Don’t Fear Fund Raising, Part 2

David D. Perlmutter. “Don’t Fear Fund Raising, Part 2.” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 18, 2014, pp. A24-25.

Don’t Fear Fund Raising, Part 2

Matching donor passion to your department’s needs


An acquaintance who was a department chair at a small liberal-arts college described one of the nightmare-come-to-life scenarios of every academic administrator faced with fund raising. He had met an alum with “a very high capacity”—the development term for wealth available to give—who was ready to make a major gift. The catch was that the donor embraced “fringe phenomena” (let’s call them leprechauns here to protect his privacy). His ambition was to finance an endowed chair in leprechaun studies—not as in folklore but as in scientific fact.

To their credit, my friend, his faculty, the college foundation, and the upper administration stood tall and politely turned down the proposed gift.

The anecdote, although unusual, typifies a common apprehension of academics who are thinking about becoming administrators and thus entering the world of fund raising: the danger of selling out, of being pushed around by outsiders whose money drives the department and its constituencies to places they don’t want to go.

So if you are a department chair, director of a center, or dean of a college, what should you do if you find that what the donor wants is not what you need?

Remember your mission. We recently hired a new development officer for our College of Media & Communication here at Texas Tech. In interviewing the candidates, I emphasized that we are not in the business of making money. We are a nonprofit dedicated to: (a) the discovery, creation, and dissemination of ideas and knowledge; and (b) the preparation of students for successful careers and thoughtful citizenship. But to achieve those ends at the highest level possible, we need to raise a lot of money from private sources.

That is a distinction with a difference. One way to keep on track as an academic involved in fund raising is to remember that loyalty should be to the mission, not the money. The latter is a tool to achieve the former.

That said, it’s not always easy to stay mission-focused. As a December 2013 article in The Chronicle on department chairs highlighted, an average day on the job may consist of reviewing schedules, preparing assessment plans, dealing with personnel issues, filling out forms, recruiting, answering email, fielding complaints … and trying to find money to support the program.

The big picture—the department’s intellectual and pedagogical goals and priorities—may get lost in the hourly minutiae. Nevertheless, when a windfall dangles before your eyes, you need to make a hard-headed calculation of whether it can work and if it really will help.

Know what you want—in detail. One of the great benefits of thinking about development is that it prompts careful consideration of the department’s future by you and your faculty: What are your exact goals and needs? How much money would help you achieve them?

If you think that can be done in a single afternoon meeting, just try it. Most people who become professors are passionate about, and inwardly directed to, their own area of expertise in research and teaching. That’s as it should be to maximally benefit students and scholarship. But when it comes to picking out, say, the department’s five top-priority areas for outside funding, having 25 professors all advocating for their passions as the obvious focus may lead to gridlock or, worse, dissipation—as in, “OK, we are agreed: We have 25 maximum priorities!”

Still, the conversation is vital. Every department should set realistic goals and needs, and then choose which ones are the actual priorities. If you hope to get private money for your “tops” list you must:

  • Create justifications for the goals and needs that you can easily explain to lay outsiders.
  • Attach a price tag to the goal or need. What amount of money is required to make it happen, and to make it last?

The exercise may well be painful, but the result will help you stay on mission.

Accept that some of your department’s priorities will be more attractive than others to donors. When I interviewed for the deanship I now hold, I was asked, “What are your priorities?” My answer was that I thought there were organic priorities that made sense for the college already, one of which was increasing research, teaching, and community service in Hispanic media. The college already had an about-to-be-named Hispanic Media Center that did great work and even edited an influential journal. Our city itself has a large and growing Hispanic/Latino population.

And Hispanic media in general—from news to digital gaming to advertising—is booming in jobs, venues, and research. In short, with continuing outside help, the college can become a leader, perhaps the leader, in this area. It was a slam dunk for the faculty to agree that it should be a priority. And it was one (the center did get a naming gift) that was attractive to donors.

Finding a project that makes sense to a department’s internal and external constituencies is not usually so simple. Take, for instance, a common challenge in donor relations. The kind of gift most alumni tend to think about first, since it most obviously connects with their own experience and “helps students,” is scholarships for undergraduates. Yet when I participated in a meeting of department chairs at the University of Iowa a few years ago, and we were asked to name our two top fund-raising goals, all of us listed “Ph.D. student support” and “faculty-research support.” None of us were opposed to enhancing undergraduate scholarships, but in tight budget times we were most concerned with the survival of our doctoral programs and the retention of productive faculty members.

Be willing to shift gears. Don’t be hypnotized by your agenda. Keeping your priority list handy does not mean you should ignore out-of-the-box opportunities.

When I started as an administrator, at the University of Iowa, two foundation officers—who were both graduates of our journalism program—came to me with an idea from a donor. He was not a graduate of our program, but he was trying to find a home for a certain concept: Nonprofits desperately needed more professional help in raising money, so why not create a training program for undergraduates interested in becoming development officers?

At the time, I was just venturing into fund raising myself. I certainly knew that we had no such program or any variation of it within our university. And it was an intriguing idea, because the basic skill sets to work in development included effective communication skills we were already teaching: data analysis, listening, reading, writing, and speaking. I also liked that our journalism program could make this new offshoot a standout, something that few other programs offered.

Fast forward three years: With major gifts from the original donor and others, a lot of help from professionals, and hard work by faculty, the program became a success.

Recast and redirect, gently and thoughtfully. Consider the “undergraduate scholarships” default mode of most donors versus the other needs and priorities of your department. While I have never attempted to talk donors out of helping undergraduates through scholarships, I have tried to persuade some of them that:

  • Our national reputation is often tied to the prestige and accomplishments of doctoral students and research faculty.
  • While helping young people go to college is admirable, you also want top faculty members and graduate assistants teaching them.
  • Undergraduates can gain increased applied skills and cognitive development by getting experience with research. And again, the best professors and graduate students are necessary for that outcome.

The point is: A donor’s passion is achievable via many vehicles.

Leave doors open. Sometimes a donor’s idea will not work at a particular time but will be worth retrieving if circumstances change. A dean in the sciences at a major research university told of a retired faculty member who loved his home department, had done well in life because of personal thriftiness and several lucrative patents, and wanted to create an endowed chair in his subfield. The catch: The area of research he had in mind—his own—was not one that was a focus of the department anymore. Creating a chair in that subfield would, the dean and the faculty worried, be of only short-term benefit.

Wisely the dean (and the department chair) did not just say “No, thanks” and walk away. He continued the conversation with both the donor and the department. Finally, some years later, a group of faculty members made the case that the college needed to invest in a new and exciting area of research. The dean explored the topic, and they all agreed that the new area was, plausibly, a pathway of research derived from the old specialty of the retired professor.

What happened next was truly win-win: The emeritus benefactor recognized the relationship between his passion and the revised idea. He gave; everybody was happy.

If you are an academic administrator involved in fund raising, you are your department’s face, voice, and character to the wider world, and the interlocutor, especially between faculty and donors. In dealing with donors whose ideas don’t match your department’s, don’t give up easily or force a fit. Just as with good teaching and research, a little creativity and playing with alternative scenarios can help fund raising move forward.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the “Career Confidential” advice column for The Chronicle. His book on promotion and tenure was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.


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