How to be a good steward once the gift has been given.
San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive / Wikimedia Commons
When department chairs, directors, deans, and others embark on academic fund raising for the first time, they naturally focus on “the ask”—that is, on getting the gift. Equally important, however, is the long tail of fund raising: the stewardship of gifts.
There’s a lot to absorb about how you satisfy the many legal, ethical, and procedural requirements of a donation, oversee the munificence over time, and keep donors (or their heirs or trustees) apprised of its progress. And it’s crucial that you do learn because:
- It’s your job. You, as lead academic officer of your department or college, hold the legal and fiduciary obligation to steward gifts responsibly.
- It’s the ethical thing to do since the gift is in your charge.
- For some donors, an initial donation may be a “test gift.” Handle it well, and more will very likely come your way.
- Your reputation as a good steward will help you become more successful in fund raising in the long run.
Being a good steward of donations means spending a lot of time thinking ahead.
Check with the experts. I am, and always will be, an amateur when it comes to fund raising. It’s a part of my job as a dean, but the development folks are the professionals in this arena.
At a large institution, the development officer assigned to help your department is merely the “local” representative of a much larger and varied group of pros. The university development office will have individual experts on wills, contracts, taxes, corporate giving, grant writing, financial reporting, and so on. Almost any question you have about a potential gift can be answered by people who are specialists. Then, too, there will be the senior foundation managers, who most likely possess decades of experience. Even at small colleges, you will find experts who can answer your fund-raising questions.
It is unlikely, then, that you will ever find yourself alone in the wilderness, unsure about a gift or a stewardship issue. Difficulties crop up when the lure of the gift tempts chairs and deans to jump too quickly into an agreement. Your mantra whenever you are offered a donation should be: “Let me check with the foundation on that!” Yes, uttering those words will cause delay, but most donors are men and women “of affairs” and understand the importance of laws and contract wording.
You will sidestep 99 percent of potential roadblocks if you avoid trying to secure and oversee a gift on your own.
Manage expectations at the front end. Spend enough time fund raising and you will eventually have a story to tell about the “one that got away.” In my case it was a very, very large potential gift to create a center a few years ago. Many meetings and lots of conversations resulted in an impasse.
I wish my successor at that university luck in making the gift work in the future. I don’t begrudge the lost opportunity, however, because I have heard of many seemingly wonderful gifts that ultimately led to stewardship disasters—with unhappy donors, mortified deans and chairs, disappointed provosts, and angry professors. The lesson: Only close the deal if you are fairly sure the terms will work properly.
Case in point: At a small liberal-arts college, a department chair and dean secured a donation for an endowed chair in a particular subfield. Both administrators saw warning signs ahead: The subfield was very narrow; the focus was not connected to anything already taught in the department; the donor was impatient to see “immediate transformative results.” In short, the planning was not thorough, the donor was not well briefed, the faculty were unenthusiastic, and the expectations all around were too high. Outcome: Three years of failed searches for the position, infighting among the faculty, a scolding from the president, and an irate donor.
Work out what to expect from the gift with an actual timetable and metrics of “success.” The plan must be plausible to everyone, not just to you.
Report a problem; offer a solution. The average major donor is sophisticated about money and realizes not every investment turns out well. You can get into trouble over stewardship of gifts if you misrepresent their outcomes as more successful than they really are. If you are candid about a challenge that arises—and, crucially, if you have a suggested fix to offer—more often than not the donor will be understanding and even helpful.
For example, I faced a case once where we had failed, for two years in a row, to award a particular scholarship backed by a donor’s gift. Looking into the details, we found the basic problem was that the scholarship was supposed to go to an undergraduate major from a particular county in our state. Yet the county, which had already been sending very few kids to our university, had seen a decline in population. I called the donor, reported the conundrum, and offered several options. Outcome: We revised donor intent to include several more surrounding counties so it still went to someone from his general home region.
Don’t shortchange any concern you might have, no matter how minor, about the details of a gift agreement or the donor’s intent. Determine what the benefactors mean but also make sure that they know what they mean as it translates to an academic setting.
Showcase good news. On the flip side, when you have good news, show and tell it!
Foundation officers are always puzzled when chairs and deans fail to let donors know about the benefits wrought by a donation over time, not just right after the giving. A phone call, a letter, a web post or, especially, a personal visit all can help. Set up reminders on your calendar, or schedule regular visits—anything that cues you to communicate with the people who were so generous. If your department holds a scholarship banquet each year, invite the recipients and the donor and seat them together. At the very least, encourage the beneficiary to write a thank-you note.
In one case, for a particularly big gift, I worked with a staff member and a faculty member overseeing the project to create a “newsletter” about it. Initially, the original donor was its entire readership, and that very happy reader later gave even more.
If a gift helps faculty research, why not set up a lunch with the professors and their graduate students, along with a tour of their labs or a signed copy of their books? You can come up with many other ideas. The point is to demonstrate to donors that their gifts are reaping rewards.
Donor trust in you—the chief voice and face of the academic unit—is a crucial precursor to “the ask.” Likewise, trust needs to be maintained, year after year, once the gift is given. But don’t be distracted by hopes of material rewards alone. Being a good steward is like being a good teacher: Both duties are essential to our profession.