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President's Perspective: The Greatest Mistake? Not Learning from Our Mistakes
President's Perspective: The Greatest Mistake? Not Learning from Our Mistakes

Common errors in educational fundraising

By John Lippincott

Having made plenty of errors during my multidecade career in educational advancement, I consider myself particularly well qualified to identify some of the most prevalent mistakes in our profession. Here is my top 10 list of common mistakes in educational fundraising. (I will tackle other disciplines in future columns.)

1. Not asking enough.

The single greatest predictor of fundraising success is the number of times a school, college, or university asks for donations. Most institutions are not asking often enough to fully realize their potential. That leads us to mistake No. 2.

2. Not investing enough.

The number of asks is a direct function of the number of person-hours devoted to asking. To realize its fundraising potential, an institution needs to invest adequately in hiring and retaining frontline fundraisers to do the asking and other advancement professionals to provide the tools and create the climate for fundraising success.

3. Not communicating enough.

Part of creating the climate for successful fundraising is sustained and strategic communication. Before donors make significant contributions, they need to value the institution's mission, embrace its vision, and trust its leadership. They need to believe in the institutional (or departmental) story and want to be part of it. They need to understand the difference they can make and the impact their gift will have. All of that requires regular, multichannel, two-way communication that begins well before and continues well after the ask.

4. Not listening enough.

Strategic communication should be based on a clear understanding of the donor's interests, passions, circles of influence, and past engagement with the institution. In addition, the ask should be based on a clear understanding of the donor's willingness and capacity to give. Researching publicly available resources and keeping good records are enormously helpful in that regard, but there is no substitute for simply listening to the donors themselves.

5. Not engaging enough.

Willingness to give correlates strongly with a donor's frequency and depth of engagement with the institution. Engagement can take many forms—participating in events, advising leadership, mentoring students, serving on boards, forging connections. The most important form of engagement is the one most important to the donor. And, yes, there can be too much or inappropriate engagement, so the terms of engagement, much like the terms of a gift, should be clearly identified.

6. Not stewarding enough.

Identifying the terms of a gift is step one in an ongoing process of donor stewardship, since the most important elements of stewardship are ensuring and communicating that the gift has been used according to the donor's wishes. The donor's (and the family's) wishes should also be the determining factor in the proper forms of stewardship—from recognition at public events to private visits from institutional leaders.

7. Not involving others.

Whether it is a stewardship visit, a cultivation opportunity, or a solicitation meeting, having the right people in the room is essential. People give to people. Donors give to the faculty member, the researcher, the dean, the president, the peer, or the fundraiser whom they respect and with whom they are comfortable. And the person asking should also be giving.

8. Not sharing the credit.

Because many people may have a role in building and strengthening the relationship with a donor, they all should be acknowledged for their role in securing a gift. To suggest that just one person (e.g., the fundraiser or the president) is responsible can discourage teamwork and jeopardize a donor's long-term engagement with the institution, especially given the relatively short tenure of most fundraisers and presidents.

9. Not sharing the donor.

Similarly, the notion that a donor "belongs" to a particular fundraiser or school or program—or even to the institution as a whole—is a dangerous illusion. Giving is a voluntary act based on the donor's interests and passions. A sound prospect management system will reward fundraisers for connecting donors with the program or giving plan most closely aligned with their philanthropic goals.

10. Not remembering the goal.

Perhaps the worst mistake we can make is to believe that fundraising is all about the money. When we suggest that the goal of our work is a campaign total, a percentage increase in the annual fund, or an amount greater than that raised by peer institutions, we do a disservice to our donors, our institutions, our profession, and ourselves. We do not raise money for the sake of raising money; we raise it to improve the human condition through the work of educational institutions.

Your Two Cents

Share your additions to this list by posting them in the comments section below.

About the Author John Lippincott John Lippincott

John Lippincott served as president of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education from 2004 through 2015.




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