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Higher ed partnerships promise fundraising success

Philanthropy and communications teams must work together to promote the mission
University Business, February 2018

Most of us would agree that much can be achieved when we work together. In the case of philanthropy and communications staff, we both desire that our constituencies become enthusiastic supporters and advocates of our institution. It is imperative that these professionals become partners in every sense.  Here’s how.

Step 1: Philanthropy and communications staff must understand and appreciate each other’s roles.

I recall a story from 20 years ago in which a vice president for advancement at a private college was concerned that his philanthropy officers and his communications team were sailing on the same lake, but in different boats. To set a different, more productive course he called the advancement staff together for a joint Friday meeting.

Beginning the following Monday, he said, the communications staff would shadow philanthropy for two weeks. Then the philanthropy staff would shadow their communications comrades the following two weeks.

This vice president wanted his communications officers to become more knowledgeable about the art, science and challenges of fundraising, and vice versa. And from all reports, the experiment was successful.

In the speed and demands of today’s higher education landscape, few institutions can afford to grant the time such an experiment requires. However, the lesson learned remains relevant.

Various surveys indicate that communications and philanthropy teams at colleges, universities and other nonprofits perform their given tasks well, but often lack expertise or understanding of the other’s craft. By sitting down together on a frequent and consistent basis, they will achieve greater trust and a deeper understanding of what can be achieved—together.  

Step 2: Develop a philanthropy communications plan.

When building this plan, involve those who fundraise for your institution as well as those who oversee the communications and marketing functions. Make sure to consider your donors and prospects, and what messaging and communication tools work best for them.  

When it’s time to evaluate your plan, measure its success as a joint philanthropy/communications team, not as two or three siloed groups. This approach will encourage the team to better appreciate each other’s “language”—resulting in the creation of a common voice that donors will understand and value.

Step 3: Consider the brand.

With the first two steps underway, you must always be cognizant of how your efforts will convey the institution’s brand to alumni, friends and parents, among others. The stories, words, phrases, themes and images incorporated in your philanthropy communication efforts must support, not distract from, the overarching identity and messaging of your institution.

In the 2002 movie Drumline, fictional Atlanta A&T University band director James Lee repeatedly reminded his students that to produce magnificent music, they had to play as “one band, one sound.”  Our constituencies, too, depend on us performing as “one band” with “one sound.”

Once these three steps become standard procedure, you will begin seeing exciting and measurable results that benefit the institution’s brand and its fundraising efforts. It has been said: “When you discover your mission, you will feel its demand. It will fill you with enthusiasm and a burning desire to get to work on it.”

This, too, may be said of our donors. When they discover our institution’s mission and sense its aspirations—coupled with their enthusiasm and burning desire to make a marked difference—they, along with your institution, will succeed.


Marc C. Whitt is director of philanthropy communications at the University of Kentucky Office of Philanthropy. Follow him on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/marcwhitt) or Twitter (@marcwhitt).