Our Recent Posts

Tags

No tags yet.

The President, the Alumni, and Fund Raising (from Out in Front: The College President as the Face o

Gone are the days (if indeed they ever existed) when a tweed-suited and almost invariably male College president could spend his days strolling the groves of academe, chatting amiably with students and professors, puffing a pipe behind a large mahogany desk, and drowsing after a substantial and leisurely lunch over a favorite passage in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Today’s university CEO is more likely to be found dashing for a flight (inevitably delayed), breakfasting, lunching, dining, and having coffee, cocktails, and/or mid-afternoon snacks with potential donors, and catching up on e-mail in a cramped hotel room or airport lounge. Philanthropic support is essential to institutional distinction these days, its pursuit makes the greediest demands on the President’s schedule, and alumni are – or should be - its surest, most reliable, and most generous source.

Of course alumni are not simply cash cows, to be ignored between regularly scheduled milkings. The successful president will focus considerable time and skill on building strong relationships between her institution and its graduates. The strongest institutions enjoy fully developed and mutually supportive ties with their alumni, often utilizing a rich variety of substantive volunteer opportunities that enlist alumni talents and energies on the institution’s behalf. Such alumni are informed, engaged, and active advocates for their alma maters; their philanthropy springs from an understanding of their College’s strengths and aspirations; they feel a personal connection that is both rational and emotional. And the person with whom they must feel this personal connection is, more often than not, the President.

How does a President create and nurture this sort of relationship with alumni? How does a President become a trusted – and ideally even beloved and revered – institutional icon when the days are so packed with meetings, campus issues are so contentious, public criticism of higher education is so strident, and tough decisions must be made day in and day out?

A Calling Not a Job

The President of a small southern liberal arts college remarked recently to an alumni gathering, “Anybody who wants to be a college president these days is a lunatic.” He said it with a grin, but there is truth in his statement. There is also truth in the words once uttered by my mentor, former President Bill Cotter of Colby College (words I have often spoken myself since assuming the Presidency of Muhlenberg): “This is the greatest job in the world!” Assuming that lunacy is not, in fact, the key to happiness in academic leadership, what is?

The Presidency of any institution must be a calling, a vocation for the successful candidate. The most talented academic leader, blessed with brains, charm, personality, and management skills, will fail if she does not feel a deep emotional bond with her institution and its mission. In many respects, the relationship between President and institution is like a marriage: the personal demands and expectations invested in the President are impossible and outrageous without such a bond. When this bond is real, when it is right, the responsibilities of the office – 24/7/365 – are a joy not a burden. Both cCandidates and search committees must both remember this during the courtship process. The institution or the individual that “settles” when this connection is not deeply felt and clearly communicated is headed down a rocky road toward an unhappy destination on a journey that will be spoiled by resentment and disappointment. When the love affair is real and mutual great things can happen. When the connection is solid, the President is free to be himself. Such authenticity is fundamental to success in building relationships with faculty, students, parents and, most of all, the alumni.

In this marriage metaphor the alumni are the parents of the bride. They want to be confident that the presidential suitor not only admires their alma mater for its obvious attractions, but will also treasure and cherish the institution for its true character and identity. When the alumni are reassured, they will embrace the President as a valued and trusted member of the family.

The Living Logo

New presidents are often reminded that they are the “living logo” of their college or university. Whether it is rational or not, stakeholders will base their impressions of institutional vitality on the appearance and behavior of the President. Perhaps this explains why so many search committees seem to favor candidates who look like they were sent from central casting: tall fit-looking males with a full head of silver hair. It is nonsense, of course, to believe that there is a single mold from which all presidents should be cast and personally I think this proliferation of the presidential “type” demonstrates a lack of imagination by search committees. Many of the most successful, admired, and beloved presidents do not fit this pattern at all - indeed, it is often their quirks and eccentricities that most endear them to the alumni and other stakeholders. (Perhaps this is why so many of us wear bowties.).

It is important, nonetheless, for a president to be reasonably attentive to his appearance and particularly intentional in choosing the photographs that will represent him in university publications. It is not vanity but savvy image management for the president to have professional portrait photographs taken and to select judiciously those that portray her in an authentic but intentional way that she is comfortable with. It is not only reasonable but also important to insist that campus officials only use approved images of the President, and only with her explicit permission. (The student paper and local media are a different matter – unless the President is very lucky both will routinely use the least flattering images they can find). The goal is not to craft some calculated and artificial “presidential image” (though looking deliberately “unpresidential” is probably a bad idea) but to be consistent and genuine. Suits or skirts, shirtsleeves or turtlenecks, standing, sitting on the desk, leaning against a column, arms crossed, arms akimbo, any pose at all can work as long as the President projects warmth, self-confidence, and at least some degree of gravitas.

The President cannot be overly inhibited about having her photo published, either. After all, to be effective with alumni, the President must be recognizable. It is a matter of personal taste, judgment, and ego as to how many times the President’s picture appears in each issue of the alumni magazine and in each copy of the annual report, but it should appear at least once and perhaps several times. There is a line, of course, and one president I know seems so fond of having his picture in college publications that some alumni have made a sport of guessing how many times his face will appear in the next issue of the alumni magazine (his record so far, I believe, is 10).

Of course, effectiveness as a “living logo” is not as simple as choosing a good photo and plastering it all over University publications. The real work of building relationships with alumni and other external constituents is done in person, both on campus and on the road at receptions, dinners, Homecoming and Reunion “State of the College” addresses, personal visits, and unscheduled encounters.[1] It is, consequently, important for the President qua logo to be consistently presidential.

There is a fine line between dignity and self-importance, between impressiveness and pomposity, but the successful president must find that line and walk it every day. Genuineness, warmth, sincerity, interest in others, a lively curiosity, and a self-deprecating sense of humor are vital. So are optimism, positive energy, and most important of all, an unbridled pride in and enthusiasm for the institution, its mission, faculty, staff, and students. All of these qualities must be expressed actively by thought, word, deed, tone of voice, and facial expression. It helps for the president to remember that he is important to the alumni because he is president of their alma mater, not that he is president because he is important.

It can be exhausting work being a logo. At the very least it means smiling and making eye contact even when you may not feel like it and greeting everybody you see personally whether you are glad to see them or not (and even if you can’t quite remember their names). It also means being on your best behavior wherever you go because you are always the president, always on duty, always visible, and always setting an example. The President, accordingly, does not coast through stop signs or cut in line at the supermarket. He doesn’t tell off-color or ethnic jokes, use bad language, or take cheap shots at individuals. She rarely if ever loses her temper, especially in public. Some presidents have told me that they don’t drink even moderate amounts of alcohol at events from which they will drive themselves home; others take pains to make sure they are not photographed holding a drink. Paranoid? Perhaps. But the media’s appetite for scandal should not be underestimated. Recently an Ivy League president was bombarded with alumni criticism when she was photographed at a Halloween party next to a student attired in a costume of dubious taste and the picture was posted on the web. As presidents we are already busy enough without having to waste time responding to problems we could easily avoid.

The Singer of Tales

Being a living logo is about style and appearances. What the president stands for, what she has to say is, of course, even more important. President John Sexton of NYU has once remarked that the President’s most important function is that of institutional “bard” –celebrating the institution’s past, present, and future greatness to audiences both internal and external. President Jay McGowan of Bellarmine referreds to his University’s “institutional saga.” I like this image, and not just because I am fond of Homeric epic. It emphasizes the successful president’s ability to communicate a compelling vision that connects the institution’s traditions and values with its aspirations, and to do so in a way that is personal, direct, exciting, and memorable.

Sexton’s metaphor for the president’s relationship with the alumni (among other constituencies) implies an important truth about effective communication: people learn best and remember more from stories. Indeed, a gift for story telling may be one of the most important (yet frequently overlooked) talents that a president can bring to the task of proclaiming her vision and broadcasting the institution’s message. It is one thing to provide a prosaic summary of the need for endowed scholarships and annual gifts for financial aid. It is quite another to remind alumni, as Colby’s Bill Cotter used to do, of how the College’s first president would dip into his own pocket to help students patch together the resources they needed to stay in school, or to recount how a student who has overcome poverty and a broken home qualified for medical school to pursue her dreams of practicing pediatric oncology thanks to the financial support of alumni donors. It is fine to cite positive statistics about faculty research grants, but even better to enrich the data by recounting the benefits the funded research will ultimately provide to society in human, personal terms that alumni can understand and applaud.

Every institution has its own history and mission. Muhlenberg, Colby, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania (the institutions I know best) share a commitment to the highest standard of liberal arts education but they could not be more different in character or institutional culture. Understanding what makes her University a unique and important asset to society and articulating a vision of how that mission can best be extended to benefit future generations may be the President’s most important responsibilities. The “institutional saga”, in which vivid characters and events from college history personalize core community values and inspire renewed alumni commitment for the future, is an art form worth mastering.

Pitfalls and Challenges

Effective story telling, combined with compelling facts and statistics, is powerful. But there are predictable pitfalls and challenges that presidents, especially new presidents, can expect to encounter in their communications with alumni.

On The Shoulders of Giants. One president I know was excited by the possibilities of his new post and determined to move the institution from a somewhat sleepy liberal arts college to an academic powerhouse. His enthusiasm and eloquence were impressive – but he failed to realize that the alumni were already quite proud of the education they had experienced at their alma mater and were put off by the implication that the school was not already worthy of their pride and loyalty. Ten years later, some alumni were still complaining about the brash young leader who, they felt, didn’t appreciate the tradition of strong teaching for which their college had long been known.

It is generally much more productive for the president to understand her institution’s historical strengths and refer with a generous spirit to the efforts and accomplishments of earlier campus generations. “We stand on the shoulders of giants” is a phrase that many presidents have used to good effect – emphasizing that their vision is to take an already great institution to an even higher level of distinction. It is never appropriate (though it may often be tempting) to utter criticism of one’s predecessor, as doing so is not only likely to give offense to the preceding president’s friends and admirers but also makes the new president seem petty and insecure. Even acknowledging others’ criticisms of a predecessor can be tricky and counterproductive. Better to emphasize the positive contributions of earlier leaders and to acknowledge modestly that no president (especially oneself) can expect to be without critics. The President who believes this is false modesty has probably not been in office very long.

Defender of the Faith. Academic communities exult in questioning authority and in challenging received wisdom and conventional values. Rough-and-tumble debate, provocative statements (both oral and artistic), outrageous ideas, and controversial speakers are essential ingredients in the development of reasoning skills and the creation of new knowledge. This is generally understood by everybody except those to whom such statements and ideas are offensive – a group that often includes faculty and students when the controversial utterances are conservative or many of the institution’s alumni when the views expressed are liberal.

One of the President’s most important responsibilities is to protect free speech from the chilling pressures of political correctness whether exerted by the right or the left. Offended parties frequently assume that an invitation to speak on campus represents an endorsement of the speaker’s views. At the institutions I have served, alumni have responded with outrage to provocative campus speakers like Louis Farrakhan and the late Jerry Falwell, to art exhibitions that challenge religious iconography (like Serrano’s “Piss Christ”), to sexually explicit poetry and performances of the Vagina Monologues, to sex advice columns in the student newspaper, and (routinely) to the choice of honorary degree recipients and commencement speakers. Only in the latter two instances, I believe, can it be argued that an invitation to campus represents an endorsement by the institution, and typically candidates for such honors are so widely vetted by faculty, trustees, and the administration that such an assumption is reasonable.

Some critics may argue that any time institutional funds are used to bring a speaker to campus that represents an implicit endorsement of the individual and his or her views. Colleges will often have policies governing how institutional resources can be spent (differentiating, for example, appropriate uses for departmental funds from funds used by student organizations) and it is important that the President ensure that these policies are fair, sensible, clear, defensible, and (as important as any of the preceding) observed. There is also ample case law dealing with institutional hosting of partisan speakers, with which the President and senior staff should be thoroughly conversant. Nonetheless, it is inevitable and appropriate that universities host controversial speakers just as it is necessary and appropriate for the library’s collections to include copies of Mein Kampf, the Communist Manifesto, and other controversial texts presumably purchased with institutional funds.

How should the embattled president respond to the barrage of angry phone calls, letters, and pointed questions at alumni gatherings that typically ensue from campus controversy? Every president will have her own style, of course, but I have found certain elements helpful in framing a thoughtful, reasoned, and when possible conciliatory answer:

  • First, it helps to listen (or read) carefully and truly understand the nature of the critic’s complaint. Obvious advice perhaps, but not easy to follow when the caller, speaker, or correspondent has worked himself up to a state of high moral dudgeon. Letting the critic have his say, patiently and without interruption, is a good first step toward a constructive response. Not always possible, I grant you, but only twice in the last twenty years have I had to ask individuals to leave my office because they were incapable of communicating rationally and civilly.

  • In many cases it may be possible and helpful to express sympathy with the complainant’s point of view. I have responded to unhappy readers of the student sex columnist by conceding that I too am often uncomfortable with what appears in this part of the student newspaper. Sometimes empathy is not possible. I had to tell an alumnus who objected to a photo exhibit of committed gay couples that I thought his opinions about sexual orientation were homophobic and incompatible with our institutional values. The president should never compromise fundamental principles in the effort to mollify outspoken critics.

  • It is always good to remind the critic that she too enjoys freedom of expression and should feel free to write to the editor of the student paper, the curator of the art exhibition, etc. expressing her views. Indeed, this may help reassure purveyors of controversial ideas that they have succeeded in stirring up debate – while providing them with a salubrious dose of disagreement. And why should the president have all the fun of receiving crank letters?

  • It is often necessary and appropriate to correct factual errors – politely of course. The alumnus who argued that Muhlenberg’s academic standards had gone to hell in a hand basket since the College adopted its SAT optional policy needed to be shown a panoply of data illustrating that the opposite was, in fact, the case and I was more than happy to provide it. The alumna who claimed that the last five commencement speakers had all been raving left-wing ideologues needed a refresher in who had actually spoken and what they had actually said.

  • It is usually helpful if not essential to remind the critic of the fundamental importance of free speech, especially in an academic community. A friend once said “I’d invite the Devil himself to speak on campus if it would help me understand what makes him tick!” Being of a more conciliatory nature, I have found it more helpful on such occasions to quote from the distinguished American jurist Learned Hand’s (1944) essay “The Spirit of Liberty,” in which he wrote:

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias. . . .”[2]

And from his defense of the First Amendment:

“right conclusions are more likely to be gathered out of a multitude of tongues, than through any kind of authoritative selection.''

Most seasoned leaders will already realize that the tone of any response must always be moderate, polite, and reasonable. It will help to remember that whatever written response the president provides (whether on letterhead or electronically) is likely to be circulated by the recipient to his cronies and fellow critics, or even quoted out of context. The wise president, regardless of even the most extreme provocation, will provide no vividly antagonistic phrases that may come back like a boomerang to hit her in the back of the head at a later date.

Of course even the most articulate, well reasoned, well documented, moderate, and even witty response will not always result in the restoration of consensus and good feeling, and the convenience of swift and effortless communication (especially e-mail) may result not only in intemperate initial outbursts, but continued and sometimes even more intemperate responses to the president’s carefully modulated initial reply. When it becomes clear that the alumnus has more time and energy to devote to this correspondence than the President, either of two phrases may be helpful in wrapping up the dialogue: “I suppose we must agree to disagree” is my favorite, though a now retired colleague swears that a non-committal “You may be right” is even more effective.

The Disappointed Legacy. Perhaps the most difficult conversation a President can have is with a committed, loyal, and generous graduate whose child has been denied admission to the University. Parents vary in their reasonableness about their children’s abilities and potential of course. I have occasionally heard parents say “I know my son Jared did well at Muhlenberg, but his younger sister Sally isn’t Muhlenberg material.” Unfortunately, it is much more common to encounter a sense of entitlement: “I went to Colby thus my Jeremy should have been accepted, despite his standing in the lowest quintile of his high school class, his abysmal SAT scores, and his failure to write a coherent or even legible admissions essay.”

The best response is pre-emptive: alumni should be kept apprised of current admissions standards and the competitiveness of applications so that they have realistic expectations before sending young Jeremy into a hopeless fray. It is also reasonable, though infrequently effective, to counsel the legacy parent that it does young Sally no good to put her in a situation where she is unlikely to succeed. Another conciliatory phrase that occasionally comes in handy is to acknowledge quite candidly that “Admissions is an imperfect science and we do make mistakes; I hope Jeremy proves us wrong by succeeding brilliantly at Middlebury which is, of course, a perfectly wonderful institution.”

Realistically, however, the success rate of such responses is dismal. The rejection of a legacy can often sour the relationship with a previously dedicated graduate for decades or forever. It’s unfortunate, but it is the price of institutional progress.

The Well-Tempered Development Office

Presidents may not like it, but the fact is they will be judged on their effectiveness as fundraisers. It is not just a matter of bragging rights (“our campaign was bigger than yours”) but of institutional vitality and progress. Bold visions can only be realized with resources. Thus fundraising will be an important factor in determining how institutional history will remember the President’s legacy.

Although presidential search committees are increasingly turning to experienced fund raisers for institutional leadership, the academic path is still by far the preferred route to the presidency. Fund raising is thus often terra incognita for new presidents and while some fling themselves into it joyfully and successfully, others are less sure-footed. I have heard of one academic leader who was so nervous during a prospect solicitation that he nibbled his Styrofoam coffee cup throughout the meeting until there was nothing left of it. Other development-averse presidents may opt for evasive maneuvers by budgeting inadequate time with their Chief Development Officers or chronically “forgetting” to make development-oriented phone calls.

Development neophytes should be reassured to learn that while institutional advancement is a science of sorts, it is not a particularly technical or difficult one for the motivated apprentice to master. There is, furthermore, ample literature on how an effective fund raising program works and the president’s role in it.[3] Rather than rehashing such thoroughly covered ground, this essay will provide an overview of the well organized development program stressing a few major principles and commenting on the president’s unique role in advancement.

Presidents need to know that successful development efforts must strike an appropriate balance between effectiveness and efficiency. The most efficient solicitation is the mass-produced, generic, bulk-mailed annual fund appeal for unrestricted support. The most effective is a personal solicitation of each prospect by the President for a project of uniquely compelling importance to each particular individual. Between these two ends of the spectrum are infinite variations on how an institution communicates the need for philanthropic support and closes gifts.

Annual Giving. The Annual Fund is the most familiar of fundraising programs because it is the most broadly based: ideally every graduate and parent is solicited for an unrestricted gift every year. The basic tools are direct mail (including e-mail and fax solicitations), telemarketing (the infamous phonathon), and (at least for high end gifts) personal visits by volunteers and annual giving staffers. Sophisticated development programs have raised market segmentation and niche marketing to an art form in deploying these tried and true techniques. Mail-merge technology permits a high degree of personalization including salutations, previous giving, and ask amounts.[4] Class agents and reunion committees can use their acquaintance with fellow alumni to personalize asks still further. Telemarketing technology can provide callers with screens full of personal information on call recipients. (I was once very impressed to see that Washington & Lee’s database had my father’s college nickname on file, though no one had used it much after 1942).

The president’s direct role in the annual fund is generally a limited one. Her personal solicitation of high-end annual gifts is not uncommon, and inclusion of an annual giving “ask” as part of a major gift solicitation is generally considered a best practice. Personal acknowledgement of leadership gifts (how leadership is defined will vary by institution) as well as appropriate remarks at donor gatherings are essential. Presidents should also look for opportunities to inculcate the philanthropic imperative in students and new graduates. Even if their initial gifts are modest, their longevity as donors will strengthen the institution immensely in the long run.

The president’s oversight of annual giving is important, of course. He should confer with the chief development and chief business officers to ensure that annual fund goals are aggressive and ambitious, but attainable. She should review annual gift targets for trustees and other key prospects and monitor the annual fund’s performance on a monthly if not weekly basis, comparing progress-to-date with the comparable figure from last year. Gift stratification tables comparing the number of gifts and total dollars secured at various levels from year to year at the same date provide an essential management tool to understand what is going on with the annual fund, and can reveal whether positive or negative performance represents the timing of a few large gifts or a general retreat by the institution’s alumni supporters.

Annual fund participation is important to many presidents both because it is a modest statistical factor in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and because it is difficult for presidents not to regard it as a comment on their performance and popularity with the alumni. The wise president should be aware, however, that participation rates often have more to do with institutional culture and history (especially its history of investment in the development program) and that “participation dollars” are the most expensive dollars an annual fund can pursue. While slippage in participation rates is a legitimate cause for concern (especially among younger classes), meeting aggressive goals for participation increases may not be the best use of annual giving staff energies.

Major Gifts. While the president’s role in annual giving may be primarily managerial, she takes center stage when it comes to the cultivation and solicitation of major gifts. There is no standard definition of what constitutes a “major” gift. Some colleges have set the minimum as low as $10,000, while others set it at $100,000 or more. Development programs often refer as well to “special gifts” (usually less than a major gift) and “principal gifts” (often $1 million and above), or even “ultimate gifts” (the last and presumably the biggest gift made by a long-time supporter). In operating terms, a major gift should be one that is sufficient to name a facility, a space within a facility, or an endowment fund.

Major gifts represent the outcome of a cycle that begins with the identification and assessment of suitable prospects, continues through the cultivation stage as a strong relationship is nurtured between the prospect and the institution (often in the person of the president), reaches fruition in the pre-solicitation and solicitation stages when the prospect is asked for the gift and a commitment is secured, enters the stewardship stage in which the donor is acknowledged and receives appropriate updates on the impact of her gift, and then re-enters the assessment stage as the development staff considers the donor’s potential for a subsequent (and presumably larger) gift once the new commitment is paid off.

The president should expect the development staff to take full responsibility for identification and assessment of major gift prospects. In fact, it is sensible for a new president to ask his chief development officer to provide lists of the institution’s top prospects, organized by ask amount and geographical location, as well as brief background on each prospect’s interests, relationship with the institution, and past giving. “Working” this list – by developing strong personal relationships with these individuals - comprises the new president’s initial major gifts agenda.

The timetable for completion of the “major gift cycle” is unpredictable, depending entirely on the individual prospect’s relationship with the institution and its president, her financial situation, how closely the institution’s priorities correspond with her interests, and whether or not she has “the philanthropy gene” (the latter variable, sadly, is completely independent of philanthropic capacity).[5] Rarely, an individual will volunteer a major gift the first time he meets the president; sometimes the cultivation process can take years.

While some presidents prefer to make prospect visits unaccompanied, it is often advantageous to bring along a development officer, especially if he or she has already established a relationship with the prospect. While it is important for the president to lead the conversation, sharing his vision, asking good questions, demonstrating a personal interest in the prospect, the development officer can often add value – asking a helpful leading question, interjecting a useful comment, steering the conversation back onto a useful track, gently reminding the president of an important detail, and kicking the president’s shin beneath the table when he is about to stray into a conversational minefield. The development staff can also write detailed contact reports for the files, draft follow-up correspondence for the president’s signature, and ensure that any presidential promises to send information (or better yet, a proposal) are fulfilled promptly. Presidents who still prefer to fly solo should realize that they are responsible for completing all this follow-up themselves.

The ultimate goal of all this relationship-building is, of course, the securing of a gift commitment. Knowing when the time is ripe to ask is something of an art, but an easily mastered one. The most straightforward approach is usually for the president (or a development officer) to ask directly: “Could we come back soon to discuss the possibility of a gift?” If the answer is positive, a few more exploratory questions might be ventured (the preferred purpose of the gift, the general range of the gift). This is, essentially, the agenda for the pre-solicitation visit. If the indications are encouraging, the solicitation visit should be scheduled as soon as possible to close the gift.

When the president participates in a solicitation visit it is almost always appropriate for her to be the one making the ask. This is the moment of truth, and there are standard tactics for improving the odds of success. The first is to ask the prospect to “consider” a gift of a specific amount, payable over a specific time period, for a specific purpose. (The verb “consider” is generally preferred because it is sufficiently direct without being overly aggressive). The next and most important tactic for the neophyte solicitor to remember is this: once you’ve asked, shut up. The silence may drag on awkwardly for a moment or two and the solicitors may feel a powerful urge to fill the void with nervous small talk or even to list reasons why the prospect might find the gift difficult to make. This urge must be resisted. However long it takes let the prospect be the next one to speak. Her answer will often be positive, and, if not, may well provide helpful information that will increase the odds of success in a subsequent solicitation.

Corporate and Foundation Relations (CFR). There is an old advancement witticism that the correct answer to any question about development is: “it depends.” This is certainly the case when it comes to corporate and foundation fundraising. The potential for corporate support will vary tremendously depending on the mission of the institution and its geographical setting. At a liberal arts college located in central Maine, corporate support is likely to be modest; at a business or engineering school, or a major research university located near major cities, corporate gifts can be a powerful factor in achieving institutional goals.

Corporate giving follows its own rules depending on the company. Sometimes corporate gifts represent a perk of the CEO, who will lavish support on her alma mater. Some companies have highly formal processes for awarding corporate support and the interference of the CEO on behalf of a pet institution can be counter-productive, engendering resentment and resistance among corporate giving staff. Foundations can be equally idiosyncratic, which is simply to say that they are more likely to be driven by their own missions, goals, processes, and timelines than those of the hopeful presidential supplicant.

Both corporations and foundations are increasingly inclined to use grant-making in pursuit of their own agendas, and it is the responsibility of the university president as well as the appropriate development staff to make sure that institutional energy and resources are not invested in pursuing or implementing grants that deflect the college from its own mission and priorities. The effective CFR officer will combine a deep knowledge of and commitment to her institution’s priorities with a keen sense of each corporation’s and foundation’s agenda in pursuit of matches that are mutually rewarding. Such a colleague can be invaluable to a president, steering her away from time-wasting efforts and targeting her energies on the most promising opportunities.

Alumni Relations. The president’s relations with alumni are, of course, the raison d’etre of this chapter, but the formal operations of the Alumni Relations office are important for the president to understand and support.

In a well-run advancement division, the alumni relations staff will work closely and collegially with their associates in development, eschewing the unhelpful, smug, and all too common attitude that their mission is about relationships while development officers are crassly interested only in money. (The opposing tendency of development officers to consider alumni relations professionals frivolous balloon-inflators and party-givers should also be squelched).

In fact, the work of the alumni relations staff is essential to the substantive and broad-based engagement of alumni in the life of the institution. They must create substantive volunteer opportunities, recruit, train, and support appropriate volunteers in those roles, communicate regularly and effectively with alumni (and facilitate alumni communications with each other), and make sure that the president and the institution appropriately convey their gratitude. They must work with reunion committees to organize creative and appealing reunion weekends and with regional clubs to organize and implement a rich and varied assortment of alumni events around the country. The purpose of these efforts should not be social activity for the sake of social activity – but opportunities for alumni to develop pride of affiliation with their alma mater. It is one thing for a reunion to feature beer kegs under a tent and softball games on the quad; it is quite another to feature emeriti faculty or to recruit a panel of distinguished alumni to discuss important current issues. Alumni golf outings are all very well, but the institutional mission will be better served if alumni are engaged in events and activities that reflect the mission and values of the college. Conversations with student leaders, a museum tour hosted by an art history professor, reports by faculty on ground-breaking research, Q&A with the president about the new strategic plan enrich the purely social occasion and leave alumni with a sense that they are part of something worthwhile and important.

The president should be featured prominently and substantively in alumni events both on and off the campus, but not at the risk of overexposure. It may be difficult for presidents to fathom this, but most alumni enjoy a variety of speakers from the College at local events.

Development Operations. Although the president will seldom play a direct role in development operations, he is ultimately responsible for the smooth functioning of the fundraising effort and thus will need to assure himself that the complex functions of the “back-shop” are handled professionally. The president’s best efforts to build strong relations with alumni can also be quickly undercut by sloppy backshop practices (for example, the failure to maintain accurate presidential salutations in the database and use them appropriately in mail-merge correspondence). Development operations include stewardship and donor relations, gift entry, data management, prospect research, and development marketing and communications. While the proper organization of these functions lies beyond the scope of this essay, suffice it to say that presidents should realize that successful development programs are extremely dependent on the sophisticated and intensive use of accurate prospect data. Mature development programs will require dedicated development software and all that goes with it in terms of servers, data entry clerks, programmer analysts, etc. While it is certainly possible to squander resources on information technology through poor choices and inept implementation, it is not possible to run a sophisticated development program without adequate information technology.

The Role of the Trustees. While the preceding paragraphs stress the critical leadership role the President plays in a successful development program, the simple truth is he (and the development staff) cannot shoulder the full burden alone. Trustee giving sets the bar for all other constituencies. A board that regards philanthropy as a problem thankfully delegated to the president will hobble even the most effective and experienced fund raising leader. Trustees should give promptly, generously, and repeatedly to both the annual fund and capital efforts – and should be sure to set an example by supporting agreed upon institutional priorities rather than pet projects. The president who can count on her board of Trustees to give sacrificially is positioned for fundraising success.

Leading the Charge

Once the president has inherited or created a well organized, extraordinarily talented, highly motivated, and fully staffed[6] development operation and once the trustees are fully committed to their own philanthropic support of institutional priorities, the stage may be set for fundraising success. Success, however, is not assured without energetic and effective presidential leadership.

Many chief development officers can recount tales of frustration when the fleet was ready to sail, but the admiral wouldn’t choose a destination or an objective. It is understandable that new presidents will want to learn the ropes before declaring major fund raising priorities – this is prudent and necessary. But, to shift maritime metaphors, a development staff is like a shark that only feeds while it is moving forward, so it is important for the president to identify at least some urgent interim goals into which the development staff can sink its teeth while the strategic plan and its inevitable sequel, the capital campaign, are in the works. Frequently such interim goals will focus on growing the annual fund, increasing financial aid endowment, or the like. It is most helpful if such goals can segue logically and naturally into the priorities of the next major campaign.

Campaign planning should if at all possible evolve from institutional strategic planning – a process that the President leads but in which s/he involves as many stakeholders as possible – both on and off the campus. The goal of strategic planning is to create a shared vision of the institution’s future – a vision that is realistic but aspirational, that identifies clear and measurable objectives, that clarifies priorities, and that unites the institutional community in consensus about their importance. Buy-in by faculty and staff is important, of course but – because any strategic plan worthy of the name will inevitably require substantial incremental resources - ownership of the plan by the alumni, particularly trustees and major prospects is equally crucial. Orchestrating a process that engages these individuals in substantive, effective, and helpful ways is one of the President’s most important jobs.

The campaign plan translates the goals and priorities of the strategic plan into a sequence of actions that will identify the donors and secure the gifts that will make the plan a reality.

Presidential attitudes toward campaign planning run the gamut from the foot-dragging, hand-wringing “aim – aim – aim” approach to the impulsive “ready-fire-aim” leap of faith. Neither extreme is likely to maximize the chances of success. As Sophocles said, “moderation is best.” In the case of campaign planning, “moderation” means moving forward briskly and deliberately, but taking the time to ensure that key stakeholders (not just the development staff but the prospects for lead gifts) are part of the decision-making process and take ownership of the campaign as well as the strategic plan.

I once knew a president who returned from a foundation visit convinced that a major grant would be forthcoming if only his College were in a campaign. “Let’s announce on Monday,” he said to his development vice president on Friday afternoon. Another president told her chief development officer: “I already know what the campaign goal should be: $150 million – half for endowed scholarships, a quarter for endowed chairs, and the rest for new facilities.” Fortunately, in both cases the development vice president persuaded the president to build a campaign planning process and timetable that would bring key donors on board well before the public kickoff.

Because the ultimate outcome of the campaign will determine the ultimate success or failure of her tenure, the president must, of course, take active measures to ensure that the development staff is planning meticulously for success. How many gifts will be required in each range to ensure that the goal will be met? How many prospects must be solicited to yield those gifts? How many of those prospects have actually been identified, and how confident can we be that their potential has been accurately assessed and that they have been adequately cultivated and engaged? What campaign accounting standards will the institution employ?[7] How will the incremental costs of the campaign be budgeted? What will the volunteer leadership structure be, and who are the key volunteers who must be recruited personally by the president? Where will the kickoff event be held, who will speak, and how will the institution make the event gala without seeming profligate? These are only a few of the questions that the president must ask – and that the development staff must answer to his satisfaction.

As important as pacing, timing, and planning is the president’s ability to articulate meaningful goals for the campaign that represent a shared vision of her institution’s future. The trick is not to list “needs” but to identify “opportunities.” The essential questions that a campaign case statement must answer for the potential donor are: “Why should I support this institution? Why these objectives? Why now?” But beyond addressing these over-arching questions, the president must work with his senior staff to develop an array of “naming gifts” that will appeal to the broadest possible range of donor interests and giving capacities, while dovetailing neatly with the institution’s strategic priorities. The successful fund raising president can explain joyously, enthusiastically, and convincingly how gifts of every size will advance the cause of knowledge, enrich civilization, and leave her institution positioned for even greater service to society in the future.

The effective institutional bard who can compose an inspirational saga answering these questions is well on his way to launching an effective fundraising campaign. All that’s left to do is spend the next five years on airplanes, in hotels, in prospects’ homes and offices, and at campaign events singing the song with the passion and excitement it – and the institution – deserve (while continuing to teach, work daily with faculty and students, go to all student events, and discharge the other “normal” responsibilities of the president).

Summing Up

It is impossible to imagine a successful college presidency that isn’t rooted in strong and, on the whole, affectionate relations with the institution’s alumni. Presidents cannot please everybody all the time, nor should they try (indeed, this is a sure path to ineffectiveness and failure). But respect for the alumni, for their unique perspective on the institution, and for their role as stakeholders in its progress are essential elements in a president’s success. Every president must remember that he is a steward – the keeper of a trust that has been vouchsafed him for a relatively short span of an institution’s history. His responsibility is to make that span as productive and distinguished as possible, passing the institution along to his successor with the same grace, care, and affection that has characterized his tenure.

[1] I have been greeted by an unexpected “Hi President Helm!” from students and alumni in California airports, Maine shopping malls, and even coming out of lunch at an Applebee’s in Maryland.

[2] The Spirit of Liberty, 1944.

[3] For example: Securing the Future, Michael J. Worth, AGB 2005; The President and Fundraising, James L. Fisher and Gary Quehl (ed.), ACE/Macmillan 1989; Born to Raise, Jerold Panas, Bonus Books 1988.

[4] While mail-merge technology can provide efficient personalization, it can also produce embarrassing errors that make Presidents and Development Officers appear to be morons. A distinguished judge once pointed out to me that his annual fund appeal included this howler: “Your gift of $0.00 made a tremendous impact on the University last year.” Somehow those drafting the letter and preparing the data for mail merge had forgotten about the unintended consequences of including lapsed donors in the mailing.

[5] The “philanthropy gene” is a term of my own invention and does not refer to an actual gene so much as an individual’s personal proclivity to give generously. The metaphorical philanthropy gene is dominant in some prospects (we call these prospects “donors”), recessive in others, and totally missing in some. It is unfortunate that we cannot anticipate breakthroughs in gene therapy that will make all financially capable prospects philanthropic.

[6] In fact, development offices are almost never fully staffed, given the high rate of turnover and job mobility in this important field. Since development is fundamentally a relationship-based business and turn-over can undermine its effectiveness, the president should assign a high priority to retaining effective development officers.

[7] Standard campaign accounting rules devised and promulgated by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education are the most commonly used. See: http://www.case.org/Content/AboutCASE/Display.cfm?CONTENTITEMID=6124&RETURNTO=%252FIndexBrowser%252Ecfm%253FindexEntryID%253D201

Follow

©2018 by Torrey-Helm. Proudly created with Wix.com