A Foundation Leader’s Advice: Come to the Meeting Prepared

December 11, 2016

During my years as a provost and then as a college president, I often called on foundation officers, sometimes even foundation presidents. For the past three years, I have been a foundation president myself. Thus, I have seen such meetings from both sides now. For campus officials looking to improve their approach, I offer the following counsel.

Come prepared. As a senior academic administrator, I was blessed with excellent colleagues in the development office who specialized in fund raising from foundations and corporations. They carefully researched the foundation I planned to visit and made sure I was informed about its priorities. They also worked closely with the faculty and with staff members involved in any program for which we would be seeking support, helped me review grant proposals, and strategized with me on how the meeting should proceed. As a result, I was well prepared for any meeting I would be attending alone. And should a development colleague be accompanying me, we were clear on which role each of us should play.

That kind of close, collegial relationship between a provost or president and a foundation-oriented development officer is ideal. The result is that staff at the foundation get to have a conversation with campus visitors who have spent quality time perusing the foundation’s website, are aware of its mission and current priorities, and are prepared to explore convergences between those priorities and those of the college or university itself.

For example, if the foundation tends to support collaborating groups of institutions, as is the case with my own Teagle Foundation, the visitors should be armed with that knowledge and have some relevant suggestions. They should understand that an especially strong case would have to be made for a grant to a single institution and should be prepared with arguments about why they deserve to be an exception. And since many foundations, including Teagle, have a strong interest in disseminating the results of funded projects, it is useful for visitors to mention consortia in which they participate.

Look to the future. Because foundation grants tend to be given over a limited number of years — as opposed to constituting permanent unions — it is also important for senior administrators to be able to make a convincing case for how the grant-supported transformations will endure beyond the period of the grant. In this connection, foundation officers will be on the lookout for evidence that the project in question is a high priority for the institution itself.

Emphasize the foundation. To be sure, it is both appropriate and interesting for part of a meeting with the foundation to involve some general conversation about the college or university, including features of its history and anecdotes about significant (and possibly entertaining) aspects of its current academic and campus life. At the same time, while it is understandable that college administrators might want to impress upon foundation officers what is quintessentially wonderful about their respective institutions, two points should be kept in mind: 1. some — though not all — of the features they believe to be distinctive are, in fact, widely shared among comparable institutions, and 2. the best wonders to emphasize are those that resonate with what the foundation considers wonderful about itself.

Inspire confidence. Because effective leadership is a key component of the success of a project, it is important that the visitors inspire confidence. This is, in fact, sufficiently important that my Teagle colleagues and I make a point of contacting presidents, provosts, and senior faculty leaders ourselves if we consider them likely to be effective partners.

We make a point of contacting presidents, provosts, and senior faculty leaders ourselves if we consider them likely to be effective partners.
A record of impressive leadership can even make up for the absence of a relatively specific approach in an initial meeting, since it may portend effective collaboration in the future. One notable success story involves an organization that works with a large number of colleges and universities. When they came to us initially, there was insufficient alignment for a grant to proceed. We were, however, impressed with their accomplishments. In time, they came to include a focus very much in line with the Teagle Foundation’s priorities, and we have since worked together very successfully. In another case, a senior administrator came to us with a new idea of how we could support our own core mission, which he understood well and respected. That meeting and the special grant that resulted from it were the beginning of a new Teagle initiative that emphasizes incorporating the liberal arts into business and engineering programs.

On the other hand, we received multiple requests for general operating support from an institution when it was clear from our website (and also from prior direct communication between that institution and our program staff) that we are not in a position to offer such support. We have also been approached with proposals relating to work supported by the foundation in the past by institutional representatives who have clearly not taken account of our current priorities as outlined on our website.

While all this advice might seem both obvious and familiar, readers may be surprised to know that it bears emphasizing. I say this as a foundation president who has enjoyed and learned from all of my meetings with senior academic administrators, but who has formed rewarding partnerships with only some of them. Those we did not partner with were those who seemed to come only for the purpose of advertising themselves; those we went on to work with were those who approached us as colleagues engaged in a common pursuit.

Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation and a former president of Barnard College.