How universities attract major gifts

Daily Briefing

How universities attract major gifts

Less funding and tighter budgets mean a greater portion of the president’s job now involves fundraising. College presidents cite financial management and fundraising among the areas that occupy the bulk of their time, according to the American College President 2017 survey.

Presidents also believe colleges will need to rely more on donors to help balance the budget. When asked which funding sources are most likely to increase in the next five years, 85% of presidents chose revenue from private gifts, grants, and contracts.


of presidents believe revenue from private gifts, grants, and contracts will increase in the next five years
of presidents believe revenue from private gifts, grants, and contracts will increase in the next five years

In today’s tight budget times, presidents and their development officers must find new, innovative, and efficient ways to grow fundraising revenues and ROI. For small college presidents in particular, raising enough funds can determine whether their school remains independent or open.

Community college presidents aren’t immune from the fundraising push either. “Community colleges are feeling the same state funding challenges as other state entities, so our presidents have become much more focused on fundraising,” Martha Parham, senior vice president for public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, told Maria Di Mento and Michael Theis at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “It’s become more a part of what they’re expected to do and a necessary skill set for them to have now.”

Here’s how colleges bring in gifts, according to presidents and major gift officers.

Collaborate with others

My academic leadership is brilliant, and I can only represent what they’re accomplishing if I do whatever it takes to learn about it.

Teri McIntyre, a senior director of development at the University of California, San Diego

Presidents and development officers need to collaborate with both internal and external stakeholders to effectively advocate for their institution.

For example, Kim Winger, executive director of development at Colorado State University‘s (CSU) College of Health and Human Sciences, keeps tabs on everything fundraising-related at her institution. She attends the dean’s cabinet meetings, campus events, and faculty presentations to get a sense of CSU’s fundraising needs. “I have to understand and be passionate about what our college is doing to communicate effectively with donors,” she says.

Teri McIntyre, a senior director of development at the University of California, San Diego, takes a similar approach by asking faculty lots of questions. “My academic leadership is brilliant, and I can only represent what they’re accomplishing if I do whatever it takes to learn about it,” she says.

Presidents also work with multiple stakeholders to raise funds for their institution. For Marjorie Hass, formerly the president of Austin College, fundraising could take “between 25 and 75 percent of [her] time,” she told Lawrence Biemiller at the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2016. “Some of that time is spent traveling from place to place. Some of it is working with donors. Some of it is ‘friend raising.’ And some of it is huddled up with my development officers strategizing,” says Hass, now the president at Rhodes College.

Use language donors understand

To connect with donors, leaders need to think from their perspective. What would make them excited to donate their hard-earned money to your institution? Advancement teams need to be able to answer the “so what?” and “who cares?” of your request, says Winger.

In EAB‘s report “Gifted and Talented,” researchers note the importance of “behavioral and linguistic flexibility” for fundraising. That means leaders need to be able to adapt their communication style and approach to the wide range of donors you will encounter.

“Our fundraisers are required to talk to donors who are very different in personality and background,” says Brett Anderson, formerly the vice president of university advancement at CSU. “One day they meet with a rancher and the next day with a Wall Street billionaire—and in each case they must come across as sincere.”

Be patient

Fundraising isn’t a matter of taking checks and never following up with those generous enough to donate to your institution. Presidents and their advancement teams need to invest effort in creating long-lasting relationships.

Fundraising takes “patience, perseverance, tenacity, and determination,” says Marti Heil, vice president of development and alumni relations at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Your fiscal year-end deadline is not relevant to the donor.”

Find donors’ motivations

It’s not just about what higher ed leaders want for their college or university. Fundraisers must determine what makes a donor tick and what he or she values. These questions will help presidents and development officers determine the best way to connect with donors.

Top fundraisers “find about the prospect’s passion, then figure out what we are doing on campus that matches that interest,” says Myrna Hall, vice president of advancement at Regis University.

It’s matching people with the opportunity that would please them. It’s a fun activity, and it has such an impact on an institution.

Sharon Herzberger, president emerita of Whittier College

Sharon Herzberger, president emerita of Whittier College, takes a similar approach to fundraising. “It’s forming relationships with people and finding out ways that they want to make a difference, rather than twisting people’s arms,” Herzberger told Biemiller. “It’s matching people with the opportunity that would please them. It’s a fun activity, and it has such an impact on an institution.”

Herzberger adds that “at a small college every gift counts, it literally does.” Small college presidents can use the outsized impact of donations to their advantage when competing with larger institutions for donations, she recommends. “We may not get the same press, but we do have the ability to say, Your gift can really have a transformational impact here,” says Herzberger.

Involve students

Presidents and advancement teams who want to boost student philanthropy need to educate and manage students’ expectations, says Mike O’Neill, senior vice president for advancement at Villanova University. Show students that their relationship with the college doesn’t end after graduation by organizing meaningful opportunities for alumni to interact with the university, such as reunions and donor recognition events, he recommends.  

Leaders also need to talk to students to understand what kind of impact they want to have on the university. And involve students in acknowledging and stewarding donors and advancement programming on campus, adds O’Neill. In 2018, 68% of Villanova seniors gave to the senior class gift—more than double previous student participation rates.

Getting students involved in advancement initiatives by “asking for their assistance in acknowledging and stewarding our donors, involving them in various programming on campus has been crucial,” says O’Neill. “They can see how giving isn’t about writing a check—it’s making an investment in the enterprise of Villanova.”

Sources: Barnett, CASE, 7/1/19; Meyers, University Business, 10/26/16; Gifted and Talented, EAB report, accessed 10/2/19; ACE site, accessed 10/2/19; Di Mento/Theis; Chronicle of Philanthropy, 7/18/19; Biemiller, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/3/16

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