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Now’s the Time to Look at University Development

Matthew G. Steele

“Once upon a time” is the usual way a story might begin, but in the case of university development at public colleges and universities, the story might begin with “About four years ago…” The model that worked previous to the economic downturn was to generate between 75 percent and 90 percent of a college or university campaign’s donations through a list of 50 to 100 donors and alumni with ties to the school. While the top ten percent of donors do generate about 90 percent of a university or college campaign’s total in new gifts and pledges, the names of those donors are changing from local prospects to regional, national and even international prospects. In light of the possibility that state funding might not return to previous levels, now is the time for administrators and faculty members to partner with their development officers.

The challenge for development offices in public colleges and universities is to continue fundraising for special projects while generating new revenue to fill in the gaps left by declining state funding. This challenge will likely involve finding new prospects to replenish the pool of existing wealthy and upper-income donors. One way to approach challenges in the development field is to approach these challenges as opportunities and to look at them from the 30,000 feet perspective as well as the three feet perspective. Looking at these opportunities through an organizational management and behavior perspective allows the observer to consider three facets of development offices: their structure, their internal and external communication.

Development offices at large colleges and universities, and even at some small colleges and universities, might be a collection of individual units that communicate with the central development office or office of development and alumni relations, but are not necessarily accountable to a “central office.” This is the 30,000 feet perspective.

For a number of public colleges and universities with large schools of business, law, medicine and engineering, private, nonprofit foundations perform the fundraising and alumni relations duties. Though it appears that university development follows a flat hierarchical management structure, the individual units are generally very hierarchical in their structure. However, university development does not necessarily have a flat or tall hierarchy as much as a hybrid of the two with individual units maintaining autonomy from the central office while operating with a very rigid hierarchical system within their unit. Looking at a chart of a university’s development hierarchy often involves a lot of dotted lines and assumptions about which unit is accountable to which. This type of structure might lead to a few issues, such as: terse communication between development units; competition among development units for prospective donors; and, no real accountability on the part of the individual units or even the central development and alumni relations office.

The opportunity presented is to detect and ameliorate potential problems in university development internal communication while not deconstructing well-trenched, traditional fundraising gestalts. The channels of communication are important in any organization, but especially in university development. Open communication can forestall a potential situation where units are competing for the same prospect, or allow development officers to focus their searches for potential prospects. Communication in the development milieu is as much symbolic as it is written or oral.

Symbolism on university and college campuses abounds. It is difficult to walk through a campus without seeing the majority of buildings named for either an historical individual or a large donor. It is commonplace to walk through an academic building and see offices fronted by plaques adorning the name of the professor with the named professorship or chair the he or she holds. While a medical student might consider the academic hall that houses their department the “School of Medicine” building, alumni, donors, and the broader community take pride in having a highly competitive school of medicine with a building that bears the name of a community luminary, historical figure, or nationally renowned individual. The development unit that generates the revenue for these facilities and professorships takes a lot of pride and credit for the work they do in order for such amenities to exist. These symbols of pride can also create discord between development units.

In order to maintain an orderly development dialogue between development units, it is often important to craft pointed, but gentile oral and written communication. Fundraising projects, like a building or named chair require a lot of cultivation between the development unit and the individual donor as well as continued stewardship after the cultivation phase is complete. Communication between development units allows for an orderly process as individual development units and prospective donors design a mutually beneficial gift for the university and the donor.

While what is described above sounds very reasonable the cultivation cycle can be a contentious process as competing development offices vie for the same prospects, and the “central office” is often relegated to a role of mediator. Mediation, though, is not a bad role for a central development office to play. As long as mediation does not get protracted, the communication between competing development offices can forge productive and openly beneficial relationships. When development units have an open dialogue, it is easier for them to meet their individual revenue goals while maintaining a focus on the greater mission of the university.

Why is this important to academicians? This is where the external communications between development offices and academic units becomes central to the continued success of a university. This is the three feet perspective.

As state funding to public colleges and universities declines, it is becoming more important for faculty members and deans to form partnerships with their development officers. While private, non-profit foundations often permeate public universities and colleges, it is not uncommon for development officers to be state employees who report to a dean or a university executive. However, until recently, faculty members and possibly even some deans might not have interacted much with their development officers or fully understood their functions. Development officers not only provide fundraising services, they also might be assigned the alumni relations function as well as administrative duties that involve maintaining the development office.

Partnerships between development officers and faculty can be mutually beneficial and very successful. As faculty members become savvier with the language and culture of the development field they can become stewards to their benefactors, forging even stronger relationships between donors and universities. While at the same time, development officers can research and identify prospects that might be willing to support the work of faculty members who occupy their time in focused areas. The stronger the relationship between the faculty and development officers, the more successful an academic unit and university can be.

The structure of university development at public colleges and universities is likely to remain unchanged, but through well-crafted and focused internal communication, development offices can be highly successful in meeting the revenue needs of public colleges and universities. Furthermore, nascent communication between faculty members and development officers should become a sustained dialogue. For junior scholars and recent hires, a trip to the university’s development office should be as much a part of the orientation process as a trip to the university’s library.

Matthew G. Steele is the associate director of development, campaign administration and research at the Medical College of Virginia Foundation. Email: [email protected]

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