You need a big idea to inspire today’s donors. Here’s how to find one.

Daily Briefing

You need a big idea to inspire today’s donors. Here’s how to find one.

Over the past decade, higher education fundraising has outpaced all other causes thanks to the proliferation of the billion-dollar campaign and increasing numbers of million-dollar gifts to institutions of all types and sizes. However, the emergence of a new breed of philanthropist, the donor investor, threatens this success.

Donor investors make investments in organizations and individuals that can solve large-scale problems. These donor investors seek transformational ideas with world-changing impact, and they want to make deep connections with the individuals doing the work.

However, identifying these kinds of big ideas is a constant struggle for advancement staff. Deans often focus on meeting their immediate needs and increasing their unrestricted funds for the next budget crisis. Chief financial officers do not approve of projects that will cost the institution over time or be challenging to execute, and many line faculty do not communicate at all with advancement for fear that their ideas will be ignored or irreparably changed by a donor.

But your campus partners cannot simply “think big” just because they are asked to do so. To successfully surface big ideas across campus, advancement needs to bring order to chaos by implementing a transparent big ideas process.

One of the first steps in this process should be setting criteria for big ideas. For the process to succeed, everyone on campus needs to understand what is and is not a big idea.

The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) clarified what was expected of big idea proposals by publicizing short lists of criteria that mark big ideas (and ideas that would not be considered as such). Creating and publicizing this list enabled the idea selection committee to quickly sort proposals based on which ones met the basic criteria and which did not.

The basic criteria at UC Davis emphasize that a big idea should make the university unique, focus on where it is emerging as a leader, and transform both the campus and the world. When creating your own baseline criteria, consider your institution’s long-term goals and areas where it could excel. Clarifying what is (and is not) a big idea creates a culture of transparency for academic partners, who are able to tailor proposals so that they qualify as big ideas.

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