Five Things Department Chairs Need to Know About Fundraising

$100 bills floating in the air

According to a January 2010 Academic Impressions survey of department chairs, 64 percent of department chairs felt that they were not adequately prepared to assume the role when they first began chairing their department. And of the various duties and responsibilities of the academic chair, 43 percent felt least prepared to address advancement and fundraising initiatives.

Yet by virtue of the chair’s position, not only are there many times when a department leader will need to be involved in the conversation between a potential donor and the institution, there are also many times when the chair may need to be the only official involved in the conversation. This is because the donor may want to hear from the academic leader in his or her field of interest, rather than from a professional fundraiser. And as more institutions, both private and public, look to ramp up fundraising efforts, the role of academic leaders will become increasingly vital.

We turned to Jason McNeal, Ph.D., consultant with Gonser Gerber Tinker Stuhr LLP, for his advice on what those new to the department chair position most need to know in order to take an active and effective role in fundraising. He offers these five tips.

Tip #1: Focus on Relationships, not Transactions

Recognize that good advancement work is not a series of transactions with donors, but a process of strengthening a series of relationships. McNeal advises steering clear of the assumption that your role is to “get dollars” and then move on to the next gift. Rather, your role is to build and strengthen donor relationships that will serve your program and the institution for many years.

“The job of an academic leader is not to ask for money, it is to work with your director of development to create environments in which donors are encouraged to act with generosity.”
Jason McNeal, GGTS

To create such environments, McNeal suggests asking questions and listening. Rather than talking to donors, get donors talking with you. Ask potential donors about:

  • Their experiences as a student or an alum
  • Their family
  • Their values and interests
  • Other activities and organizations in which they are involved

Of any potential donor, you should be able to answer the question, “What are their other charitable priorities?” If you cannot answer this question, then you probably do not know the donor nearly as well as you need to. If you did, you would know who they support financially and why. These are questions you want to ask and deeper conversations that you want to have; no one wants to be a part of a conversation that opens with, “I’m here to ask for money.”

Tip #2: Focus on What Needs You’ll Meet

“How would you feel if someone came to you and said, ‘Here’s my vision; will you fund it?’ That is an artless approach. Recognize that this is not ‘telling and selling.'”
Jason McNeal, GGTS

In fact, McNeal suggests, adopting an approach that is too institution-centric or program-centric will probably turn potential donors away. Don’t come with a carefully made case explaining your vision for the program and your aspirations, as you might do in a grant proposal. What you really want to do is understand the donor’s aspirations for your programs, your division, and your university. You want to learn their values and their vision, so that you can match the work you are doing with what you know to be their needs and their aspirations. This is key to building a deeper relationship with your potential donors, and one that will lead to acts of generosity and meaningful engagement over time.

Once you know how your aspirations and your donor’s aspirations are aligned, have an earnest conversation about what needs your program will be able to meet because of their gift. “Shift the focus,” McNeal suggests, “from what achieving your priorities will do for your department to what achieving your priorities will do for the constituencies you serve.” If that donor gave your department a million dollars, how would you be able to use those funds to improve education for your students? What impact would funded, new research in your field have on your region or on humanity?

“People don’t invest because you express needs, they invest because you meet needs.”
Jason McNeal, GGTS

Tip #3: Ask for Advice

McNeal recommends that one way in which you can broaden your opportunities to build relationships with donors is to establish a board to advise on academic programming. “A well-run advisory board is a wonderful opportunity to get new stakeholders invested in your department.” What better way to create an environment that encourages acts of generosity than one in which you invite the advice of your donors and involve them in the life and progress of your department?

However, McNeal warns against two common pitfalls:

  • Don’t treat your advisory board like a governing board
  • Don’t try to start too big

On the first point, make sure that you don’t establish a one-way reporting relationship with your advisory board. It will be far more valuable to you to spend the limited time your board members have in asking them for specific advice, not in reporting to them how much you have raised or what new things your department has done. “Take all that reporting and save it for another day,” McNeal suggests. “Get these people in a room for maybe half a day, not long, and give them one or maybe two big questions to work on.”

For example, if you are having difficulty marketing a particular program, pull together leaders from a variety of fields into one room and let them discuss how they would approach the problem. This will engage them much more actively and meaningfully than a quarterly report, and will probably generate some new ideas for your department from an outside and fresh perspective.

McNeal suggests making sure that you:

  • Give the board members meaningful topics
  • Ask sincerely for their advice
  • Respond to their advice — let them know which suggestions you feel are achievable and workable, and which ones you feel are not feasible at this time

Second, make sure to attract the right people. It is more important to have a few of the right people than many of the wrong people. Rather than start with the assumption that you need 20 members to fill out your advisory board, McNeal suggests identifying five or six of the right kind of leaders, and building from there. “Look for people of influence and affluence.”

This Works for the Humanities, Too

Business schools frequently establish such advisory boards, inviting a selection of local business leaders and entrepreneurial alumni. “But you may be missing an opportunity,” McNeal warns, “by not doing this in the humanities and social sciences, as well.”

McNeal cites the example of a college that was building a performing and fine arts center and was able to cultivate the involvement of a leading, regional businessman. This CEO made the lead gift on the project because he recognized the value of the performing arts, and even talked about the arts being “the heartbeat of a community.” These are the leaders you want to look for. Regardless of their field or industry, they may have interests that span a wide variety of areas. This is one reason it is so important to get to know your donors well — there may be unexpected ways in which they can engage with your institution.

Tip #4: Invest the Time

“You need to be realistic about the time investment needed. This is going to take a lot of your time. To be effective, department chairs will take at least 5-10 percent of their time involved in the development process. Those who later take a position as a dean will be devoting 25 percent — and in some cases, as much as 40 percent — of their time in some type of donor cultivation or donor stewardship activities, or in planning those activities.”
Jason McNeal, GGTS

McNeal advises that it is also going to take time to see results; donor cultivation is a long-term endeavor. “It is not wise to come in and expect that it will take 6-9 months to fund some new effort for the department,” McNeal warns. “This isn’t because the transfer of resources takes time, but because the building of relationships takes time. It will take time and investment to get the results you need.”

As department chairs have very limited time to begin with, McNeal warns against the dangers of becoming sidetracked by efforts that sound attractive but are unlikely to show much return. For example, while social media technologies offer inexpensive tools for listening in to alumni interests and reaching large numbers of constituents swiftly, McNeal warns that social media, at present, is unlikely to provide by itself a vehicle that will allow department chairs to raise the amount of money needed to fund programmatic improvements. Text-to-give and Twitter, for example, are useful in specific circumstances (such as collecting funds swiftly in service to a short-term cause such as disaster relief), but have as yet seen little effect in higher education fundraising.

“It may be tempting to look for technological solutions,” McNeal cautions, “but you want to make sure you are using your time — a very limited resource — in getting out from behind the desk, visiting with donors, and building relationships.”

Tip #5: Involve Your Faculty

“Effective dept chairs, as they rise through the ranks of academic leadership, recognize that the academic enterprise has to be funded by multiple sources if it is to thrive. One way that you get really good at cultivating, soliciting, and stewarding multiple sources is that you engage as many faculty in the work as possible.”
Jason McNeal, GGTS

“The future is not what the past was, with respect to external funding,” McNeal remarks. “The departments, the schools, and the colleges that are going to thrive are those who discover how to make development work a competency not only of academic leaders but also of faculty.” Rather than take on the full load of the department’s development work, the department chair’s role is to coordinate conversations between faculty and donors who have an interest in the department.

McNeal suggests:

  • “Have regular, candid, open conversations with both junior and senior faculty about the state of funding, and what needs to happen to ensure the future health and growth of the department; talk about the shared responsibility”
  • Educate faculty about the resources available to them; “make sure they understand the support that development officers can bring to them in guiding the cultivation process. If you’re going to ask faculty to share in the work of fundraising, they need to know what resources they have access to”
  • Ensure that faculty and development personnel engage in ongoing conversations about the innovative research your faculty are doing that may interest and inspire donors

“Ultimately,” McNeal clarifies, “the department chair’s role fundraising is less about going to get money and more about developing a culture where the department thinks proactively about its funding. You need to communicate that everyone needs to be in the ball game; when it comes to funding your department, no one should be sitting on the sidelines.”

Keep all of this in mind, and you will be well on your way to designing an effective leadership training curriculum for department chairs.