Academic Workplace 2013

Don't Fear Fund Raising

Donors are not your students; you don't have to stick to the lesson plan

Illustration by Harry Campbell

July 22, 2013

To paraphrase the opening line of Peter Mayle's popular travel memoir, A Year in Provence, my life as fund-raiser-in-chief for the journalism school at the University of Iowa began at dinner.

It was the summer of 2009, and I had just become director of the school. It was my first face-to-face contact with a donor, an alumnus of the university who, appropriately, wanted to help start a program that could train undergraduates for careers in philanthropy, specifically as professional development officers—that is, fund raisers. I felt that this wonderful, original concept—and its focus on oral and written communication skills, persuasion, and public relations—would be a great fit with our program.

I met the prospective donor for dinner in Chicago, along with a development officer from our university foundation. After minimal small talk, we got down to business: Our idea was to create an interdisciplinary certificate program in "Fundraising and Philanthropy Communication." I covered such issues as the timeline and the basics of curriculum design. Following advice from the development officer, I spoke the language of "return on investment": The donor's money would produce timely, measurable results that would help students through defined outcomes.

By dessert we had dealt with all his queries and concerns. A few weeks later he made the commitment and donated $100,000 to our new venture. Since then he and several other major donors have committed more to the program, which is now up and running, based at the Iowa journalism school, serving more than 50 students and 14 other departments. Last year we were even able to make a tenure-track hire in philanthropy communication with a focus on social media.

My story is not unique. Anyone considering a career in college administration must learn to practice the art and science of working with donors. In eras of tight budgets, especially at state institutions, many department heads and even faculty members are being recruited and instructed (or begged) to join the effort. For example, in the spring of 2013 at Iowa, the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences convened a meeting to start training department chairs in more depth to support fund-raising efforts in a capital campaign. I was asked to give a talk because of my experience in reaching out to donors. My theme: Don't fear fund raising.

I also passed on one major observation to the audience: My 20 previous years of teaching and research in higher education both augmented and undermined the skills I needed for donor development. People making the transition from full-time educator to part-time money raiser should appreciate the similarities and differences between those professions:

You will be a beginner. By the time your faculty career has progressed so that you are qualified to be a department administrator, you may have accumulated years of experience, titles, and status as a scholar and teacher. Your new job carries the designation of chair, director, or dean. You are, in a word, a "senior" in academe.

Then, suddenly, you are a freshman again. Almost every administrator I know recalls being dropped into fund raising and development without having taken any classes or workshops and often without even having participated in fund raising at a preadministrative post—as was my case when I started at Iowa as director of its School of Journalism and Mass Communication. In my job interview, I had emphasized that I was "willing to learn" and enthusiastic about donor and alumni outreach.

So when the promotion comes, be ready to go back to school as a pupil. I read books and articles, both scholarly and popular, on fund raising and development. I took excellent training workshops. Most of all, I considered myself to be an apprentice to the experienced advancement professionals at our university foundation.

You are speaking for everyone. A basic tenet of good administration is: Don't play favorites. You may have a longtime research track in one area of your discipline, but you will fail as a department chair if you appear to be championing that subfield above all others. Likewise, when you start fund raising, you represent everyone and everything that your department does. You need to be able to explain and show the value of disparate kinds of teaching and scholarship, programs, and projects to nonacademics. You are also providing, to borrow the language of accounting, a subcertification that a particular cause is worth supporting—even if that cause was, until you boned up on it, alien to you.

Being a spokesman (or spokeswoman) highlights the personal-trust factor in donor relations. To donors, you are the face, voice, and character of your program. They want to hear what its accomplishments and challenges are—candidly, accurately, and without cant or spin. Officially and legally they are potentially giving money to your department for some good outcome to help your students or faculty members, but in a very personal sense they are giving the money to you—that is, trusting you with it, as its solicitor but also as its steward. As a university-foundation representative explained to me, "They see us as salespeople; they see you as the CEO of the company. For any big business deal, they want to meet the guy or woman in charge, not just the sales force."

You must show that you will pay attention to how their money is allocated and watch over its continuing benefits.

Learn to listen as well as pitch. Faculty members in some disciplines, such as anthropology and journalism, are trained to be good listeners, and most professors like a good conversation.

But working with donors involves many nuances that the novice may not pick up on right away. Donor meetings are rarely PowerPoint-aided lectures; at a lunch or coffee meeting, donors may have no agenda, and the academic fund raiser's role is to listen more than to guide. Many donors, for instance, prefer not to discuss donations at length. The amount and the kind of donation can be brought up, agreed to, and dispensed with over a few minutes at the end of a two-hour lunch—typically by the development officer who often joins you for the meeting.

Such donors prefer to declare how much they love their alma mater, or reminisce about their wonderful professors, or assert how a program contributed to their professional success. Indeed, in cataloging the more than 100 donor meetings I have participated in since my first such dinner, I could find enough material to write up an oral history of Iowa's journalism school.

The point is to hear donors out. You may come into a meeting with a prepared "ask." But they are not your students, and you don't need to stick to the lesson plan.

Learn the language of "return on investment." Donations to universities are often made with idealistic intent. A family whose wealth was gained in the insurance industry that wants to endow a chair in violin to honor a mother who always loved classical music is, in fact, trying to create some higher good without any accounting chart attached to it. And older donors may simply want to "give back" to their old school.

Modern donors, however, typically define "good" through the metric of "return on investment." They want to know what measurable outcomes we project. For example, in outlining the new program in philanthropy studies to the potential benefactor, I eventually laid out a timeline and a grid—dates, actions, personnel costs—projecting what would happen each semester for the next two years. I detailed those actions: surveying what was taught in philanthropy education across American universities and colleges, redesigning courses, cross-listing courses in business and law and several other disciplines, starting a student club, applying for approval of the certificate program, and so on.

In short, we told the donor: If you help us, we will make these specific things happen. We are accountable. The worst thing to say to donors is, "Don't worry; we'll take care of it." They want to know more and in detail.

You are a matchmaker, so think about value for both sides. What you and your faculty consider to be the department's priorities should not be forced on potential donors. Yes, you should speak enthusiastically about your greatest needs (phrasing them as "greatest potential areas for success") and your goals. But as a friend of mine who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for political causes put it, "Don't forget that it's their money and their passion."

Listening, however, doesn't just mean sitting back while a donor recalls the joys of his freshman year. It means finding out what cause really excites him and translating that into something that benefits your program. For instance, if he says he really appreciated a professor who motivated him during his undergraduate days, you can demonstrate how endowing a professorship in the same area will help attract or maintain faculty talent to benefit current and future students.

You are, thus, a form of matchmaker in several senses of the word. You want to connect good money with good causes, but sometimes you must say no to ideas that can't work, would be unacceptable to your faculty, or would raise ethical issues. Sometimes what donors consider priorities can't or shouldn't be imposed on a department. In academe, forced-fit gifts are as unsustainable as forced marriages. You are the interlocutor and interpolater between worlds and must make the initial judgments and the long-term projections about what can and cannot work out.

Think long-term as well as short-term. Another dimension of fund raising is making contacts that may benefit your department financially, but not necessarily right away. Professors are probably "medium term" thinkers as professions go. University researchers plan multiyear projects; they certainly enter into tenure tracks lasting six years. But development work can extend decades, even across generations.

For example, many alumni help the institutions they care about through legacy bequests. My job with such donors is to keep them updated about our progress, ask their advice, and (implicitly) communicate that their future munificence is (and will be) well appreciated. In other cases, I may talk to people whose giving plans are uncertain; we simply want to keep in contact until they decide that they want to give, even if that decision is a long way off.

One foundation development officer put it this way: "Sometimes the return on investment of our time will come to our successors."

You are part of a team. Faculty members, of course, are used to working on committees, and many researchers collaborate on projects. But the grit of scholarly productivity often involves solitary thinking, data analysis, and typing.

In contrast, no fund raiser works alone. As the donor who gave us that $100,000 pointed out to me, his own contribution came at the tail end of many contacts with the campus foundation. Although I was the latest and chief "maker of the case," I was part of a group effort of faculty members, consultants, alumni, students, staff members, development professionals, and, of course, the significant intellectual contribution of the donor himself.

An illustration comes from another chapter in the building of our philanthropy-communication program. Our major benefactor visited the school after the program had started. We brought together the program coordinator, key development officers from the foundation, myself, and, most important of all, a student who had signed up for the certificate. We marshaled all the facts (the analytics and metrics, in business parlance): what actions had been taken, progress on the curriculum, number of students signed up for the program, support from other donors. I asked our terrific graphics-and-design professor to put together a one-page newsletter presenting these facts clearly and attractively.

The totality of our presentation was useful, I think, but the student was the real star. Her enthusiasm and her narrative—about how she looked forward to a career helping philanthropic causes, including health research—were infectious. At the end of the meeting, our benefactor committed another major donation to the program. Yay, team!

As a newcomer to fund raising, you will be propelled into a time machine where you feel like an undergraduate again, exploring and learning a novel field with new protocols, rules of engagement, and sometimes counterintuitive wisdom. But don't fear fund raising: Ethically and pragmatically practiced, it is a stimulating adventure that is also patently necessary for the survival of higher education.

David D. Perlmutter was director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa from June 2009 to June 2013. He is now dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.