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Fundraising for Academic Leaders: Five Practical Strategies for Deans and Department Chairs

Budgets and Finance

Fundraising for Academic Leaders: Five Practical Strategies for Deans and Department Chairs

As traditional revenue streams continue to wane, academic leaders at colleges and universities are increasingly expected to acquire new sources of support. While fundraising is nothing new for colleges and universities, those tasked with these responsibilities are expanding to include not only professional fundraisers but also those on the academic side of the house. Deans, associate deans, department chairs, and even faculty are requested (or required) to aid in fundraising efforts. Most academics, however, feel ill-equipped for these activities. In fact, some are unsure—or anxious—about what fundraising even looks like for academic leaders. Potential donors look for ways to make an impact, and they want to know that the institution will effectively use the financial support they provide to further a shared vision.

If you’re an academic leader, determining how and where to start can seem like a daunting task. Below are a few suggestions.

1. Start with your unit’s mission, vision, and needs assessment

Fundraising is often less about asking for money and more about building relationships and telling a compelling story. This is particularly true when raising funds for academic units; as prospective donors are likely already connected with the institution, providing an accurate, updated vision and mission are great first steps in building relationships with them. Next, the leader must have a clear and concise message regarding the needs of the unit. Why is financial support needed? What specifically would these funds do for the unit? For the students? These points must be well-considered and communicated in a simple, cogent manner. Next, collaboratively determine how the prospective donor might make a difference. If the donor knows what is needed and has the interest and ability to address this need, the conversation will feel less like an ask for support and more like a dialogue about how they might help.

2. Meet with institutional advancement

Once you can effectively communicate your unit’s mission and vision, it is time to consult with your institutional advancement or development office. Ideally, your college or unit will have one or more embedded development officers. These fundraising professionals will be a great source of prospective donor research, can provide the names of engaged alumni who may be interested in becoming more connected, and will provide both advice and assistance as you reach out to potential donors. Additionally, development officers will know not only the institution’s various fundraising strategies but also—and more importantly—which large prospects are already assigned to others at the institution. While excitement and enthusiasm are welcome in this line of work, collaboration and open communication are critical; without clear communication, donor contacts can easily be mismanaged, leading to confusion. To avoid this potentially devastating circumstance, keep an open line of communication with your development professionals.

3. Engage your alumni

For most academic units, the vast majority of prospective donors will have an obvious connection: as former students who can point to positive institutional experiences as the foundations for their vocational success. Capturing this sentiment while reengaging your alumni is a great way to build relationships with them. Academic leaders can contribute to this effort by first considering ways to get alumni involved with campus events that allow them to interact with current students. Some ideas include

  • lectures by faculty or other disciplinary experts;
  • meetings of student organizations connected to the disciplines in your unit;
  • alumni gatherings outside the immediate vicinity of campus (major cities are common);
  • opportunities for networking (segmented by age, subdiscipline, or interests); and
  • regional gatherings that allow for alumni segments to meet and network.

These types of events should cater to the attendees’ specific needs—needs that will inevitably change over time. For instance, recent alumni are generally more interested in networking with peers and industry leaders who may be able to help them advance in their careers. Alumni who are established in their careers (or even approaching retirement) may be interested in events that provide opportunities for enrichment (e.g., lectures, performances, exhibitions) in addition to connections with current students—always a source of energy. When planning a gathering for alumni, it is always best to seek advice from your development office. The people there can advise on how best to segment your prospective donors and craft the event in a way that is most meaningful to attendees.

4. Develop an advisory board

Academic units frequently use advisory boards to inform curricular initiatives and ensure close ties with corporations, industry, and the community. These boards, however, can also aid in the fundraising efforts of colleges, schools, and departments. Assess the makeup of your advisory board and consider including the following stakeholders:

  • Successful alumni with connections to important businesses or community organizations
  • Respected experts in the unit’s discipline (or related field) who can help build relationships with your alumni
  • A current student
  • A recent graduate
  • A current donor to the unit
  • A marketing expert
  • Others as advised by your development office

This combination of members, coupled with your current board membership, may allow you the opportunity to effectively discuss fundraising efforts and have the appropriate connections and experience necessary to make positive progress.

5. Build a culture of philanthropy

While it is crucial to engage alumni and other interested parties in an academic unit’s fundraising efforts, building a culture of philanthropy before students graduate is also important. Much fundraising support goes directly to students in the form of merit- or need-based scholarships. Students who benefit from these gifts are grateful for this aid and, while not in position to financially support the school or department while enrolled, are very often willing to help raise funds if asked. Their assistance may include thanking current donors and their families, attending prospective donor gatherings to directly articulate how they benefit from scholarship aid, and even giving modest sums of money in support of specific initiatives that involve fellow students. Although the moneys students raise may be small, the relationships they help to develop, along with their appreciation for philanthropy, are critical in building a culture of philanthropic support within the academic unit.

Final thoughts

When I’ve discussed fundraising with faculty members, many have expressed to me that these efforts are somehow demeaning to them and not welcomed by prospective donors. In my experience, donors who have trusting relationships with the institution and understand the needs of the academic unit will see their gifts’ impact and do not feel awkward when included in fundraising efforts. Rather, when their passion for an initiative is cultivated, donors will seek out ways to provide financial support. Including them in the process and being receptive to their interests helps to fulfill your financial need while satisfying their philanthropic preferences.

Craig Hlavac, MM, EdD, is the associate dean for the liberal arts in the College of Arts & Sciences at Southern Connecticut State University.

A version of this article appears in The Best of the 2019 Leadership in Higher Education Conference. © 2020 Magna Publications. All Rights Reserved.


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