Leadership and Fund Raising at Fisk University

I’ve written about Fisk University before—most recently for my blog Access Granted, which is on the Diverse Issues in Higher Education Web site. As I’ve mentioned in the past, Fisk has a venerable history of educating top students who went on to become top scholars and leaders throughout the country and beyond. These leaders are one of the hallmarks of the institutions—individuals such as two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author David Levering Lewis, poet Nikki Giovanni, Vanderbilt philosophy professor Lucius Outlaw, and Ambassador to the Bahamas Timothy Donaldson.

Recently some of these leaders wrote to the board of trustees of Fisk University, asking for the resignation of Fisk President Hazel O’Leary (also a distinguished graduate of the institution having served as President Clinton’s energy secretary). Although the disgruntled alumni are upset with many facets of O’Leary’s leadership, they seem most angered by her apparent lack of fundraising on behalf of the institution. In their letter they wrote, “And while we have waited for the expected courageous and visionary leadership announcing a capital campaign, we have lived through Hazel O’Leary’s appointing almost as many persons to lead the Office of Institutional Advancement as the number of years she has served as president. You know only too well that this office is utterly crucial for a capital campaign as well as for regular, ongoing fundraising and cultivation of supporters. Here, too, a failure of leadership by Hazel O’Leary” (3).

O’Leary has had some success, however. For example, she received a Mellon Foundation challenge grant in 2007 that matched every dollar Fisk raised with 50 cents of the foundation’s money. As a result, in fiscal year 2008, the institution raised a record $8.3-million. In total, according to the Chair of Fisk’s Board of Trustees Robert W. Norton, O’Leary, along with the board, has raised $26-million during her tenure. This figure is, according to Norton, above the national yearly average for HBCUs—Fisk raised $4.3-million/year under O’Leary’s presidency while other HBCUs raised $3.1-million/year on average. Unfortunately, for an institution that needs $120-million to get back on its feet and is averaging a deficit of $2-million a year, this kind of fundraising success is not enough.

According to a recent Nashville Tennessean interview with the Fisk president, she spends about 40 percent of her time raising money for the institution and plans on spending 50 percent in the coming year. She is going to have to spend even more time—more like 70 percent, relying on the provost to steer the campus in her absence—in order to make progress.

To truly succeed, O’Leary needs to bring in a powerhouse fundraiser to work with her—someone who has experience raising large amounts of money and connections throughout the nation with seriously wealthy individuals. There is no other option. And that fundraiser needs a team of frontline fundraisers with whom to work.

As one of the presidents I interviewed for a new book on fundraising at HBCUs (with my colleague Nelson Bowman III, of Prairie View A&M University) said, “you need to have a team of individuals in place and you need to meet with them every week. You need to always be on top of the fundraising strategy. Never take your eye off of it. You need a solid, consistent team.”

Constant turnover in the development office is not good—at all. At this point, Fisk needs to look for the best fundraising leader and team possible. The institution must reconcile with disgruntled alumni and bring them on board to uplift the institution. Fisk alumni are known for being fiercely loyal and supporting their institution. They need to do it more now than ever.

Lastly, the university needs to talk about the wonderful programs, students, and accomplishments of the institution. Positive messages resonate with donors; begging for help does not. Fortunately, Fisk has much to be proud of in its past and now. The institution is ranked among the top ten HBCUs by U.S. News and World Report, it produces more African American graduates in the natural sciences that any other college or university in the country, it has an amazing track record for graduating low-income students (something about which most institutions can’t brag), it has a world-class choir—the Jubilee Singers (if you haven’t seen them, you haven’t witnessed singing), it has a NASA-sponsored rocket program that gives students hands on experience learning physics, and it boasts an art collection—both American and African—that rivals collections in major cities. There is a lot to support at Fisk University; garnering that support will take supreme leadership.

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