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Putting Strategy, Ambition and Guts Back Into College Fundraising

One of the fundamental mistakes made by presidents is to confuse what donors want with what their institution needs.
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One of the tired adages about American higher education is that the role of the university president is "to live in a big house and travel the world with a tin cup in one's hand." The commentary on the implosion of Gordon Gee at Ohio State University this week picks up on this theme to embellish the image of president as chief supplicant.

The role of the president has changed dramatically in the past 20 years. Fundraising is more important because the stakes are higher, the competition has intensified, and traditional revenue streams are tapped out or drying up.

In a sense, the image corresponds to the reality faced by many presidents, at least in a superficial way. At the same time, however, public perception confuses the philosophy, intent and approach.

Some presidents are rotten fundraisers. They avoid the task, delegate it to their advancement officers, and never get past the perception that fundraising somehow diminishes their commitment to the academy from which many of them came.

As one respected professor whom I admire once said to me, "I could never do what you do for a living, but I guess somebody has to do it." I smiled weakly at his comment and winced at his tone.

Other presidents are inspiring speakers who in the end cannot bring themselves to call the question with donors. A third group sees fundraising as transactional, believing that their argument is compelling and worthy of immediate support in pitches made during what should be introductory meetings. The best see fundraising, however, as an extension of the university's vision and sense of self. People give to people who have good ideas.

And then there are the donors. One of the fundamental mistakes made by presidents is to confuse what donors want with what their institution needs. Does the university really need new indoor tennis courts as the top institutional priority in the middle of the great recession? What happens when the outcome achieved through successful fundraising fails to advance the university's agenda? Was it really worth the effort and time devoted to placating the donor family in the hope that they might "give better" or more next time?

In all cases, the university's best protection is the strategic plan. The best strategic plans are living, organic and evolving documents that shape and guide the future and provide a pathway to determine direction, process, and timing.

Strategic plans determine how presidents use their time. They have -- or should have -- clear metrics by which success is measured. Boards of trustees have a responsibility when setting policy to be certain that they protect the president and advancement staff from the pressure that wealthy donors can bring.

Once the rules of engagement are clear, it is the responsibility of boards to determine the type, size, duration, and probable outcomes of the campaign. Institutions hire development counsel who often conduct "giving potential" surveys of impactful philanthropists and general alumni. They also review the institutional readiness, size, experience, and relationship depth of staff with potential contributors.

Like all good lobbyists, development counsel produce reports that are careful, measured, and expressed as a "range" when determining campaign size. The campaign report passes through standing committees for board approval. The money can come from a variety of sources, for example, including cash in hand, a change in endowment spending rates, or reallocation within the operational budget.

It is at this point that most presidents and boards make serious missteps. The size and continuous nature of campaigning make the hunt for the money often more important than how the money will advance the university.

Further, the natural tension -- student scholarship support versus endowed faculty chairs -- can become internally divisive. You can read the campaign goals to see what the university values and who won the internal political battles. And recently, the exhaustion of being in a continuous campaign can itself inhibit institutional momentum, especially if the outcomes are not clear, the board that includes major donors is led badly, and the presidents see campaigning as a necessary but intrusive distraction.

For presidents, the solution is simple. Follow the plan. Make the plan strategic, living and dynamic -- and most important -- relevant. Shape the marketing and communications strategy to link the plan to the university's vision, sense of self and sustainability. Be fearless about saying "no" to bad ideas or gifts. Always remember that it's not personal and the "ask" is not about you. Embrace and, yes -- celebrate -- that you spend part of each day with your tin cup. That's how you attracted the promising faculty members who changed their students' lives. Indeed, it may well be how the scholarship student even made it into the class.

Years later when you are writing the student's recommendation for professional school, employment, or a fellowship, you can take some satisfaction in knowing that it beats selling widgets most days. As the faculty member said, "someone has to do it."

Thank goodness for those that will follow.