Today’s principal gift prospects and donors have increasingly high expectations of higher education institutions. They want to support transformative ideas with world-changing impact—and they want to connect directly with the people doing the work.
However, many faculty members are reluctant to engage with donors.
From negative experiences with advancement to perceptions that donors will control their research, it’s no surprise that gift officers often struggle to engage thought partners that can make a compelling case for donor support.
Despite these challenges, bringing academic partners into donor conversations is more important than ever. During a recent comprehensive campaign at the University of Chicago, donors who made multi-million dollar gifts held five to 10 close bonds with individuals on campus, The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported. Those bonds included a wide range of people—from development staff to faculty members. Clearly, when it comes to success with principal giving, the more connections a donor has with your institution, the better.
In order to foster working relationships, development staff should conduct discovery visits with faculty members and academic leaders. Similar to a donor discovery conversation, these visits enable fundraisers to learn what drives a faculty member, why that person’s research is important, and how its impact could be explained to a donor. To show faculty members that working with advancement doesn’t have to be a large time commitment, visits should last 30-45 minutes and should take place in their office or lab.
In order to make the discovery conversation useful for everyone involved, focus on five key questions:
- Who are you?
- What do you do?
- What are your passions?
- How does your research impact the campus, region, or world?
- Why does your research matter in this time and place?
Questions one through three set context for describing research in depth and can build a faculty member’s confidence in their own narrative. These questions help show that their narrative is a story worth telling and could interest the right donor.
All five questions provide information that advancement staff can share with donors whose gifts are driven by impact. After discussing in-depth answers to these introductory questions, delve deeper into details that could be interesting to known prospects and discuss potential roadblocks that advancement should communicate clearly to donors.
A successful discovery conversation shows faculty members that working with advancement doesn’t require making an “ask” or finding a donor. Their role is to discuss the impact of their research with an interested donor—development staff will handle the rest. Engaging faculty members through discovery visits creates a win-win scenario: They will be more willing to work with advancement, and front-line fundraisers will have a better understanding of how to talk about their groundbreaking research.
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