk about the development process, from donor identification to qualification to cultivation and solicitation strategies,” says Mitchell. “We’ll consider how to create exciting engagement opportunities, and define the role of the dean or department chair in helping to facilitate these opportunities.”

Engagement includes the ability to share campus happenings and the institution’s mission effectively. “The majority of our deans have a difficult time telling their story in a compelling, inspiring, bold way,” says Mitchell. “We’ll do a visioning exercise to identify their college’s priorities and the role private gifts might play, to help them build their stories.”

This January, George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., introduced “Fundraising 101,” a five-hour session for deans, directors, the senior leadership team, athletic directors and development officers. Jim Laychak, associate VP of university development and alumni affairs, says they all need to know how to identify a potential donor and answer these questions:

  • What stage of a relationship is the donor in?
  • What do and don’t we know about them?
  • What actionable next steps can we take in the relationship?

Teaching the “language of fundraising” was also one of the goals. “Boiling down the process and having everyone speaking the same language enhances the relationship between the fundraising professionals and the academics, and contributes to their success,” he says.

When Hunt served as vice chancellor of development for the University of Illinois at Chicago, she built a nine-month course for new deans that covered:

  • the philosophy of donor-centered development,
  • types of fundraising, such as annual gifts, investment assets and endowments,
  • how to initiate a relationship with potential donors and engage them, and
  • the dean’s role in the solicitation process and the follow-up required after the gift is received.

UIC also offered sessions twice a year to any administrator or faculty member who wanted to learn fundraising fundamentals.

Faculty members also could get one-on-one training when preparing for a visit to a potential donor, says Hunt of Marts & Lundy.

“My philosophy is that you don’t ask them to do something they’re not good at,” she says. “Once you demystify the process and show academics that the same things that made them successful in their career path also make them good at working with donors, you can give them the tools and the confidence they need to feel comfortable getting involved.”

Community college leaders taking Clinical Professor Juan Gonzalez’s graduate-level courses on fundraising at The University of Texas at Austin get training in types of campaigns, giving options and the ethics involved in donor relations. Gonzalez also points out that time and transparency are important for relationship building.

“If you want people to invest in your college, you have to be absolutely truthful about your budget and your program,” he says.

Preparing for donor relationship building and successful fundraising goes beyond learning basic skills and practices, says John Lippincott, president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. “It’s about helping people understand and overcome that sense that asking for money is unbecoming of an academic.”

CASE offers basic and advanced development workshops for deans and academic leaders. “We try to convey that what you’re doing is seeking the resources to pursue your vision and enabling the donor to do something meaningful,” he says.

When Christine Plunkett moved from CFO to president of Burlington College in Vermont less than two years ago, “fundraising was definitely one of my areas of anxiety, and my experience with it was very limited. Now I’m discovering how much I love it.”

What caused the transformation? Plunkett says the lesson that changed her was learning that success wasn’t centered on “the ask.” “It’s really about having a passion for where you are working and the ability to talk about it and share that excitement with donors,” she says.

Where to find help

There are many approaches for addressing the need for fundraising knowledge and experience by institutional leaders. These include on-campus, grow-your-own programs created and taught by college development staff or outside consultants, workshops and symposiums offered by professional organizations, graduate-level courses and hands-on practice.

Chicago-based consulting firm Grenzebach Glier and Associates was tapped to design and teach the University of Florida’s leadership program. It began during the first quarter of the year with pilot projects for three of the university’s colleges and, within three years, will touch every dean, director and department chair.

“Our goal is to show progressive, incremental, increased levels of understanding and knowledge consistent across our programs, so all boats rise with the tide and more people are engaged and experienced in the fundraising process,” says Mitchell.

While on-campus programs can be customized to the institution and their participants can then have a shared experience, off-campus workshops and symposiums can be good opportunities to network and learn from others. Alma College (Michigan) President Jeff Abernathy and Plunkett from Burlington College participated in the Council of Independent Colleges’ Executive Leadership Academy for experienced provosts and vice presidents prior to taking over the helm at their institutions.

“As a provost, I had modest fundraising responsibility, but realized this was an area I wanted to develop,” says Abernathy. “One of the most valuable outcomes for me was developing a network of new and experienced college presidents I could go to for fundraising advice.”

National seminars, readings, webinars, individualized experiential activities and structured mentorship experiences—with a major focus on fundraising—are included in the program from CIC, which also offers a similar experience for mid-level administrators.

“Even though our program is only three years old, roughly one-quarter of the participants in the executive leadership program have become college presidents,” says CIC President Richard Ekman.

AACC, in conjunction with the Council for Resource Development, offers a fundraising academy for new community college presidents. “We recommend that midlevel managers go to their college development office and ask to tag along [on donor visits]. It’s a great way to get hands-on experience,” says Royal.

Preparation’s positive outcomes

New philanthropy commitments at the University of Illinois at Chicago averaged $45 million annually before Hunt launched the dean’s school. “Eight years later when I left the university, we experienced our third consecutive year of raising more than $100 million in new philanthropy commitments,” she says. Getting the deans prepared and involved in fundraising drove the increase.

“Having those added leadership resources means more than just enabling them to fill a gap in the budget,” says Lippincott of CASE. “The added funds these people generate gives their institution the flexibility to do something exceptional, meet an emerging need or seize a great opportunity that they might not be able to pursue if they relied strictly on traditional revenue sources.”

Harriet Meyers is a Columbia, Md.-based writer and editor who has written extensively on higher ed fundraising.

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