Tuesdays with the President

Campaign strategy sessions are best done over wine and cheese

By Jo Allen

Tuesdays with the President

CAMPAIGN CABERNET: Meredith College President Jo Allen (center) hosts weekly campaign fundraising strategy sessions in her home. The campaign team became more productive—exceeding fundraising goals—when it traded in the formal office environment for strategy sessions in a more relaxed setting, replete with wine (or sweet tea). Pictured with Allen are (left) Cindy Godwin, associate vice president for institutional advancement, and (right) Emily Parker, campaign communications manager.

It's not a party. It is work, but it's fun and productive in ways that the regular workday oftentimes is not. At 4 p.m. on Tuesdays, a small team of Meredith College advancement officers comes to my on-campus home for a campaign strategy session and a glass of sweet tea (or wine).

The group—including the vice president for advancement, the associate vice president in charge of the campaign, and an assistant campaign coordinator—retrieves the glasses, finds the cocktail napkins, and puts out the cheese and crackers. Social chatter and laughter fill the sunroom.

We get comfortable sitting in overstuffed chairs. At least one of us (OK, it's me) takes off her shoes. Then, free from office formalities and interruptions, we chart our next steps to maintain momentum for "Beyond Strong," our North Carolina institution's most ambitious campaign.

We spend considerable time scripting messages and significant asks, but our business can include anything related to the campaign, including strategizing, redirecting our messaging, assigning, and scheduling. Other members of our 20-person advancement team join us when needed. A major gifts officer may come with insight about a specific donor. The communications coordinator could ask for clarity on messaging around a certain project. Perhaps the alumnae director has an idea for a reunion event to reach young donors.

Two basic guidelines help us hit our stride quickly and keep up the productivity each week. First, everyone needs to arrive and leave on time. These sessions are extensions of the workday. While they're informal, we all need to respect each other's time. Everyone potentially has a piece of a donor's story or other contribution to offer, and no one wants to repeat themselves for the benefit of a late arrival. Late meetings can take team members away from family and friends, so we set an agenda and announce an end time upfront (typically 6 p.m.), which keeps us on track and ensures no one is antsy about needing to leave early to meet other obligations.

Second, everyone—including me—leaves with a to-do list, which we're expected to tackle the next day. Our campaign assistant compiles the assignments, which can range from writing thank you notes, mailing invitations, and scheduling visits to drafting proposals, phoning donors, and coordinating guest lists. (I think our team likes giving me homework best of all.) Our commitment to these duties is part of an implicit pact to make these fun Tuesday sessions effective. No one wants to go back to meeting in the office.

Letting Conversation Flow

An important element of our success is the understanding that no detail is too small to share. In addition to a donor's financial holdings and windfalls, other philanthropic commitments, and prior giving to Meredith, we're interested in all connections, passions, preferences, and peculiarities. I encourage candor by using it myself. We're repeatedly surprised to learn what a donor has said to one of us out of the earshot of others: political leanings, pet peeves, business alliances or fallouts, and social and familial connections. These all provide a fuller understanding of the donor. The campaign coordinator later enters these tidbits like call reports to preserve the details in our donor records.

Some pieces of information give us insights on making a specific appeal, while others may simply suggest whom not to seat at the same dinner table or even in the same room. In the course of these sessions, we learned that someone who had exclusively funded scholarships actually had an eye on a facilities project. She had asked one of us at an event how much it would cost to renovate a campus eyesore. We learned that another donor for whom we struggled to find the right project despised the lead faculty member in her major but had a soft spot for a student affairs employee she may want to honor with an endowed professional development fund. Details matter and insights can prove fruitful, just as random slipups and ignorance of specifics can derail donor relationships.

Especially important for me is that I get to hear the inside information about donors, most of whom at least someone on the team has known for years. I've been able to sidestep some potentially damaging assumptions. I found, for instance, that one potential donor would be delighted to know his daughter was being considered for potential trusteeship, while another would be aghast that her son was a candidate.

Coolness Under Pressure

I've also learned how prospects can respond differently to certain strategies. Perhaps most important, I've become more attuned to when to give someone space and when to stop pursuing a gift altogether. These kinds of conversations with my team have given me greater confidence when I sit down with a donor, and the importance of confidence should never be underestimated in fundraising.

We still hold many brainstorming and strategy sessions in the office, but my home is uniquely conducive for role-playing. We can replicate the setting in which we most frequently interact with campaign donors: face-to-face in my home or theirs. Together we improvise ways to get past distractions such as ringing phones and children running through rooms. We talk about the importance of humor in such circumstances and ways to gracefully redirect conversations back to the business at hand. We regularly use my home as a strategic location for top donor conversations during campaign events and one-on-one meetings. Practice ensures our staff members are comfortable making a solicitation in any room and adept at finding the best setting for an ask, such as the sunroom, living room, dining room, library, or courtyard.

For instance, a solicitation regarding the Palazzo Alberti—the college's property in Tuscany that houses some of our study abroad programs—may be staged in the library where a painting of the palazzo hangs. Conversations about the grounds of the college may fare better in the courtyard or sunroom, where the outdoors is a prominent feature. We also practice who will insert particular information, stories, or data into a conversation and when we will simply ask critical questions and listen. During these role-playing sessions, we also share insights that make us all more adept at cultivating and stewarding donors.

Adopting the New Approach

We made this out-of-the-office adjustment in 2012 at the beginning of our current campaign, knowing we'd be spending a lot of time together. I'd been in my role as president for only a year, and it made sense to find a way to get to know each other better and perhaps a bit faster. We predicted an advantage in building morale and exchanging information by being able to brainstorm, whine a bit about a strategy that isn't working or a donor who keeps putting us off, and celebrate without the formalities of the president's office. (Did I mention that the team loves to give me homework?) A sense of give-and-take and equal footing is critical to the success of these out-of-office sessions. Any idea and strategy can be challenged, and we have the luxury of playing devil's advocate in real-time planning and role-playing.

Our results? Extraordinary. Our team has already raised $70 million toward our initial goal of $75 million to support scholarships, instruction, professional development, and facilities. This campaign has hit critical milestones faster than any other in the college's history. (The last campaign concluded in 2008 with a goal of $35 million.)

Many factors have contributed to our success, but these Tuesday sessions are at the heart of our campaign operation, and we're certain they've played a large role. Lennie Barton, our vice president for advancement, says having a president devote so much time to fundraising, not to mention the camaraderie our team has built, has been key. For me, this approach has been valuable time spent learning what these professionals have to teach me about fundraising. Those lessons have helped us score some early, sustainable wins.

To provide some perspective, in the four years prior to the campaign, the college raised an average of $5.7 million annually. During the one-year silent phase of the campaign, we raised $7.6 million. In the second year, we brought in more than $18 million, before stabilizing during the next three years at more than $12 million annually.

Part of the purpose of a campaign, of course, is not only to foster a sense of urgency about specific needs but also to establish a culture of philanthropy. We are on target to do just that, anticipating that we will exceed our goal and conclude the campaign soon.

This momentum has also improved campus morale and philanthropic giving. Faculty and staff giving have tripled from a pre-campaign average of 26 percent to 72 percent annually. Lennie thinks a large part of our success stems from the hours we've spent at my home refining our strategies. Faculty and staff perceive my commitment to fundraising as faith in them and their work.

Finally, despite national trends of frequent turnover among advancement personnel, we have experienced minimal turnover (two midlevel employees in five years) and no loss of enthusiasm.

We hope our donors never feel handled—or, even worse, targeted—by a development officer. Our goal is to make them feel part of a collegial network of donors and employees who love Meredith College, are inspired to fund its extraordinary students and projects, and are enthusiastic about its future. At best, we hope our donors feel more like family. After all, what would you deny your loved ones?

Our Tuesday afternoon sessions strengthen personal and social connections that in-office work and even events in my home cannot. I have a greater understanding of the challenges facing college advancement, I have a stronger relationship with and respect for these friends and colleagues, and I'm a better fundraiser. Of the many tasks on a president's to-do list, fundraising may be one of the most critical—and loneliest. It is fraught with incredible highs and dispiriting lows. How much better is it to have a team that understands and moves beyond office hierarchies and scorekeeping? Ultimately, the results speak for themselves.

About the Author

Jo Allen is president of Meredith College in North Carolina, one of the largest private colleges for women in the United States.