Philanthropy has long been a vital source of support for colleges and universities. In the future, it will become even more important. The times we live in make it so.
I fell into development years ago for reasons unrelated to our current fiscal crisis. I suspect, however, that this crisis will draw many into the chase for private dollars who never imagined themselves in that role. For whatever help it may be to others, I offer here a few insights from the perspective of someone who never thought he'd be in the game either. Fund raising, like many things in life, can be highly contextual. What works in one setting may not apply in another. I wish I had learned that, and a few other lessons, a little earlier, in my career.
I have been a part-time, accidental fund raiser since about 1995. At the time, my university was just starting a capital campaign, and my dean decided that our focus would be renovating a historic campus structure—the first freestanding library building in the university's history—to serve as the new home of our special collections and archives. I was part of a team charged with raising the money. My colleagues and I had no formal training. We were treated to a development workshop or two, but the bulk of our education occurred on the job.
I did not go to graduate school to learn how to raise money, but fund raising has occupied a portion of my days ever since that first assignment from my dean. My full-time job is that of an academic librarian, but for the past 10 years or so, I have also worn an administrator's hat (another career path I did not go to graduate school to pursue, but that's another story).
As my career has progressed, so has the place of development in my portfolio. It has evolved from one of several other-duties-as-assigned to a bullet point with a life all its own.
In the beginning, I was not thrilled at the prospect of asking anyone for money. I had an almost instinctive resistance to it. Growing up in the rural South, only one generation removed from sharecropping, one of my earliest lessons was never to ask for something I could, or should, obtain for myself, and, just to be on the safe side, never to ask for anything at all if I could help it. The pursuit of charity was regarded as not just distasteful but also downright shameful—an indication of laziness, a lack of self-respect, something akin to thievery, and other character flaws as well. Lurking behind those feelings was the understanding that nothing is ever truly free, and so, in asking for charity, one was also trading away independence.
Those feelings are not unique to my hardscrabble upbringing. Many of the professionals I work with daily were raised with similar values, though they hail from other parts of the world or come from backgrounds very different from my own. A friend from India once told me that he could never engage in fund raising because he did not believe in asking for handouts.
That view of development—as a kind of panhandling—is not uncommon and represents perhaps the biggest psychological obstacle for many of those new to the field. To some extent, I will always be nagged by such feelings. But I have also come to appreciate that those feelings rest on a fundamental misunderstanding.
Fund raising is not about asking for help in doing something your institution could, and should, do for itself. In fact, donors aren't interested in that. Donors want to help people do something that they could not otherwise accomplish.
In my experience, for example, capital improvement or deferred-maintenance projects hold little appeal for donors. If your building needs a new roof, the average donor sees that as something that should come out of the existing operating budget. However, if your vision involves a one-of-a-kind collection in a groundbreaking field, the chances of donor interest greatly increase. Fund raising is not panhandling. It is partnership.
I used the word vision intentionally. A mentor once told me that donors respond best to a vision built on demonstrated success. Arguments for adding strength to strength make the best case.
That same mentor also told me that "need" is a four-letter word. In asking for financial support, an argument based on need would seem to be compelling, and the more needy, the more compelling. But think about that from another point of view. If you had disposable income you would like to see make a real difference, would you prefer to give that money to a struggling institution on the brink of failure, or would you rather give that money to a healthy institution with a storied past and a bright future?
No one likes throwing good money after bad. That's why, for example, many local history museums struggle to bring in enough money to keep their doors open while nationally prominent institutions attract millions. The need index for the former is off the charts, but so, unfortunately, is the risk of failure, the risk of not making a difference. Does this mean that local history museums cannot raise money? No. But, just like the bigger institutions, their chances of success will increase if they build a case on vision and success rather than yawning need.
Sometimes another stumbling block for novice fund raisers is a fixation on what I call the fallacy of The Big Ask. We've all seen the headlines. A donor gives millions to an institution for a good cause. Wouldn't it be great, we think to ourselves, to discover a donor like that, a smart and understanding trillionaire who sees the worthiness of our cause?
And, we further imagine, wouldn't it be great if I were that fund raiser, landing the donor with the skill and cunning of a big game hunter on the Serengeti? All in a day's work, my friends.
What those headlines do not reveal, however, are the years of quiet labor that have usually gone on behind the scenes to build trust. Further, that headline-grabbing gift is usually not a first-time donation; it has typically been preceded by many smaller gifts over several years.
I can guarantee that despite appearances, The Big Ask did not happen spontaneously, as the result of luck, or merely in response to a smoothly crafted request, nor was it sprung on the donor unawares. If the donor does not know why you are meeting or has no idea that you are going to ask for a gift, you probably do not know the donor well enough and have certainly not done the necessary upfront work. There may indeed be such a thing as love at first sight, but the condition is even rarer in fund raising than in romance, and it is usually not the stuff of happy, lifelong relationships.
Overly focusing on The Big Ask also contributes to what I call the myth of the solo fund raiser. Some people certainly have captivating personalities that inspire a donor. And some are better at development than others. We all have our gifts.
But no fund raiser, in my experience, truly works alone. The most successful ones are team players who involve many people in the development process. That is better for the donor, who gets a truer picture of the organization and a better feel for the viability of its cause. It is better for the fund raiser—teamwork provides support, encourages a plan of succession, and helps to create a system of checks, balances, and reminders. And, for all of the above reasons and more, it is better for the organization.
An obsession with large, headline-grabbing gifts is frequently also accompanied by a sense of possessiveness that is unhealthy and counterproductive. Some fund raisers are very proprietary. They don't want anyone else talking to their contacts. I believe courtesy and coordination are absolute requirements. We should certainly crosscheck our fund-raing efforts. Nothing turns off a donor more quickly than simultaneous or serial requests from the same organization. Likewise, nothing breeds bad feelings among colleagues faster than hearing through the grapevine that someone else is visiting a donor with whom you've had a long relationship.
At the same time, however, donors have a right to give to whatever cause, and talk to whomever, they want to. From my own perch, fund raising for an academic library, I have found that most of our donors also give, have given, or will give to other parts of the institution. That is just fine with me.
I do not regard development as a zero-sum game. A gift to a college or department or even to the athletic program is probably not a gift that would have gone to the library. Ultimately, donors will decide for themselves how they want to give. And it is all for the greater good of God and country, as they say.
I have also learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald was right—the rich are different from you and me. They want to help with worthwhile causes much more than we imagine. Another difference is that they often have more experience in the fund-raising realm than the fund raisers making the pitch. After all, the wealthy are asked to give all the time.
My most unpleasant fund-raising experience came not from asking a donor for help and being turned down, but from not asking. The donor in question had supported several similar projects in the past and was disappointed that she was not asked again. I have heard "no" far more often than "yes," but I have never yet offended anyone by asking.
Another important lesson I wish I had learned earlier: The ability to simply not make a mess of a good thing is much more important than the gift of gab, a savvy sales pitch, a fancy wardrobe, a slick brochure, a potential tax break, or any number of other factors. Most donors are inclined to give to the causes they care about. In fact, if we are working for organizations with vision and a history of success, they often find us rather than the other way around. I have never witnessed anyone, myself included, sit down in front of donors and "sell" them on an idea that they did not in large measure want to support anyway.
Although the ability not to mess up is typically more important than a host of other factors, it does not mean that not messing up is easy. It's actually harder than it seems and an underrated skill.
Experience is often the best teacher, and I learned a lot from my own mistakes. I also learned much from more experienced colleagues, usually the full-time development professionals without whom we part-timers would be lost.
But my most important teachers of all were the donors themselves. If I had to make my start again in fund raising, I can think of only one thing that I am certain would have helped speed me around the learning curve faster: I would have arranged a meeting with a prominent donor. The size of the gifts from that donor or the specific causes supported would not matter. The idea would simply be to find a donor with a passion, a history of support, and a willingness to meet with me and talk about philanthropy. I would not ask for a thing. I would simply listen.