Rethinking the President’s Role in Fundraising

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Because your institution’s president is uniquely positioned to scan the horizon and help develop and communicate a vision of the future to prospective donors, his or her role in fundraising entails far more than just making connections and making the ask. In his recent monograph “Fundraising for Presidents: A Guide,” Jim Langley, president and founder of Langley Innovations and past vice president for advancement at Georgetown University, contends that the president’s primary role in fundraising is not to ask for money but to create the conditions that attract significant philanthropic investments.

We followed up with Jim Langley this week to learn more.


Jim Langley’s monograph offers a forward-thinking look at:

  • How the president can take a lead role in defining the case for support and identifying inspiring projects defined by specific objectives rather than categories of institutional need
  • How the president can define for donors the difference a philanthropic dollar makes in achieving key objectives
  • The respective roles and responsibilities of the president, the vice president for advancement, and the board chair
  • The president’s specific role in donor stewardship, campaigns, piloting new models for fundraising, volunteer management, and asking
  • How to onboard a new president in ways that strengthen rather than stall the work of fundraising

Slow Persistence, Not Rapid Persuasion

We asked Langley for the key thing presidents need to know about philanthropy. In response, Langley noted a fact that is relatively well-known but infrequently (or inconsistently) acted upon. “Fundraising,” he cautions, “is often depicted as a short-term if not transactional phenomenon, while the research on philanthropic patterns suggests that fundraising needs to be long-term in its focus.”

Citing research on donor trends and behaviors, Langley notes that:

  • On average, an alum offering a gift of $1 million or more will have given their first gift to the institution 20 years earlier
  • On average, the decision-making process for an alum offering a major gift takes 21 months from the time that the prospect was engaged to the receipt of the gift, and requires an average of 9 interactions during that time

Langley uses this data to issue a reminder to institutional leaders that fundraising is an effort requiring “slow persistence, not rapid persuasion.” Rapid persuasion, Langley suggests, only seems to be effective because it succeeds when other factors are already well in place:

  • The donor feels they are part of an active community
  • The donor feels regularly communicated with
  • The donor feels they are a constituent and a stakeholder in the institution’s future

“Then,” Langley notes, “the tactics and techniques of fundraising yield the greatest return.”

Where the President Can Make a Difference

“Presidents who aspire to fundraising success must dedicate themselves to the necessities of that task, but commitment to meeting, greeting and asking prospects, no matter the miles traveled or the hours logged, guarantees little.”
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Langley argues that in a climate of donor skepticism and increased calls for accountability, the president needs to communicate to donors a clear and compelling narrative that addresses cost, connection, and case. The president needs to:

  • Show the institution’s constituents that the institution is containing ancillary costs and preserving core value
  • Help students, alumni and parents feel more closely connected by creating more opportunities for substantive engagement in the life of the institution
  • Make a compelling case for how private support can achieve specific value-creating objectives

For example, a 2010 survey by Engagement Strategies Group of alumni from the nation’s post-secondary institutions with the highest alumni participation rates, found that the largest reason for decline in alumni participation across most age groups was, “I’ve paid enough in tuition already.” The same survey revealed that many alumni feel that their alma mater has not done enough to engage them beyond asking them for money.

The president can take a leadership role in defining and articulating the cost/value proposition for the institution, and in engaging the alumni community in the horizon thinking and environmental scanning that informs the charting of the institution’s course into the future.


Read Jim Langley’s monograph for an in-depth review of the president’s role in every part of the advancement enterprise.