A Former President’s Nine Rules for Fundraising

by Robert A. Scott

Handing over a check


It is estimated that the year of 2020 with COVID-19 resulted in $85 billion in lost revenues, $24 billion in COVID-19 related expenses, and $74 billion in future state government support for public and private institutions. In response, colleges and universities have engaged in layoffs, furloughs, canceling programs, and other means for reducing expenses even as they seek ways to increase revenue.

While efforts to increase revenue through new enrollments of adult and online students, new academic programs, and new types of certifications are most prominent, renewed efforts at fundraising are also a priority. Endowment returns buoyed by the stock market are a benefit to a minority of institutions.

To be most successful, fundraising and friend-raising initiatives should be seen as “all-hands-on-deck” and not limited to the development team. Academic deans and department heads can be helpful in seeking funds from pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies, career service staff can be helpful in seeking funds for internships, and financial aid officers can be most helpful in explaining the benefits of endowed and expendable scholarship funds.

While the campus president is the chief fundraiser, he or she cannot do it alone even if they spend full-time on it. When I am asked how much time I spent fundraising, I say, “100 percent”, because every event I attended on campus, every student or faculty member I talked with, helped me understand life on campus even more. And fundraising is about enhancing the opportunities for teaching and learning. Alumni love stories about life on campus now compared to when they were in attendance. Other donors want to know that every effort is expended towards fulfilling the institution’s mission.

I have nine rules for fundraising — and they apply to all who participate in seeking funds for the campus.

The first lesson is to listen. There are many occasions when we are with high potential prospects and are asked questions. We should, of course, provide all necessary information, but it is equally important to listen so that we can learn about the prospect’s interests and priorities. There is no better way to learn these or to validate what is learned from other sources. And never say “no” for other people; let them say what they want; Listen or read before responding. The danger is we might say no before knowing the actual question being asked.

The second lesson is that it is never about money. Believe it or not, fundraising in higher education is about enhancing the environment for teaching and learning, about prospects becoming partners as investors in quality, affordability, and fulfilling aspirations. It is not about money for today or even what this person can give later. It is about developing a relationship that will evolve and may require flexibility.

Third, not every conversation is about an investment of money. Every gift is the result of four steps whose pace can vary from minutes to months. All donors must find their way through these phases: becoming informed, becoming interested, becoming involved, becoming invested. (Becoming involved can include membership on an advisory committee and introductions to other potential supporters.)

These steps cannot be rushed; each must be honored. The pace can be quickened, but the steps cannot be skipped. I have experienced the four stages taking 45 minutes and 45 months.

The fourth lesson is to say, “thank you”, whether in response to a gift, a call, or an e-mail. We must be responsive — quickly. It is amazing how the simple act of returning a phone call or e-mail can be viewed as nearly revolutionary, given the fact that many people fail to do so. I have some great anecdotes about how simply saying ‘thank you’ for one gift led to significant increases in future gifts.

In the same vein, we must respond quickly to a complaint, even if it is simply to say you will examine the complaint and write back. Too many people wait for the examination before responding, and by then a second complaint about the lack of response is lodged.

The fifth lesson is to know your students, faculty, audience, and the university’s story, its narrative of mission and heritage. Prospects want to know that we are intimately involved in the mission of the university which, of course, is teaching and learning. They also want to know they are joining others who are committed to the institution. I find that prospective donors respond well to stories of particular individuals who have flourished in our environment. These stories help give life to what makes the institution or organization distinctive. (The context for fundraising at hospitals, museums, and community organizations is different from that at a university, but the steps are the same.)

The sixth lesson, then, is to understand and be able to articulate the vision of what we want the institution to be known for and the foundations on which future progress will be built. Academic program, or athletic, visions must be put in context.

The seventh lesson is simply to show up. I am amazed at how simply being at a funeral home, a memorial service, or other gathering, and spending time with someone who is a friend or future friend, can solidify relationships. We must do so with sincerity, of course. The results can be significant.

The eighth lesson is to focus on priorities. Whenever a potential donor asks about priorities, it is important to be able to detail them. Then, we can try to incorporate what we want to do with the interests and priorities of the donor which we have learned by listening.

There are times, of course, when someone’s interests do not coincide with institutional priorities and we must make a judgment about whether the gift or the structure of the gift will be desirable for the university. There are gifts that require the recipient to divert resources of energy, time, and money that could be better spent in other ways. Linking priorities to the vision is an essential step.

Finally, a request for $2,500 can take as long to secure as one for $250,000. We must think about the use of hours as well as the University’s future.

As important as the preparation for requesting support, is the integrity with which we are stewards for the gifts we receive. Donors are due timely and complete accounting for how their gifts are recorded, managed, used, and celebrated.

These basic steps for fundraising are to be deployed by all those representing an institution to prospective donors. While fundraising will probably not make up all of the shortfall from reduced revenue and increased expenses, it can provide needed support for particular needs such as scholarship assistance and faculty development, and demonstrate to accreditors and bond-rating agencies that the institution has loyal supporters even during difficult times.

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