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Mission Possible

Finding and hiring advancement staff of color is not as difficult as it seems

By Lydia Lum


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In the 10 years that Gayle Yamada's applications to university development positions in her native Southern California went largely unanswered, she kept busy.

Yamada became a prolific fundraiser for organizations focused on health care, social services, and community redevelopment, securing gifts as high as seven figures.

Yet during her job searches, just one university granted Yamada, who is Asian-American, an interview—she didn't get the job—while half of the nonprofit agencies to which she submitted her resume met with her.

Looking back, Yamada believes that her lack of work experience in higher education played a role in senior university administrators rejecting her about 30 times. Meanwhile, she secured a $3 million gift this spring, less than a year after becoming vice president for development and external relations for the nonprofit Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, which is based in Washington, D.C.

The barriers faced by minorities such as Yamada help illustrate why the educational advancement field remains overwhelmingly white, observers say. Hiring managers overlook too much talent from outside academia as well as within it. This, coupled with recruitment obstacles, has resulted in a dearth of racial diversity and fewer people who can offer a greater variety of perspectives and fundraising approaches.

Only 9 percent of the North American educational advancement workforce is nonwhite, the 2013 CASE Compensation Survey found, compared with about 20 percent of full-time U.S. college faculty, according to 2011 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some experts say these hiring patterns expose hypocrisy in higher education—especially when juxtaposed against academic freedoms such as the right of tenured professors to espouse almost any belief without the fear of being fired.

"Universities are supposed to be institutions of openness and inclusion," says Patti Hiramoto, a former advancement chief and now associate vice president for inclusive excellence and chief diversity officer at California State University, Monterey Bay.

Built-in barriers

Advancement as a career option isn't well-known, particularly among diverse candidates. Philanthropy is less established in some countries than it is in the United States, so immigrants might not seek out fundraising jobs. When Vince A. Sales, vice president for university advancement at California State Univer­sity, Sacramento, described his job to a woman in his native Philippines who wasn't familiar with fundraising, she said, "That sounds like a beggar."

Jorge E. Ancona, assistant vice chancellor for alumni and constituent relations at the University of California, Riverside, has difficulty explaining his work to relatives in Mexico, where traditionally, college graduates haven't maintained ties with their alma maters. Words such as alumni don't easily translate into Spanish either.

Targeted recruitment of U.S. minorities falls short even among assimilated communities. When Ancona led alumni relations at the University of California, Irvine, he tried to attract former students of Asian descent—an ethnicity that comprises about half of UCI's undergraduate enrollment—by publicizing a job vacancy through the campus career and the minority resource centers. The 60-plus applicants included only five Asian-Americans.

Ancona's recruitment snag underscores a longstanding unfamiliarity with such careers among nonimmigrant minorities. While the U.S. nonprofit sector saw immense growth in the 1950s, many agencies dedicated to race-based causes emerged during and after the civil rights movement. These groups initially relied on volunteerism as much as, if not more than, charitable gifts—meaning that professional fundraisers have joined this sector only in recent decades.

So it was unsurprising that during the 1980s, Birgit Smith Burton's church acquaintances and neighbors could not believe that her fundraising post at the United Negro College Fund was salaried rather than volunteer. The shortage of role models such as Burton during that period resulted in minorities rarely encouraging their children to pursue similar jobs, which the next generation has repeated. Only 11 percent of the Association of Fundraising Professionals' membership roster is nonwhite.

Meanwhile, misperceptions among university advancement officials about the qualifications of some job candidates have also contributed to scarce minority hiring. Sales and Ancona have tapped employees for their departments at Sacramento State and UC Riverside, respectively, from the nonprofit world, but some of their peers at other institutions are less receptive to recruiting from that source.

Burton sometimes hears from black fundraisers who cannot make the jump from small, nonprofit organizations. They fail to capture the interest of university advancement officials, who express doubts that a gift officer who generates support for a single cause can succeed in a multifaceted academic environment, says Burton, who is now the senior director of foundation relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founder of the African American Development Officers Network.

Recruitment barriers also exist within academia.Too often, the leaders of predominantly white U.S. institutions don't consider the heavy workload of applicants who are gift officers at the nation's more than 100 historically black colleges and universities, Burton says. These fundraisers, whose shops typically consist of only one or two employees, rarely secure six-figure gifts because they spend so much time, by necessity, on tasks such as stuffing envelopes for direct-mail appeals and researching prospects unaided by the latest technology.

"A qualified fundraiser is based not only on dollars raised but on hurdles overcome," she says.

Do advancement officials discriminate in their hiring? It's hard to say.

Yamada, the top development officer for the Asian scholarship organization, wonders if race was another reason that university administrators repeatedly rejected her portfolio. Asian-Americans are frequently stereotyped as meek, and Yamada disclosed her ethnicity on applications requesting it. Most of the nonprofit agencies that she approached did not ask this question.

Diversity advocates fear that perceived bias of white donors toward fundraisers of color may also hold hiring managers back, but such bias is not widespread.

For example, Cal State Monterey Bay's Hiramoto was pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the highest-capacity benefactors—white and minority—at her campus underwrote social justice initiatives targeting audiences whose ethnicities were different from their own. "More donors would welcome diverse advancement teams than we give them credit for," she says. "We shouldn't underestimate their open-mindedness."

Inclusion not optional

As student populations grow more diverse, so do the needs for stepped-up fundraising and more racially inclusive advancement staffs.

The United Kingdom is no exception. Its higher education development workforce must double or even triple in order for universities to meet an ambitious goal of raising £2 billion annually by 2022. Institutions can grow and diversify the workforce—of which minorities constitute only 6 percent, but 18 percent of freshmen are nonwhite—by recruiting more candidates from outside the sector, according to a new Higher Education Funding Council for England report.

In the United States, cuts in government allocations to postsecondary education during the Great Recession haven't been reversed, so accelerated philanthropy is a must. Meanwhile, students of color make up about 38 percent of the enrollment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"There's an advantage to having fundraisers who share similar backgrounds as the alumni," says Sales of Sacramento State.

To expand the pipeline into the profession, he and his counterparts employ minority undergraduates as often as possible in annual fund calling, data services, and other areas to familiarize them with advancement. Because of this experience, former students are great candidates for full-time employment, as Sales found when he tapped an African-American alumna to coordinate his institution's calling program.

At Canada's University of British Columbia, where more than 50 percent of freshmen are of Asian descent, Senior Media Relations Specialist Brian Lin takes his message about communications careers into classrooms. Lin's presentations about his work show undergraduates that their employment possibilities go beyond journalism and blogging.

Expand the pool

There's no magic cure for quickly multiplying the minority ranks in advancement. Hiring managers can, however, take two significant steps to open the pipeline to more people of color and others who historically haven't been viewed as job candidates: Identify individuals with skills and experiences transferable to advancement, and recruit and train people in and out of academia for advancement positions.

Take U.K. gift officer David Ellis, who raised more than a million pounds as a newcomer to the profession. Ellis spent 25 years in local government and rose to senior management but didn't want to wait until retirement to pursue more meaningful endeavors. Fundraising recruiters warned him to prepare for entry-level jobs with low salaries. Undeterred, he accepted a position in summer 2012 at the University of East Anglia, where he earned an MBA.

Within 18 months, he raised £1.7 million for medical research and was promoted to deputy director of his unit. He credits his success to the skills—writing, budgeting, and convincing people to buy into ideas—he honed during his government career as well as his willingness to listen to donors.

"It's about using who you are," Ellis says of fundraising, adding that he doesn't contemplate retirement anymore.

A case study about Ellis is among several others that are featured in a HEFCE report about the U.K.'s fundraising workforce. The report, co-produced by the U.K.-based consultancy More Partnership, suggests ways to recruit and retain top performers.

Ellis's achievement is proof that "fundraisers don't need years of major gift experience. They just need the right competencies," says Rebecca Rendle, More's managing partner.

The candidate pool should also include corporate strategists, business development executives, and others from the private sector, says Larry Smith, principal of the Indianapolis-based consultancy Leading Edge Advisory Firm and a former fundraising instructor at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis. This could draw people who are disenchanted with profit-making priorities.

Ripe opportunities also exist for advancement units to cherry-pick minorities from financially struggling industries. To that end, Matt Flores, Texas State University's assistant vice president for advancement communications, publicizes job vacancies in his area to journalism associations.

Last year, Flores hired a development writer whose combined experience at daily newspapers and a university fundraising shop was unmatched among the other 40 applicants. She is Hispanic, which is a bonus, Flores says; minorities constitute 42 percent of Texas State's student enrollment.

Advancement jobs, especially at public institutions, appeal to journalists who are drawn to so-called noble causes. "A media relations job at a corporation doesn't exactly square with a business news reporter who used to write exposés about corruption," says Flores, a former news reporter and editor. "Writing stories about the university is like advancing the public good. It's close to why so many of us pursued journalism."

Fundraisers can also emerge from campus employees. Anecdotally, many observers lament that people of color are disproportionately limited to administrative support positions within advancement rather than in public roles. Yet these behind-the-scenes employees can—and should—be trained as development officers.

"There is definitely overlooked talent," says consultant Smith. "Advancement is not rocket science. You don't need to spend years learning esoteric knowledge. Training is important, but personality is most important. So is passion, sincerity, and belief in the cause."

Such passion helped Christine Pina close a $50,000, first-time gift from a 20-something African-American alumna soon after Pina began her second career as a fundraiser at Virginia's Madeira School in 1999.

Now vice president for institutional advancement at Connecticut's University of Hartford, Pina says that her skills as a college admissions officer—building relationships and focusing strategically on outcomes are two examples—proved advantageous when she broke into development.

Cal State Monterey Bay's Hiramoto chides hiring officials throughout academia for not recruiting more fundraisers from unrelated divisions. "It's unfortunate that silos exist because we're all working toward the same goal," she says. "Everyone on campus is already an ambassador for the university and therefore an advancement person."

‘Respected and valued'

Workforce diversity won't improve through hiring alone. Retention remains crucial, diversity advocates say, and strategies for keeping minority staff members include providing equal access to career advancement opportunities, such as high-profile assignments and training. Although most people of color are happy to engage with minority alumni, a sure-fire way to lose staff is to limit them to such tasks.

A welcoming environment is key and starts with support and advocacy from senior administrators. Ironically, this also means acknowledging that some constituents won't tolerate minorities.

Pina, an African-American who worked as a gift officer at multiple institutions before becoming a vice president, has experienced this firsthand.

A benefactor whom Pina was scheduled to visit appeared startled upon opening the door to her home. Pina barely had a chance to remind the donor of who she was before the woman uttered this response:

You're not what I expected.

Inside, the conversation lasted only 15 minutes when the donor stated her wish:

Send someone else next time.

When Pina recounted her ordeal to her boss, who is white, he asked how he could help. She suggested exchanging donors with a colleague, and he agreed.

"I felt respected and valued," Pina says of her then-supervisor. "I never felt he was putting the needs of the institution ahead of mine. This showed me how a good boss could create a healthy environment of inclusiveness."

After she and a colleague switched assignments, the donor who had spurned Pina made a five-figure gift to the institution.

The ordeal reminded Pina how important reaching out to supervisors for assistance is—and why bosses need to step up. "A good mentor doesn't have to look or think like you as long as he recognizes that talent comes in all forms and he pays attention to cultural differences. My strongest mentors have been white and, quite often, men."

The retention philosophy of UC Riverside's Ancona is to mentor employees in skills such as public speaking and resource management. When they reach the senior ranks, he helps them obtain executive posts at other campuses.

At Sacramento State, Sales encourages advancement staff members during one-on-one lunches. "I want them to say, ‘Vince, I want your job someday.' People mentored me to get to this point, so I'm paying it forward. Even if my employees leave academia, at least they're well-trained. All I can do is instill good practices."

Mentors also benefit from these relationships. Sales learned how to write stronger campaign case statements from a former marketing firm executive, a minority whom he hired at San Francisco State University.

For that to happen, more minorities must gain a toehold in advancement shops, but at least one of them has no immediate plans to keep trying.

Yamada, who pursued higher education jobs in futility, is pleased she landed at the Asian scholarship fund. Its ethnic roots resonate with her.

"I feel complete."

About the Author Lydia Lum

Lydia Lum is a freelance writer and former reporter for the Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

 

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