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The President's Role in Fundraising

University Business, May 2012

As any administrator with presidential aspirations knows, fundraising goes along with the institution-leading territory.

It’s a fact that Webster University (Mo.) President Beth J. Stroble knows well. “When I arrived in the summer of 2009, one of my goals was to successfully close the campaign,” she says of “Webster Works,” which concluded about $1.5 million beyond its $55 million goal.

Stroble had been part of the fundraising team as a dean and then provost and chief operating officer at The University of Akron (Ohio). “It’s a different role as president. You’re the champion who holds the accountability for working with the team,” she explains, adding that, as president, you work more closely with the trustees.

Knowing that obviously you can’t ask people for funding in a first interaction, she immediately began developing key relationships with individuals who had been identified as prospects. “I made sure I had at least one meeting with everyone [on the list] as soon as possible. I knew what my goal was over a multimonth period, and what I needed to start getting in the pipeline in terms of contacts.”

The ability to share Webster’s story and the ability to listen is what Stroble finds most valuable while getting to know potential donors. “Storytelling is always part of a great relationship and making a great case. Knowing the stories of individual students and the scope of the financial need is always helpful,” she says. As for being a great listener, “there’s no substitute for it,” she points out. “And then having a great memory and tracking strategy so that when the opportunity comes up, you can remember who you talked to about what.”

When asking for a gift, Stroble says she has learned that “if you get a no, rarely is it a no, frankly. Most of the time what you will hear from someone is not now, but come back and talk to me in the future. Or, I can’t really do that now, but here’s what I would do.”

Here’s what some top campus fundraising professionals have to say about the role of the president in campaigns:

-- Dennis Slon, senior vice president for university relations at Loyola Marymount University, estimates that President David W. Burcham spends “well over 60 to 70 percent of his time” on fundraising, with face-to-face meetings being particularly important. In addition, Burcham has written letters to encourage people to get involved in the campaign.

He became president in 2010 and is an alumnus of Loyola Law School. His 22 years at the institution certainly bring a lot of clout to his message. “He really is of this place and really understands it. He’s one of those presidents who walks around campus and strikes up conversations with students. He’s sort of a rock star with our alumni,” Slon says.

At an institution with a lot of young alumni, that engagement is particularly necessary. “Over half of our alumni have graduated since 1990,” Slon notes.

During LMU’s current campaign, the number of new donors increased nearly 29,000, and during the past four years of the campaign, the number of alumni donors rose by more than 43 percent.

-- Bill Mulvihill, executive vice president of the University of Cincinnati Foundation, calls presidential leadership essential to any campaign, because the president is the one who helps set the vision for the institution for the next 5, 10, or 15 years or more.

President Gregory H. Williams also arrived in the middle of a campaign and is in his third year now. “We’ve been blessed to have two leaders to get their important role in fundraising,” Mulvihill says. “Strategic thinking about how you execute a relationship with individuals is key to this, and the key part is that every person you’re working with is a different individual. There’s not one approach to each donor.”

And as the foundation head, Mulvihill says his job is to “position the president for success.” That means, for one, mapping out who to meet with and scheduling contacts.

-- Thomas P. Lockerby, vice president for development and campaign director at Boston College, says that President William P. Leahy, S.J., who has been at BC since 1996, is “very focused on the external mission of the university.”

He is especially adept at Q&A events, which Lockerby notes are important in trying to engage constituents. “People want to believe they are heard.”

The President’s advancement steps aren’t just those on the path to a major gift. “He may be talking to a group of young alumni, not asking that they make multimillion-dollar commitments. What he’s saying is, ‘I want you to be present, to give $20 bucks,’ ” Lockerby says.

It also helps that the president is able to look at key campaign numbers and understand their implications, Lockerby adds. “He is a smart, detail-oriented person so there are probably not many nuances he doesn’t know.”

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