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Challenges To Creating a Culture of Philanthropy in MPA Programs

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Michael R. Ford
March 6 , 2023

Earlier this month I attended a campus workshop on how to use philanthropy to strengthen academic programs at my university. A lot of the workshop focused on building relationships, telling your story and making the ask. It was all good information I plan to use in my role as Director of an externally funded research center. But, what was missing in my opinion, was a discussion of the many challenges to utilizing external funding in a public university setting.

I should begin by stating my belief that fundraising will be a necessary reality for many Public Administration (and other) programs housed in public institutions. Things that were long taken for granted in academia, i.e., research funds, travel money, manageable course loads, support for students, etc. are in short supply for most of us operating outside a handful of flagship institutions. Years ago I came to the conclusion that, at my regional comprehensive university, the only way to get these resources was to develop new funding streams. Declining state support meant that the funds needed to run a top-tier MPA program were simply not available.

Thankfully, my colleagues and I have been successful at raising funds via fee-for-service projects, academic grants and donations that helped us found an applied research center. While these resources are enhancing our MPA program and its impact, I underestimated just how difficult it is to spend money, and to ensure philanthropic activities do not conflict with academic activities. Below are a few lessons I have learned over the past two years.

First, a high level of coordination between administrative units is an absolute must. In my experience the process of raising and utilizing funds requires working with the university’s external foundation, our university’s Human Resource department, our college leadership, our finance and compliance office, our marketing office and our grants office. Each of these entities operates with its own set of rules, requirements and assumptions. For example, I may receive a grant to fund a position, but I cannot actually create that position without approval from human resources. Further, I cannot actually get human resources to approve a position if college leadership does not sign off on it. Each of these steps requires coordination that simply, at least in my case, does not yet exist. Hence, our little research center had to create internal processes for each of these steps (with varying degrees of success).

Second, do not assume everyone in your institution understands and/or supports what you are doing. Establishing our research center, and securing funds, took years of work and formal approvals. Nonetheless, the most common comments I received when we launched were: 1) This center came out of nowhere, and 2) It is not fair your program is getting special treatment. Once I shared our history, and the fact that we are fully externally funded, these comments slowed. But, in hindsight, we should have done more to educate our colleagues throughout the process.

Third, be mindful of tensions between the academic and philanthropic side of your institution. Like many places, a dire budgeting situation created staffing challenges for our MPA program. We excitedly attempted to use external funds to help staff our program, only to have our proposal denied during the shared governance process. We were told it was denied because it was not something that had been done before. The Public Administration professor in me seized on this case study of bureaucratic inertia. There is risk of being a first adopter of something innovative, and we needed to do more prep work to overcome the inertia of a rules-driven state bureaucracy.

Fourth, I am learning (or at least trying to learn) not to be discouraged. As we teach our students, individuals reflect the systems in which they operate. Unfortunately, in higher education today, those systems are often fiscally stressed and regulated in ways that are disconnected from the reality of student and faculty needs. Changing the status-quo takes time, efforts and most of all patience.

I could go on and on, but the biggest lesson I have learned is that building a true culture of philanthropy in a public institution is more difficult than I ever imagined. It is not enough to simply raise funds and do quality work. Building a true culture of philanthropy requires buy-in from all aspects of a university. I am hopeful our experiment can be an example of what is possible, but I am no longer naive to the many challenges that require a deliberate strategy for building institutional support for innovation.

Author: Michael R. Ford is an associate professor of public administration at the University of Wisconsin  Oshkosh, where he teaches graduate courses in budgeting and research methods. He frequently publishes on the topics of public and nonprofit board governance, accountability and school choice. He currently serves an elected member of the Oshkosh, WI Common Council.

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