Today’s donors are impact investors. They want to ensure that their philanthropic support has transformative impact. While development officers are experts in qualification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship, only academic leaders can best tell the stories about how new projects, programs, and centers can have transformational impact.
However, many deans, department chairs, and faculty members are reluctant to work with advancement staff. They may have had negative experiences in the past working with donors or development staff or they may not understand their role in the donor lifecycle. Yet to succeed with today’s donors, advancement and academic leaders need to work together.
Over the course of EAB’s Advancement Forum research on The Donor Investor Imperative, we uncovered fears, myths, and urban legends that prevent academic leaders from partnering successfully with development staff.
To attract future donor investors to higher education, advancement staff need to address the three following misconceptions.
1. "I have to make the ask"
Deans, department chairs, and faculty members are often concerned that their responsibilities in working with advancement staff will be far from their comfort zone: identifying donors and making the gift ask. Fear of failing at either of these activities often prevents faculty from working with frontline fundraisers.
However, identification and solicitation are best left to the professionals: development staff. Clarify with academic partners that they are most important when it comes to engaging donors and describing new projects in a compelling, authentic way.
2. "I’ll have to make promises I can’t keep"
Academic partners may be concerned that they will have to shift their research or vision to match a donor’s expectations or interests. Faculty members may also worry that they are expected to promise specific results or outcomes, which may not be possible as the research takes place.
As with solicitations, development staff are well suited to alleviate these fears and communicate this information to donors. Bad news doesn’t have to come directly from faculty leaders, and difficult donor conversations don’t always have to take place in the dean’s office.
3. "Donor conversations are always uncomfortable"
Faculty members are familiar with classroom teaching and conference presentations, but they may feel out of their element when working one-on-one with donors. In order to ensure that these conversations are comfortable for everyone involved, conduct pre-visit briefings to answer any questions and provide crucial background information. After a donor meeting, follow up with any academic partners involved to provide constructive feedback, answer questions, and clarify what follow up steps will be necessary.
When it comes to partnership, practice makes perfect
To move beyond these challenges, create low-stakes practice opportunities for academic partners to refine their donor-facing pitch and receive constructive feedback from advancement staff. Hosting a workshop on campus ensures that academic and advancement staff are on the same page regarding development work while showing faculty partners that telling a good story to donors isn’t an impossible task.
In the end, success breeds more success—once a faculty member has successfully worked with advancement, they are much more likely to work with us again. A low-stakes workshop on campus provides the perfect opportunity to start this virtuous cycle.