Changing the World

August 05, 2008

Last month a fund-raising trip to Philadelphia provided me an occasion to revisit old haunts: the University of Pennsylvania, where I attended college as an undergraduate.

I hadn't been on the campus for about eight years, so I was a bit surprised by the changes I saw. New buildings, high-tech classrooms, a redesigned quad, chic shops dotting the perimeter — signs of progress at every turn. If only I'd benefited from all of that 20 years ago.

But that's what a capital campaign will do for you. Right around the time I was leaving, Penn started a campaign that would realize more than $1-billion. Obviously, some of that money, along with subsequent contributions, turned a somewhat shabby campus into a showpiece.

One of my stops was the development office. I had read about the university's new $3.5-billion campaign and wanted to collect some marketing materials. Folks in that office were happy to oblige and share a hot-off-the-press release announcing a $50-million gift. I figured that if I landed $50-million for my employer, I could take the next five years off.

Back at the hotel, I pored over Penn's campaign brochure. What will $3.5-billion do for the university? I wondered. Wrong question. The question, it turns out, is, What will $3.5-billion do for the world?

The campaign materials talk about shaping the future, solving societal problems, curing diseases, serving mankind. How can you, the prospective donor, aid in that cause? Give us money, and we'll put it to good use. Ben Franklin, after all, was no ivory-tower denizen.

I suppose Penn, like other premier universities, is poised to do all of that, or at least to give it a shot.

Yet what about the rest of the colleges and universities, those not seeking billions of dollars but waging relatively modest campaigns? You know, colleges like mine. We can't promise to change the world through remarkable scientific achievements or by helping governments write new constitutions. Our humble claims equal our humble goals.

At least that's what I've gleaned from the dozens of campaign brochures, case statements, and marketing materials I have reviewed lately.

Smaller colleges with smaller fund-raising goals talk of opportunity. We have an opportunity, they say, to improve our status and standing in the educational community and to rise in the rankings. We have an opportunity to increase scholarship aid, to recruit better faculty members, to build new facilities, and to purchase new equipment. We can change lives and improve our communities one student at a time.

Their brochures use words like "potential," "aspiration," "access," and "affordability." They want to "seize the momentum," to "harness resources" for tomorrow. They hold high the dollar goal, worshiping the figure as a holy grail of monetary triumph. All else follows that number.

And they appeal to alumni pride by highlighting historical achievements, touting recent accomplishments on and off the athletics fields, and suggesting that the old alma mater can finally "achieve greatness" with more dollars.

Above all, small campaigns look inward. The prevailing pronoun is "we.' The most common verb is "need." "You" appears mainly as "your," as in "we need your contributions" because we want to improve — or, in some cases, survive.

Megacampaigns at major institutions are different. They focus less on opportunity and more on responsibility. We have a responsibility to improve our nation and our planet, to shape policy and cure diseases, to maintain access and diversity, and to spend some of our largess on scholarship aid. We have a responsibility to prove we're using your money wisely. Otherwise, you might stop sending it.

Such lofty claims betray a slight case of guilt, and perhaps serve to justify campaigns that seek to gild an already overbright lily. Do those institutions really "need" more money, the same way small colleges do? Of course not. So how can they inspire donors to continue giving, aside from appealing to ego and a sense of competitive pride?

By offering hefty returns on investments. Who doesn't want to cure cancer or eradicate hunger or fix the judicial system or improve race relations? Aren't we more likely to achieve that on major campuses, where the best minds collect to push the boundaries of applied research? Aren't this generation's brightest students — tomorrow's leaders and problem-solvers — more likely to attend such institutions? Why not invest in the best?

Visit those campaign Web sites, and you'll get the picture. In many cases, you can download the case statements and review rationales for yourself. What you'll find most often is not an outright articulation of needs but a justification of "wants" based on past and predicted results. Page after page will talk about achievements and milestones and impact, about student industriousness, faculty ingenuity, and alumni successes. You'll see what amazing discoveries lie on the horizon, just waiting for a billion-dollar bridge to be built. Numerical goals appear later in the document, as if to say, "Now that you've seen what we can do with your money, let's get down to business."

And you'll find yourself front and center. "You" is the operative pronoun in those materials. The message resonates outwardly. It's almost personal, though you know it's really not.

The upshot? Wage a billion-dollar campaign, and the campaign is about the message, and what philanthropy can do for you. Wage a small campaign, and the campaign is about the money, and what that money can do for us.

Now I'm offering, of course, a column-sized oversimplification of what's out there, but I believe there's more than a kernel of truth to all this, as unscientific as my review of the campaign literature may be. And I think there's a lesson for those of us planning small campaigns — that is, most of us in this business.

Follow the lead of the big boys. Focus on the message, not the money. Stress results, not need. Your impact may not be so dramatic, and such rhetoric may come across as slightly absurd or, at best, highly optimistic. Still, education at every level improves lives. Prove it.

Look outward, not inward. Talk about you, the donor — not we, the institution. Reverse the order of importance: You, the donor, benefit from making this contribution, and so do we.

And we little guys also have a responsibility, not just an opportunity to seize something. Our responsibility may not be so grandiose, but it's important nonetheless.

As a fan of higher education, a student of philanthropy, and a proud member of the human-race booster club, I certainly hope that top institutions achieve the ambitious goals set forth in their campaign materials. I also hope colleges that lurk in the shadows of the billion-dollar behemoths get their fair share. We may not be expected to change the world, but we'd sure appreciate a chance to try.

Mark J. Drozdowski is executive director of the Fitchburg State College Foundation, in Massachusetts. He writes a monthly column on career issues in fund raising and development.