The Professor as Fund Raiser

July 13, 2009

Being part of the central development operation of a large university gives me and my colleagues the distinct pleasure of working with a very diverse group of schools and divisions. From liberal arts to medicine, and engineering to public health, we raise money for the entire institution. With that charge comes the responsibility of working with faculty members whose backgrounds and job titles are as diverse as their fields.

I consider that one of the perks of my job. How many other professions get the opportunity to work directly with surgical pioneers, authors of great novels, Nobel Prize winners, and the like?

I see a lot of faculty members at our institution and elsewhere who are deeply engaged in fund raising. They jump at the chance to meet with a prospective donor to discuss their research or they provide terrific stewardship letters to describe how we are already using a donor's gift. They are our "go to" faculty members, whenever a major donor is involved.

However, I also observe many other faculty members who don't participate in fund raising the way we would like, or are suspicious of us because they don't quite understand what we do. Generally, philanthropy is not what faculty members contemplate as they teach students, cure diseases, and look for new galaxies. We wish they would dwell on the importance of donors as much as we do, but it's not part of their daily routine. Frustrated by their lack of interest, we sometimes write them off.

We can't afford to do that. After all, along with our students and patients (on the medical side), faculty members are the lifeblood of our institutions. Many times, they are the reason we are talking to prospective donors in the first place. So we must have faculty members engaged with us, as partners in our fund-raising activities.

The most effective way to get faculty members involved —and my favorite approach —is to be direct: Ask them.

Every institution has its fund-raising "rock stars," people who are just waiting to be called on to help and are good at it. Those faculty members understand the importance of philanthropy to our institutions. They are the professors we love to invite to lunch with prospective donors, because they connect well with everyone —the dean who has an electrifying way of making even engineering sound exciting and the clinical faculty member who always has a good story about her patients. Keep a list of their success stories in fund raising and use them as examples when working with others who may be more reluctant.

Better yet, ask the rock stars to help you by talking about their fund-raising successes with their peers. It's probably no coincidence that the rock stars are the faculty members who have raised the most money and have the most resources to work with in their fields. Give them the opportunity to explain how they collaborated with you to successfully raise money for the institution.

Hearing about fund-raising success from another faculty member may break down any misconceptions others have about the development office, and make them more comfortable working with us. As we already know from the fund raising we do around reunions, nothing beats peer-to-peer communication.

Another strategy is as simple as remembering to include faculty members when you distribute updates on the institution's fund-raising priorities and campaigns. Just as we want our alumni, parents, and grateful patients to know about the institution's plans, so, too, should we remember to update our internal partners.

When I am working with faculty members, I try to remember that we all like to experience victory, at least every once in a while. It's difficult for busy faculty members to continue to give their spare time to work on fund raising, when all it leads to is a response of "maybe" or "not at this time." So just as we like to "tee up" some asks for our senior leadership, I try to remember to create a few successful opportunities for our faculty members.

Don't misunderstand; I'm not suggesting that we waste faculty members' time by asking them to seek gifts that are already closed. However, we have plenty of opportunities to bring a professor into a conversation to seal the deal with a donor. That gives the donor the opportunity to meet someone at the institution who will be assisted by their generosity and gives faculty members a chance to talk about their work and say thank you. The connection usually leads to a stronger, more personal, and continuing relationship between donors and our institutions.

Faculty and staff campaigns can also be a terrific way to educate our internal audience, as well as raise much-needed support. During successful campaigns, I've witnessed faculty members taking lead roles in talking about the importance of giving. Through brochures, e-mail messages, Web-site announcements, and campus gatherings, faculty members have proved to be one of our biggest assets during an internal campaign.

If you haven't already done so, developing a set of faculty fund-raising policies, and even a guide to working with the development office, may be the way to go on your campus. The idea is to encourage participation by opening a line of communication between our offices and the academic departments, as well as to provide our internal partners with a point of contact in the development office.

Many times I have overheard my fellow fund raisers lament the fact that professors have set out on their own to raise money for a special need or project. But in most of those cases, the development officers did not provide a clear way for faculty members to communicate their desires. The professors didn't understand that the development office would prefer to help rather than have professors approach the same people we were already cultivating.

Open, internal communication is important, but positive reinforcement helps, too.

A terrific example of that is the University of Arizona Foundation's faculty fund-raising award. Endowed last fall by the foundation's board, the award is given annually to honor faculty members on the campus who demonstrate leadership in fund raising for the university. The inaugural award went to Soyeon Shim, director of the university's School of Family and Consumer Sciences, who helped lead a successful $25-million capital campaign for her school. "I believe deans and department heads should take an active role in fund raising," she said. Jim Moore, president of the UA Foundation, said Shim's "individual passion for her program and her desire to help students and colleagues is exactly what is necessary to engage donors at a leadership level."

Not stopping there, the UA Foundation took a further step toward recognizing strong internal partnerships and named the award for Eugene Sander, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who founded the university's "Deans Plus Development Committee," which encourages active fund-raising involvement at the college and department level. It appears the UA Foundation hit a home run with this award and will be doing so for years to come.

If faculty involvement in fund raising is not a common practice for you or your development office, it may be time to start. And even if you're an old pro at getting professors on board, it may be time to reassess which internal partners need your attention.

Start by setting goals for the coming fiscal year to include faculty members in cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship of donors. Don't forget to offer opportunities to educate them on what we do in the world of development. Remember, unlike us, philanthropy is not on their minds 24 hours a day; advancing knowledge and educating our students is. But we need the former to achieve the latter.

Jeff Schoenherr is director of the regional and international major-gifts program at the Johns Hopkins Institutions. He writes regularly for The Chronicle's Careers section about career issues in university fund raising and development.