Don’t Fear Fundraising, Part 1

David D. Perlmutter. “Don’t Fear Fundraising, Part 1.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2014, pp. A38-39.


The ins and outs of asking ‘friends’ for money

Don’t Fear Fund Raising, Part 1 1

Linda Helton for the Chronicle

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Before I became a department chair, I had no experience with fund raising and held all the usual stereotypes and fears that faculty members tend to have about “asking people for money.”

But my field is political communication, so I did know something about the fund-raising enterprise. One of its fundamental dilemmas is encapsulated in this campaign tale: The aides of a first-time politician ask him to solicit donations from a list of his well-to-do friends. He is flummoxed: “I can’t call these people. They are my friends; how can I ask friends for money?” The next day the aides give him a second list, this time of wealthy potential donors he doesn’t know. Again he balks: “I can’t call these people. They are strangers; how can I ask strangers for money?”

If you are (or are hoping to be) a department chair, dean, or senior administrator, you will engage in fund raising. Even faculty members now are sometimes expected to help make the case to donors. But few of us have any formal preparation for the task, and so fears abound: Will I fail at it, and be humiliated? Will I become the pawn of outside interests?

Many of our trepidations revolve around “the ask”—the actual request for money. In fact, when I talk to academics who are thinking about becoming administrators, the No. 1 reason they hesitate is “I can’t imagine asking people for money.”

At one time, I couldn’t either. I’ve been fund raising actively now for five years, first as a chair and now as a dean. In a new series of columns over the coming months, I will offer perspectives and techniques intended to ease your transition as a faculty member moving into this new financial realm.

Fund raising involves a particular kind of friend making. Since getting involved in annual campaigns and major-donor solicitation, I have met many interesting and, yes, friendly people. Some have become friends.

Although I left the University of Iowa almost a year ago for a new position in Texas, I still regularly converse and meet with the friends I made fund raising in Iowa—but I no longer ask them for money. In several recent cases, however, they have offered me unsolicited help in my new job because they happened to know graduates of my new university or had connections to the charitable foundations with which I now collaborate. Their assistance is a bonus, but I would have hoped to stay friends with them anyway.

Nevertheless, it is important to make a distinction between the kind of friend everyone has and the friend you make in your role as an academic fund raiser. The former would be nonplussed indeed if, during a fishing trip, you asked: “Could I get $3-million for an endowed chair?” The latter, on the other hand, would not be surprised by that “ask”—depending on your timing, groundwork, and sense of their readiness to commit to the cause.

The friendship you have with donors should be an honest one. People who are major supporters of disciplines like music, engineering, or history tend to be achievers. They are accomplished artists, retired scientists, business leaders. They did not climb the jungle gyms of career and life by being naïve and unsophisticated. They know your job is to advocate for your department or college, which is typically housed in their beloved alma mater, and they understand that raising money is vital.

At the same time, many donors view you as assisting them. I have had major donors say “thanks for helping us find the best way to help the university” or “I really appreciate your taking the time to make this happen.” They genuinely appreciate those who allow their passion for a particular project or cause to see fruition.

Cultivate your “people reading” talents. If you’ve survived the multiple crucibles of a doctoral program, the academic job hunt, tenure and promotion, and, above all, teaching classes, then you’ve learned something about how to gauge what other people think about you. Most academics stepping into administration, and thus fund raising, are not clueless about reading body language and verbal signals. Such skills are invaluable in fund raising because timing and nuance are all-important—as they are in many a regular friendship.

A professional fund raiser told me about his decade-long relationship with someone who had a high “capacity” to give—that is, he had the wherewithal to give heavily to the department from which he had graduated but had yet to do so: “Mr. Black will give one day, but the timing is not right for him due to family and professional circumstances. We both know that and accept it.” Pushing Mr. Black to give big too early might well spoil their relationship and undermine the future prospects of a major gift.

Development officers once described a particular alum to me as someone who “did not like to talk about money.” And he didn’t. So we spent our time together talking about our university, higher education, and many other topics. At some point, however, he felt comfortable enough with me, and confident enough that a gift was going to a good cause, that he decided the time was right to bring up money. If I had pushed him too early I don’t think the outcome would have been better, and it could have been a lot worse.

The academic fund raiser must work hard to treat donors as unique individuals. They each have singular capacities for giving, family commitments, and passions and interests. You can’t force a relationship with them. No matter how pressing the needs of your department or college, you will find that there is a right moment to ask for money and it can’t be rushed, although it can be missed.

Building a gradual friendship with someone will allow you to sense when they are ready to give and when they are not.

Don’t forget why you are there. When you visit donors, if all you talk about is their money, you will alienate them. On the other hand, don’t forget the reason you came in the first place. If you are traveling to meet donors, your institution is investing its money and your time. Everyone understands the benefits may not be immediate. In the case of legacy gifts, the monetary rewards of the relationship may not appear for decades. As one fund raiser put it: “You might be helping your successor’s budget.”

Nevertheless, you are not being paid just to enjoy travel, meet interesting people, and dine out. You should always keep in mind the hungry mouths back home and precious resources being expended on your sojourns.

Ethical protocols can help. The Texas Tech Foundation, for example, has a rule prohibiting the acceptance of personal gifts from donors. Such precepts remind you (and them) that the relationship, however friendly, has a business component.

Always be ready with projects for their passions. Sometimes the donation comes before the relationship. I have met alumni for the first time when they cut to the chase and said, “I want to help your scholarships.” They were clear in what they wanted to do and which part of the institution they wanted to support. Sometimes the contact file you read before meeting a new donor will include notes like, “Ms. White was a scholarship student and wants to help current students in need.” Be ready before your meeting with details of how scholarship donations apply at different levels.

More typically, you will secure a donation from someone you have met many times and built a relationship with, so you’ve had time to assess their passions and interests. Every time you meet with them, come armed with ideas, projects, or programs that match their focus.

The point is to be prepared if an opportunity arises, because it can pass away just as soon. I’ve heard sob stories from academics who, caught off guard by a donor’s surprise offer, said “I’ll get back to you,” only to find the next day the prospect had changed his or her mind.

Development folks often do the actual asking. A final perspective on dealing with the “friend” donor will be one on which I elaborate in essays to come: Academics rarely fund raise alone, nor should they.

You are part of a team. At the University of Iowa, I worked with a development officer who happened to be a graduate of our school and who raised money for other departments besides mine. Here at Texas Tech, where I am a dean, I work with a development officer and several staff members who are dedicated exclusively to fund raising for our college. At both universities, a central foundation employs many lawyers, researchers, and development personnel with different tasks, including regional coverage and special gift management.

In the case of the actual ask, it is much more typical for the solicitation to be made by a development officer, sometimes with you there, sometimes independently. A prospect may proffer: “I owe so much to Professor Higgins, who encouraged me to stay in school; I’d like to do something in his name. How can we make that happen?” At that point, as an academic administrator, I could talk about a named professorship or scholarship in honor of Professor Higgins and about its value to students. The development officer, though, might talk about details such as minimum level of gift, how endowment investment works, and legal niceties of donor intent.

The circumstances vary but never in my now five years on the road talking to donors have I ever felt truly alone and uninformed. The simple mantra I always keep in mind: No matter how much fund raising I do, I will always be an amateur. The development officers are the professionals, and the best results are obtained when we work together.

There is nothing demeaning, frightening, or overwhelming about being an academic involved in fund raising. Obtaining support from private donors is vital to the success of higher education, wherever you teach and whomever you serve. Our communications college, for example, gives away some $400,000 in scholarships each year because of the generosity of our friends and the hard work of the dean, department chairs, and development personnel before me.

The personal rewards for you, however, should be underscored as well. I have met many good people and learned so much about my institution, and the current state of the industries our students aspire to join, that I feel fund raising has made me a better administrator and teacher. So don’t be afraid to ask friends for money, and while searching for it look forward to making friends.

David D. Perlmutter. “Don’t Fear Fundraising, Part 1.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2014, pp. A38-39.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor at and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes 
the “Career Confidential” advice column 
for The Chronicle.

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