Philanthropy professionals will often say, “It’s all about relationships!” For the most part, they are referring to the externally focused relationships that exist between the university and alumni, friends, and donors. But equally important to the success of any philanthropy and alumni engagement program are the internal relationships that philanthropy professionals must cultivate with their academic counterparts. Deans and department heads play a critical role in the success of the development cycle, and there are several ways that current and aspiring academic administrators may seek fruitful partnerships with their colleagues in philanthropy and alumni engagement.
While many major gift prospects and donors who are alumni are known to their home college and department, good development officers (DOs) always look for the next great donor who may or may not be closely affiliated with the university. It is important that academic units also view their alumni and friends with the same lens and effectively communicate with their assigned DO to share any opportunities to forge new relationships. Do you have a successful alumnus who calls their home department or college, offering to come back to speak with a class? Make sure to share this opportunity with your assigned DO to invite them to attend the program. They will thank you for the credibility you offer in making the introduction, and they may recognize opportunities to advance the conversation or build the pipeline of future donors. Additionally, serve as a good university partner in communicating any address updates or life changes to philanthropy and alumni engagement since they likely maintain the official university alumni and donor database.
Occasionally, observers in the academy may criticize philanthropy professionals for the donor lunches or trips they take on behalf of the university. But the purposeful and strategic cultivation of prospective donors is a critical step in the development cycle. Spending time with prospective donors and listening to their interests, personal stories, and the transformational moments that were most impactful in their own life journeys is necessary to make sure that any subsequent solicitation is aligned with their own passions. But not every act of cultivation requires a substantial financial investment. Some of the best cultivation is planned in such a way that causes the prospect to smile in surprise and gratitude when they realize that those representing the university are truly listening to them. Do you have old yearbooks with student photos or perhaps old schedules that you could print and share with them? These offer a wonderful glimpse into the past and tend to pluck alumni prospects’ heartstrings. Do you have students who would be willing to record a clip thanking them for a previous gift or perhaps offering a brief video tour of your college or department? Prospective donors typically appreciate this type of personalized outreach from students and faculty.
Philanthropy professionals and academic administrators alike may focus on this as the most important point of the development cycle because it relates to “making the ask.” Whether they reach this moment with anticipation or dread, effective DOs who have done the early discovery, qualification, and cultivation work know that this is the next natural step in the conversation. When soliciting a major gift from a prospect, the philanthropy professional and the academic administrator work as a team to move the conversation forward. It is critical that they have an internal planning conversation that occurs prior to the solicitation to ensure that both parties know their role in making the ask. Typically, the dean or department head is responsible for conveying their passion for their unit along with the needs that exist in their area, while the DO is responsible for calling the question. Have you prepared for your part in the conversation by familiarizing yourself with key faculty and student achievements, program enrollment statistics, and the potential impact of the gift? Your enthusiasm and intimate knowledge of the project or program in question helps build the case for support.
At this point in the donor cycle, the DO will have researched the prospect to know their capacity and has had one or more conversations with them that focuses on answering the question, “What would you most like to accomplish with your philanthropic support?” Some prospects may have received a scholarship while they were students and be inspired to support the university in that way, while others may have had an incredible applied learning experience and wish to provide programmatic support that allows faculty to creatively engage students in the subject matter beyond the classroom. Either way, the appropriate designation, amount, and timing are the key elements that should be considered prior to making the ask.
Often a proposal or white paper outlining the terms of the solicitation is an effective way to provide the prospect with the details of the request so that they may review it following the conversation. The academic unit can be extremely helpful in providing student or faculty testimonials, photos, and other details to enrich the proposal. It is important to share with the prospective donor that the document is an effort to articulate an opportunity for them to fulfill their own philanthropic vision while meeting the greatest needs of the college or department. Your involvement in this step as both contributor and reviewer will ensure that the request aligns with your college or departmental priorities. Consequently, it is important that you stay engaged in the process in this way. Following this face-to-face meeting, the prospective donor should leave the interaction with the understanding that it is just the beginning of the conversation. This keeps the door open for effective communication, which is essential in the next step of negotiation.
While some might think that the best response to a solicitation is an immediate yes from a prospect, in fact it may mean that the ask was too low. If the ask is an appropriate financial stretch for the prospective donor, they may need some time to consider the solicitation. They will likely have additional questions related to the proposed gift, especially if it is a bit more complex with current or deferred components and endowed or non-endowed portions.
The prospect may need time to speak with their attorney or financial planner, but it is the role of the DO to remain politely persistent in following up on the conversation to ensure that the proposal remains front of mind for the prospective donor. Additional cultivation may occur at this point and that is recommended to ensure that the lines of communication remain open as the prospect is considering their options. During this step, it may be helpful for you to send along a note of appreciation for their consideration of the request or a recent publication of your college or department to ensure the proposal remains on their mind. Make sure, however, that you are pinging your DO to ensure that this type of outreach is complementary to their direct conversations with the prospect related to the proposal.
Negotiation occurs as the prospect and the philanthropy professional discuss the potential terms of the gift. Is the amount of the request correct? Could the gift be structured in both a current pledge and a deferred commitment? What type of recognition is appropriate and anticipated? Is additional clarification needed about the project or program in question? All these questions (and more) help the prospect better understand what is being asked of them and good discussion leads them toward a decision.
Do not be discouraged if a proposal is declined. It may just be a matter of timing or competing interests that cause the prospective donor to respond in a negative way. Listening to the prospect to ensure that you hear their feedback and incorporate it into the current (or a future) proposal is critical as the goal is to continue moving the prospect forward to becoming a donor either now or later.
A gift is typically considered “closed” when there is a signed agreement that outlines the commitment’s specifics. Often there will be multiple signers on the document; these may include the donor, department head, dean, senior philanthropy administrator, and even the university president. It is not unreasonable for any of the academic leaders involved in the gift conversation to expect or require their approval of a fund agreement prior to the draft being shared with the donor for their signature. Remember, your signature commits your program, department, or college to fulfilling whatever is promised in the fund agreement, and so it is imperative that you understand what is asked of you.
The best future donor is a current donor, and so it is critical to thank each donor for their support. With high-capacity prospects, a “test gift” may often be their first foray into philanthropy at your university. They may choose to slowly wade in to supporting your college or department with a modest commitment with the intent of elevating that support. While it may be an underwhelming first gift for what you know of the prospect’s capacity, it may in fact be their way to observe the impact their philanthropy has and how the university communicates its appreciation to them.
Do you take the time to call donors or send handwritten notes to thank them and acknowledge their support? This is a tried-and-true method for stewardship, but be very thoughtful in this manner of personal outreach to ensure that your communication is both accurate and sincere and that it correctly identifies the designation and additional details of the gift. It may actually do more damage than good if the writer inadvertently thanks the donor for a gift to an incorrect designation or if they do not recall meeting them previously. Lean on your philanthropy team to provide the correct information so that your acknowledgement is accurate, personal, and appropriate.
Many high-capacity donors are experienced philanthropists, having already made gifts to other organizations or causes that are meaningful to them. They have been to dinners, groundbreakings, or ribbon cutting ceremonies, and they likely have several plaques hanging on their walls honoring their philanthropic spirit. Consequently, it seems that the most meaningful gifts are personal ones and demonstrate that the university’s representatives truly understand the donor’s intent and the spirit in which they’ve made their gift. Get to know your university archivist as they may help you identify special documents, photographs, or university memorabilia that remind donors of a special moment, place, or person that shaped their journey and led to their gift. Seek to nurture relationships with retired faculty members of your college or department to make sure you are familiar with the history that makes your academic unit unique and special to alumni. This intentional connection to the past can help you create opportunities for future generations of students, faculty, and staff.
Strong collaborative relationships between academic units and philanthropy and alumni engagement are critical to the successful closure of major gifts to the university. Be fearless and intentional about connecting with your assigned development officer to strengthen their understanding of your area’s needs and to enhance the way you work together as a team. Understand their professional goals and the metrics used to measure their success in their role and seek to help them achieve those as they help you solicit private support to benefit your area. External partners will notice that you work together well as a team and will often respond favorably with their philanthropy.
Amanda Coates Lich has over 20 years of philanthropy experience, with most of her career spent in major gifts at Western Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky. She is ABD in the educational leadership doctoral program at WKU and currently serves in external affairs in the private sector.