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Development Directors Speak Out

How four campus leaders are helping to foster giving, from developing strong donor relations to encouraging alumni involvement
University Business, Sep 2008

RELATIONSHIPS ARE ESSENTIAL TO A development officer, whether they involve reaching out to prospective donors, landing a major gift, or encouraging alumni to financially aid their alma mater. In this virtual roundtable discussion, four officers shared with University Business their thoughts on how technological advances and attitudes toward giving are impacting their field.

Elizabeth Power Robison: The advancement division at Whittier operated with an extremely modest budget for many years, and in turn alumni giving was very flat. As we ramp up our fundraising efforts, an investment has been made to add staff and operating funds. This year we received a 20 percent increase to our budget and have been able to increase overall giving to the college by 70 percent.


Shea McGrew: Our budget is $4 million and growing. We’re a public university in a state that’s struggling economically, so it is imperative that we have a sustained development effort. The competition for gift dollars will only continue to intensify. We are building a development operation that is up to the quality and ambitions of the university.

Joseph Kender Jr.: If an institution is progressive, while budgets might be tightening elsewhere, development does not see this crunch. It’s seen as a revenue-producing investment. We can justify our budget by pointing to a proven return on investment, which means spending somewhere around 10 to 12 cents on the dollar raised. Tightening of charitable giving is simply something we are not seeing.

Elizabeth Dunn: We have had a number of record-breaking fundraising years, including the $2.38 billion Carolina First campaign and a $300-plus million cash year in the 2008 fiscal year, the largest in the university’s history. An investment in development is the best investment that the university can make: for every dollar in the development budget, fundraisers return nearly $10 back to Carolina. This success has kept our budget stable, but we are always making the case for additional resources and support.

Kender: We look at technology not only as a communications tool but also as part of a broader engagement strategy. For example, if we have a speaker at Lehigh, we like to put the speech online so those who cannot be here can feel just as engaged. The better job we can do in making Lehigh relevant in our alumni’s lives, the more engaged they will be. The more engaged they are, the more philanthropic they will be.

Robison: We launched a Poet G.O.L.D. (Graduates of the Last Decade) program this year, using Facebook, LinkedIn, and our own alumni online community site to build connections with recent graduates. We sent out our first-ever Flash e-solicitation this spring, to great success. And we invested significantly in a redesigned website that includes an updated online gift form.

McGrew: Michigan Tech uses Flash technology to make video appeals for the annual fund. The response has been terrific. Online giving is up 41 percent from last year.

Dunn: In the central office alone, we use Flash e-mails from the chancellor and from the annual fund, all of which contain solicitations, as well as video segments on our website to illustrate the need and impact of gifts. We will soon launch an online gift and pledge lookup for donors, which can motivate donors to make a pledge payment, increase giving, or make new gifts.

Kender: It used to be that you had a couple of core markets you targeted: older alums, mid-career alums, and younger alums. Now there are probably at least five different segments within each target. With Lehigh becoming co-ed in the seventies, and the growing diversity of our campus over time, the experiences that students had here vary greatly. We want to look beyond age groups, building on their experiences in a personal way, rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy.

Robison: This is an area where we are still developing our strength. We tailor much of our direct mail campaigns to specific affinity groups and class years, with special messages from faculty and others who may resonate more with a particular audience. We are building our peer-to-peer solicitation program and working hard to expand our volunteer rosters. Capturing the interest of future alumni while they are still undergraduates is probably the most important thing we can do.

'We put a respectful, trusting relationship with the donor first, and we know that good things will follow from that.' -Elizabeth Dunn, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

McGrew: Michigan Tech has a great disparity in giving attitudes among its alumni. The younger folks tend to cluster into two camps: ambivalent/unconvinced of the need, and those who understand the case for giving and give willingly but want to see results. Demonstrating outcomes is the key. We’re seeing greater success in acquiring first-time younger alumni donors, though retaining them is a challenge.

Dunn: We use ongoing research and data mining to help us segment our messages to different audiences at different times. Particular areas of focus are students, young alumni, women, and racially and ethnically diverse constituencies. Our office of gift planning employs strategic marketing initiatives to help determine next best steps to take in messaging. Our Board of Visitors and other advisory boards across campus give us opportunities to hear from donors and prospects regularly about the types and levels of engagement they want.

Kender: At a previous institution, we had a prospect who gladly hosted events for us but never dipped his toe in the water, so to speak. One time, at dinner with the prospect, I directly asked him about his specific interests and what we could do to help make this happen. We were able to get him to articulate his specific area of interest, tie it to an existing research effort, and secure the donation. Speaking frankly and transparently, as well as knowing the university’s wish list, made the difference.

Dunn: No doubt everyone in development at Carolina has an example of a gift that took a long time to close. Sometimes this happens when we know an individual’s propensity but need to work up to an “ultimate” gift over a period of years. Beginning with smaller gifts, we are able to work up to larger ones by demonstrating our dedication to respecting and honoring the donor’s generosity exactly as he or she intended. We put a respectful, trusting relationship with the donor first, and we know that good things will follow from that.

Robison: A couple from the classes of 1940 and 1944 notified Whittier many years ago of their intent to endow a professorship “when the time is right.” The college maintained an active relationship with the couple. Multiple presidents visited with them regularly over the years, and they were well stewarded by a succession of development officers. After the recent sale of their company, I received a call from them letting me know they wanted to talk confidentially. Within a week they hand delivered a check for $3 million. We announced their gift a few weeks later during our volunteer leadership conference, with the donors in attendance. We also had them come back to campus to meet with students and faculty. Two months later they called me again to say they felt their gift was making a real difference, so they decided to contribute another $2 million to endow a second chair. Their total for prior giving to Whittier was $25,000.

McGrew: For a number of years, discussions took place with an older alumnus capable of a multimillion-dollar gift. The department chair, who was pushing for a gift, was selling a particular designation, and the gentleman wasn’t buying. Later, our relatively new president and a development staff member visited him and asked the fellow about his interests. They had nothing to do with what had been proposed to him previously. It turns out that he had an idea for a “global technological leadership” program, which became a reality after multiple subsequent visits involving the president, the dean of engineering, another development staff member, and myself. Today we have a seven-figure commitment and a new program. Listening matters.

McGrew: We tend to discourage gifts such as benches in favor of “people” needs—scholarships and the like. The way to make them tangible is to offer naming opportunities for specific spaces. One project in Michigan Tech’s future is an upgrade to the campus mall. We are talking about including an alumni “walk of fame,” showcasing our most accomplished graduates.

Robison: Our senior class gift program is focused on educating our graduating seniors about the Whittier Fund and the importance of making annual gifts to support the college’s operations. However, we place a brick in our Founder’s Walkway in honor of any student who contributes $100 or more to the Whittier Fund. Alumni enjoy returning to see their names in the walkway.

'As resources are limited and the cost of mailings and other expenses increase, advancement programs will need to be creative about how they work to engage donors.' -Elizabeth Power Robison, Whittier College (Calif.)

Dunn: Our annual fund office has adopted this approach over the past few years with the senior class gift. We offer students in the senior class an opportunity to choose whatever fund they wish to support, although the class leadership each year has identified a particular initiative on campus to which they encourage giving. A donor who has been willing to match senior class cash gifts over the past couple of years has created an even greater incentive for seniors to participate in this effort.

Robison: Our advancement program has undergone major changes in the past 18 months. With the arrival of a new president and subsequently a new vice president for advancement, the board of trustees set a mandate to enhance fundraising efforts. We have had a significant turnover in staff as higher goals and new benchmarks were set. Newly hired colleagues have brought energy and experience to the operation. In recruiting new talent, we have provided flexible work schedules, competitive salaries, and a great deal of autonomy. For continuing staff, I have restructured job descriptions and modified portfolios to provide new opportunities and professional challenges. I utilize regular performance reviews to establish clear expectations for all staff. To further solidify the team, we have built camaraderie with a new interdepartmental softball league.

Kender: I think being upfront with applicants about what we are and where we are going can make an enormous difference in ensuring the right fit for prospective employees and us. To retain good employees and avoid burnout, we focus on professional development. We try to create a culture where the team is encouraged to try different areas of the department to learn new skills.

Dunn: Dr. Adam Grant, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and strategy at Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, conducted a survey of our development officers, which allowed him to identify the personality traits of our most successful fundraisers and to offer suggestions about how we might best recruit and retain individuals of this caliber. We compensate our officers with the most competitive salaries possible and recognize them frequently to the chancellor, trustees, and to the campus at large. We have regular monthly meetings, a monthly e-newsletter, and an annual retreat.

McGrew: We have a special challenge. We are located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and receive 275-plus inches of snow each year. Strangely enough, not everyone wants to live here, even though we think it is paradise. We have shifted to hiring more local people who are committed to the area and training them. As for burnout, I encourage all employees to take at least one vacation day a year, and I have eliminated the staff meeting on Christmas afternoon!

Robison: As resources are limited and the cost of mailings and other expenses increase, advancement programs will need to be creative about how they work to engage donors. We will never be able to replace the peer-to-peer contact that truly encourages significant giving and involvement. I also believe we will see more legislation surrounding philanthropy and governance of institutions of higher education.

Kender: With issues of affordability and access in higher education coming to the forefront, and the pressure to cap tuition, universities will need to look aggressively for alternate revenue streams. Additionally, you will find more development offices with staff located across the country and the world. Lastly, we will see a more effective use of volunteers. Our job will be to possibly shift our staffing in support of this trend.

McGrew: When you see lists in the media about high-demand jobs in the future, fundraiser makes that list. The nonprofit sector will continue to grow, and this will intensify the competition for charitable dollars. Compensation for fundraisers will increasingly include bonus incentives. Turnover will continue to be high because of the expectations, and because jobs are so plentiful. Most importantly, the role of philanthropy in advancing colleges and universities will expand even further.

Dunn: Global fundraising is certainly something that we must begin planning for and acting upon. We need to maintain continuity of contact with all of our constituencies who live and work globally, and not just through electronic means. We have to be able to see them face-to-face periodically, and that means putting our feet on the ground around the world.