Use this study, Perfecting the Partnership, to identify and engage new advancement partners across campus and extend the reach of current fundraising superstars to more donors.
Campus partners are often credited as the secret to success in fundraising for academic priorities. They build prospects’ enthusiasm, communicate impact to donors, and provide engagement opportunities throughout the year. The efforts of academic leaders, faculty members, and nonacademic staff can make the difference between exceeding annual goals and failing to reach them. To beat the competition for major gifts, advancement teams must strengthen current partnerships and engage new champions across campus.
Higher education fundraising has experienced historic growth in the past ten years. New campaign strategies and technological innovations have helped institutions reach new records for dollars raised and alumni engaged.
However, colleges and universities face increased competition for major and principal gifts from across the nonprofit sphere. The number of nonprofit organizations in the United States has increased by over 40% since 2006, with many turning their sights to major gifts. Without rethinking advancement strategy, higher education fundraising may stagnate as donors direct their philanthropy elsewhere.
To continue engaging the institution’s best donors and prospects, advancement teams need to rethink their playbooks—starting with how they engage academic partners.
Section 1: Scale Reach of Current Partners
At most institutions, advancement staff already work with a handful of campus fundraising superstars. Key partners include deans who are willing to join prospect meetings on the road, professors who regularly take donors on tours of their laboratories or research centers, and researchers whose big ideas have become—or could become—campaign priorities. We already ask these partners to attend campaign events and report on the impact of their work. Development champions can help engage an expanding donor base, and they are a proven draw for alumni and prospects.
Practice 1: Virtual Visit
Academic leaders film a one- to two-minute message about giving opportunities linked to a prospect’s interests or the impact of a donor’s giving on campus. Major gift officers present the video during donor visits as an opportunity to hear directly from the academic leader.
Academic leaders are often asked to join in-person visits to provide a unique engagement opportunity for donors and prospects. However, deans and other leaders do not have the capacity to travel to all of the visits where their presence is requested. Frontline fundraisers lack alternative means of integrating academic leaders into these one-on-one interactions.
Practice 2: Research Pitch Competition
Teams of faculty members pitch future research projects to prospects and answer questions about their work. Participating prospects in the audience vote for their favorite project, and funding is awarded to the teams receiving the most votes.
Events provide useful cultivation for MGOs but negative perception inhibits faculty participation.
Group cultivation events have uninspiring agendas and few opportunities for prospects to evaluate giving opportunities across campus. Advancement staff seek new ways to connect donors to academic partners
Practice 3: Academic Priority One-Pagers
Advancement staff compile information about academic units or fundraising priorities so that frontline fundraisers have basic information at their fingertips. One-pagers are designed to be donor-facing so they can be used on the road.
Advancement staff struggle to find relevant resources about academic priorities, leading them to rely on academic partners whenever they have questions or need additional details. When information is transmitted between the academy and advancement staff, it is not compiled in one location, leading to redundant requests and overwhelmed academic partners.
Unwieldy Array of Information
- Too many current projects to build baseline knowledge
Metrics Don’t Reward Deep Expertise
- Unclear ROI compared to visits and discovery calls
- Lack of confidence in ability to discuss academic projects
Hard to Find Resources to Get Smart Quickly
- Research previews rarely publicly available
- Few translations for non-experts
Practice 4: Searchable Resource Hub
Informational resources about giving opportunities are uploaded to a searchable database so that advancement staff can easily find information about projects that are aligned donor interests. Information is organized by type of gift (naming, endowed scholarship, etc.), department, and topic.
When frontline fundraisers attempt to match a prospect’s interests to giving opportunities on campus, they go directly to academic partners for suggestions. Informational resources are not uniformly shared across advancement functions. Resources that do exist are hard-to-find or ineffectively organized.
Practice 5: Unit Advocates
One staff member spends approximately 20% of their time as the dedicated point of contact for an academic unit. Unit Advocates keep their deans focused on top gift prospects, communicate about fundraising priorities to other advancement staff, and serve as gatekeepers between advancement and individual faculty members.
Advancement staff will always be faced with questions that are too in-depth or complicated to be answered by an information sheet. At institutions without unit-based fundraisers, gift officers do not know where to direct questions about giving opportunities and impact, so they overwhelm faculty members with requests for information.
Practice 6: Academic Advancement Director
Full-time staff support each academic unit’s fundraising priorities. They are hired with a communications and branding skillset in mind, and do not have prospect portfolios or fundraising goals. The Academic Advancement Director for each academic unit develops deep expertise in the unit’s priorities to educate advancement staff and support multidisciplinary proposals.
Centrally based fundraisers struggle to keep track of fundraising projects within disparate academic units, and they don’t know where to turn when they have questions. Deans lack a single source of accountability for managing the proposal pipeline, creating collateral, and promoting current priorities to internal and external stakeholders.
Short-term Next Steps for Implementation
Ensure that current partners’ travel commitments are used effectively
Assemble existing information about academic priorities in one location
Coach academic partners before cultivation events
Section 2: Guide New Partners to High Return Activities
The role of a dean has changed considerably over time. In the past, deans were hired as the chief academic officer for their unit or college with few additional responsibilities. Today’s deans, in contrast, are responsible for budget management, staffing, external relations, and fundraising. Fundraising-focused deans are growing in number. As dean turnover increases, institutions have had numerous opportunities to identify leaders who can adapt to the new expectations for the role— including an enthusiasm for partnering with development.
Practice 7: MGO Metrics Updates
Academic leaders receive a weekly email recognizing the week’s top gift officers in terms of donors visited, asks made, and dollars raised. The email consistently reminds academic leaders about the activities that enable their staff to raise the most money.
Deans ask MGOs to do more than ever taking time away from major gifts.
Deans distract their frontline fundraisers from major and principal gifts by asking them to support relatively low-ROI activities, such as annual giving and alumni relations efforts. Central advancement staff lack the means to reinforce the institution’s fundraising priorities to deans and other managers of frontline fundraisers.
Practice 8: Individualized Activity Plans
Frontline fundraisers create annual to-do lists for academic leaders to complete, featuring specific activities and timelines. Tasks are customized to emphasize a dean’s strengths, unit goals, and professional development needs. Plans keep all stakeholders on the same page about which activities to prioritize.
Academic leaders may not understand which activities to prioritize in order to reach annual fundraising goals. Fundraising metrics for deans often lead deans to focus only on what is measured, and they ignore other advancement tasks or priorities. Alternatively, deans may lack formal fundraising metrics, leading to confusion across campus regarding which activities deans should and should not undertake.
Designed with a Dean’s Strengths in Mind
Example: Travel to five prospect meetings
Example: Attend three community events
Example: Consult on four gift proposals
Practice 9: Deans’ Advancement Dashboards
Advancement staff create quarterly summaries of fundraising performance data for academic leaders. Dashboards feature progress toward overall goals and recognize deans’ contributions to that progress. Unit-based staff are expected to walk deans through the data and communicate resulting action items to better focus deans on the activities that matter most for fundraising success.
Deans misunderstand the importance of their contributions to advancement and consequently deprioritize advancement tasks. They do not shift strategy as needed to reach their goals because they lack an understanding of what advancement data is communicating. Unit-based advancement staff need practice communicating with their deans about progress over time.
Practice 10: Mini Feasibility Assessments
When deans propose new fundraising priorities, advancement staff determine whether there are enough prospects with capacity to support the ideas. Ideas only become advancement priorities if an adequate pool of likely prospects already exists.
Academic leaders propose new ideas to advancement without understanding in advance whether they are viable for fundraising. Advancement staff struggle to make a data-driven case for what will or will not become a fundraising priority.
Practice 11: Strategy White Papers
Advancement staff add structure to strategic planning by asking deans four short questions about their vision for their unit. Deans answer the questions and provide additional context to advancement staff about why fundraising is necessary to achieve their goals. Marketing and communications turns the deans’ answers into collateral to educate stakeholders, including external constituents, about the unit vision and fundraising priorities.
Deans struggle to articulate a vision for their unit. Advancement staff do not have a clear understanding of a dean’s needs and fundraising priorities. Donors want to support an ambitious vision, requiring advancement staff to have greater knowledge of a dean’s long-term goals.
Practice 12: Visioning Walking Tour
A dean or other academic leader takes advancement staff on a walkthrough of their unit’s building to indicate which facilities that could be updated if donor support were found. The dean tells the story behind their needs, painting a picture of how they fit together into a long-term vision. Information from the walking tour forms the base of the unit’s philanthropic priorities.
Academic leaders are often asked to create a vision for their units that donors can support, but they struggle to think big, resulting in visions focused on capital needs with few linking narratives. Advancement staff need additional details to make fundraising priorities more interesting for donors.
Section 3: Recruit Future Champions
Beyond working with academic leaders, advancement needs to identify the potential partners across campus who will resonate with alumni and other constituents. Many of these individuals are popular among alumni but unknown to development staff, including early-career faculty who may one day become fundraising superstars and adjunct professors who work frequently with undergraduate students. Alumni may also feel a high degree of affinity for non-academic staff from a variety of departments, especially student affairs and athletics.
Practice 13: Favorite Faculty Surveys
Current students and/or alumni are asked to name one or more of their favorite professors or staff members. Nominees are coded in alumni records in the CRM to facilitate future affinity-based outreach.
Advancement doesn’t know which campus stakeholders are popular among alumni, so they don’t invite the most popular faculty and staff members to events on campus or on the road. Alumni data records do not include professor/staff member affinity information, making it challenging to conduct affinity-based outreach related to campus personnel.
Practice 14: Pre-Event Networking
Before a campaign roadshow or other off-campus event, faculty participants are invited to a dedicated space for relaxing, warming up, and meeting other participants. This exclusive networking opportunity is promoted when the event planning team looks for volunteers, so that faculty members have clear incentives for participation.
Advancement events are unappealing for academic partners because they include few obvious benefits. Event planning staff struggle to identify enthusiastic volunteers who are willing to travel to support advancement efforts.
Practice 15: Volunteer Reporting Incentives
When faculty members invite an alum or other volunteer to campus, they are asked to share information about the volunteer opportunity through an online form. As an incentive for sharing information, advancement provides the faculty member’s volunteer with a parking pass, thank-you gifts, and stewardship following the engagement.
Academic partners invite volunteers to campus without informing development or alumni relations teams. This results in missed opportunities to schedule donor visits on campus, and advancement cannot recognize the volunteer engagement during stewardship.
Practice 16: Social Media Templates
Advancement staff draft social media posts for faculty members to share on days of giving and during other philanthropy events. Academic partners are invited to edit them and share with their networks at any time throughout the day.
Some faculty members would like to participate in advancement initiatives but cannot fit travel or social events into their calendars. Despite their broad appeal among donors and other constituents, they have few avenues for participating in engagement and cultivation.
Practice 17: Multidisciplinary Faculty Showcase
Faculty members present their research to alumni, current students, and community members during a large-scale event on campus. This event serves as a low-stakes introduction to working with advancement and builds enthusiasm for partnering again.
Advancement asks fit easily into current schedule and avoid worries about learning new skills.
Academic partners think that working with advancement will be difficult or require learning new skills, making them hesitant to participate in donor events. Advancement struggles to determine in advance which partners will be most successful on the road.
Practice 18: Cross-Campus Project Curator
A full-time staff member coordinates multidisciplinary fundraising projects, from idea development to donor identification and implementation of new initiatives. They keep projects on track and ensure that all relevant campus partners are part of the conversation.
Deans and faculty members are unwilling to work together on multi-unit or multidisciplinary fundraising projects because they do not want to be blamed if the projects fail. Unit-based advancement staff are afraid of losing gifts to other units, which prevents them from effectively raising money together.
Build sustainable major gift pipelines by re-orienting their focus on three groups of overlooked prospects: 1) assigned but overlooked prospects, 2) high-potential unassigned prospects, and 3) developing-potential prospects.