About CASE
Robert Poole

This profile from the July 2004 edition of the BriefCASE Newsletter highlights the career of longtime volunteer Robert Poole

Robert PooleBob Poole, vice president for advancement and college relations at Meharry Medical College, has spent over 25 years in advancement, fundraising, marketing, and communications for historically black colleges and universities, including Dillard, Fisk, Norfolk State, and North Carolina Central universities.  Poole, a member of the CASE Board of Trustees from 1996 to 1999, has studied at the Young Executives Institute at the University of North Carolina, the Institute for Educational Management at Harvard University, and the Corporate Leadership Development Program at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina.

When did you know you wanted to work in higher education advancement?
Early on I had a mentor, a gentleman who was director of planned giving at Fisk. He asked me to lead a senior class project where members of the class gave money to be invested for 20 years. At the 20-year reunion, the class made a gift of the invested funds to the university. I loved learning about how colleges were financed, especially small black colleges. I originally thought I would be a banker. But I found it fascinating learning how to put all of the higher education financial pieces together. It was like solving a puzzle with a lot of pieces-particularly on the fundraising side of things.

Like most historically black colleges, Fisk had a low level of alumni giving at the time. I wanted to know why this was a problem. Why aren't alumni giving more? I was naïve. I was young. I was enthusiastic. Fisk received a grant from the Ford Foundation to encourage African Americans to get into development. So after I graduated, I thought, "I'll give this a try" and became a development intern funded through that Ford Foundation program. Through my career working with historically black colleges I've grown to appreciate their value, their necessity, and their need for financial support.

Meharry has a special commitment to providing opportunities for African American and underrepresented minority students.  Does this make for an exceptionally loyal group of alumni?
Our alumni are loyal, but we find it is always a particular segment of our alumni, a core group, that is extremely loyal in making contributions. But what I want to know is:  Why aren't the other alumni like them? I haven't figured this out yet, but alumni in this core group feel that giving and being active alumni is a lifelong obligation. Surely communication-or lack thereof-is an issue in keeping alumni involved. At historically black colleges the tradition of giving wasn't established early on. The prevailing thinking when I started my career was that "Black people don't have the money to give." But black people do give and today the black middle class certainly has the income and we are seeing more generosity from black alumni. So now the issue we face is not so much, can blacks give? But rather, how well do we compete for their dollars? They are giving to churches, United Way, organizations tied to their communities.

At Meharry, student services are included under the advancement umbrella. How common is this structure, and does it encourage students to be involved with development?
When the advancement and college relations division was reorganized at Meharry before I was vice president I remember thinking, "That's curious. Student services usually is not part of advancement." But each institution is different, and this structure works well here. My associate vice president for college relations has extensive advancement and student services experience, which has made the combination a good fit. Since this is a graduate and professional school, there are fewer student activities than you would find at the undergraduate level. The students are too busy, but they do have counseling and other needs that we support. What's interesting is how student services is integrated with development. For instance, through the pre-alumni organization we often involve students in fundraising events and donor cultivation. We have an annual "Circle of Friends" gala for donors who give $1,000 or more and usually about 20 students are scattered in the audience to talk to the donors. They have no prompting or prior scripting, and they don't need it-they sell the school better than anyone else. Our marketing department also makes a video of randomly chosen students. In the video the students share the obstacles they overcame to get to medical or dental school, they share their stories-and there is hardly a dry eye in the house when we show these videos at this and other events.

We hold luncheons for corporate prospects and again students play an important role. We have the students share their stories with the donors. When these corporate donors meet the students they see and feel the need first hand. The students tell their stories and we combine this with the unique history of how Meharry was founded. In the 1830s a slave family helped a white man with a broken salt wagon. In gratitude for their generosity he made a promise to help their people if he ever was in a financial position to do so. His family name was Meharry. After the Civil War, the family provided funds to help start the school. So there is a tradition of reaching out and of goodwill in our roots and our students and alumni have warm affection for the school.

What else can advancement professionals do to strengthen their case when seeking funds?
Solid research on the prospects, and knowledge and passion about our cause greatly strengthens our position when we approach donors. Our case is strong because we are doing a lot. We are involved with projects on a variety of health issues such as health status disparities among African Americans and other minority groups. For instance, why do higher rates of diabetes and cancer exist among African Americans even when all other factors, such as income, are equal? This is a big national health issue involving the National Institutes of Health and virtually every major national health related organization, and no institution is in a better position than Meharry to study it.

We're also involved with a project in partnership with State Farm examining the rate of seatbelt use among African Americans. With Vanderbilt University, we're working on a major cancer research study that is seeking to understand why the incidence of cancer is higher among African Americans in the South. Our growing research capacity in areas of great concern to society makes us more attractive to donors.

Over the course of your career were there any projects that you found especially challenging and rewarding?
I helped to create an endowed chair, which was funded by Glaxo, now GlaxoSmithKline, when I was at North Carolina Central University. This was the school's first privately funded chair. Through a project developed by the dean we collaborated to devise a strategy to make the chair a reality.

At first, we had to convince the company's leaders that the school was capable of doing the kind of science that would warrant an endowed chair. Once we accomplished this, it became a springboard for other major initiatives. It gave the school recognition. This effort helped to open people's eyes as to what it was capable of. It helped it to reaffirm an identity of academic quality and competitiveness in a region dominated by the "big three"-Duke, NC State, and UNC.

The effort was part corporate relations, part marketing, part politics and other things. It also helped me understand how crucial it is to involve faculty as part of a team in fundraising.  This project eventually helped North Carolina Central with its capital campaign, and the experience was instructive in my work with team projects at other institutions, one of which garnered a $10 million grant.

What do you especially love about your work?
I've been around higher education advancement for a long time-and I still enjoy it. I find it invigorating. Being with young people who have fresh ideas-their enthusiasm keeps you on your toes, you keep learning. Now that I'm at a medical college, there is so much more to learn-medical nomenclature, health care issues, relationships between medicine, science, politics and economics. I now understand how to apply these factors to generate new resources. Education is challenging, but I find medical education to be the most challenging, and also the most rewarding professional experience I've had.  It's a great place to be.