Prepare for Takeoff

Finding your way on the journey of academic development

By Jeffrey L. Buller and Dianne M. Reeves

Prepare for Takeoff


The art of academic development is very much like taking an extended trip. While you have an idea of where you'll end up, there's no way to predict every side trip and adventure along the way. And who would want to do that?

Part of the fun of traveling is the unexpected discoveries you make, and part of the fun of academic development is meeting new people, having experiences you'd never imagined you'd have, and encountering cultures different from your own.

In academic fundraising, you'll encounter people with a wide range of backgrounds. You'll need to interact effectively with professors, administrators, staff members, corporate leaders, nonprofit managers, financial planners, legislators, trustees, alumni, parents, and people from a host of other professions, all of whom have their own ideas about what a college or university is and what it should be doing.

Each interaction between a representative of the institution and a potential benefactor is like a miniature journey. It has its own takeoff, cruising altitude, occasional turbulence, descent, approach, and landing. But unlike other journeys, academic development never reaches a final destination. Even when a gift is received, it still requires stewardship and proper reporting. Fundraising for a college or university can feel like a voyage that never ends, a quest that continually leads to other quests and still more adventures.

Before setting off, it's important to understand who you will encounter along the way, which will inform your pre-journey duties.

Your Travel Companions

One of the surprises of travel is discovering how words and practices we take for granted are often viewed in an entirely different way somewhere else. The experiences we have when fundraising for a college or university may feel similarly strange.

Development work often takes us from our own familiar world to settings where we feel out of place or where we do not quite understand the rules. A conversation that involves a professor of nursing, a professor of English, the university president, a staff member from the office of advancement, a trustee, and a potential donor from the community may feel a bit like a meeting of the United Nations.

Successful fundraising depends on our ability to form relationships with other people across cultures. What we've learned during more than 30 years of development work is that there are five basic cultures at a college or university that every academic fundraiser should know about to increase the likelihood of success.

The Academic World: the culture of professors, academic administrators, and other offices within a college or university that help support the teaching and resource missions of the institution.

The Development World: the culture of professional fundraisers and other units at a college or university where the primary concern is how to obtain external funding, rather than what should be taught or what type of research should be conducted.

The World of the Advisory or Governing Board: the culture of those who may be viewed from within the college or university as outsiders with little direct involvement but who see themselves as insiders vital to the college or university's day-to-day operations.

The World of Parents and Alumni: the culture of those who have strong but highly focused ties to the institution because they see it from their children's perspective or as it was in the past when they were students.

The Wider World: the culture of those who have little or no direct connection to the institution and so may easily misunderstand its mission, values, and goals.

Becoming familiar with these five cultures is important because each approaches the college or university in a different way. You can't take for granted that any two people in conversation across these cultures will share the same goals, viewpoints, or vocabulary. To be successful, you have to be able to translate from one language to another—a particularly nuanced task when everyone thinks they are speaking the same language.

For your journey, think of mastering the five cultures as your advance preparation. Now it's time to do a final check to make sure you haven't forgotten any important items.

What to Pack

Before you can go work effectively with the five cultures of academic development, be sure to pack the following for your trip:

Colleges and universities that are effective at raising external funds have a positive brand in the marketplace. A clear identity and good reputation lead people to trust that the institution will use funds appropriately and demonstrate responsible stewardship. Everyone involved in the development effort should have at the ready a clear and concise elevator speech, a well-focused operational gift story, and an inspiring transformational gift story.

There's a common adage in fundraising: People don't give money to causes; people give money to people. Who is the face of your institution or program? Is it someone who inspires confidence and represents the values and qualities that potential donors admire? The public image of an academic institution should be brilliant, innovative, and talented leaders with important ideas the world needs.

Fundraising goals must align properly with the mission, vision, and values of the institution. In academic development, people want to see that their support has an impact on matters important to them. If the institution has a strong teaching mission, most fundraising activities should focus on learning and student success. If the institution emphasizes research, fundraising projects should appear cutting-edge and distinctive. If the institution's primary concern is service, each project should aim to expand the school's impact in the community and the larger world.

You can't be successful on a trip if you leave with a flawed itinerary, and you can't be successful in academic development if you lack policies to guide you through the legal and financial complexities of modern fundraising. Your institution needs policies in place that are consistent with applicable federal, state, and local laws.

As you set out on any development activity, you'll want to know how your efforts compare to those of similar institutions and the entire industry of educational fundraising. You'll need to know how other institutions are doing in areas such as the number of donor contacts, the amount of money raised per full-time development officer, and the average size of individual contributions to determine whether your goals are appropriate and suitably ambitious for your role as an academic development leader.

What to Check Before Setting Out

Of course, just being packed doesn't mean you're ready to embark on a trip. You also have to remember to turn off the lights, set the thermostat, and have your mail held. Journeys of academic development similarly require us to check on a number of things before we set out to achieve our goals. The following are some of the items you should review before your advancement journey gets underway:

It's wise to begin any large-scale fundraising project by asking, as an institution, who are we and what do we stand for? That doesn't mean just the vision and strategic plans—what we might consider the itinerary of the journey—but rather the core values that make the journey worthwhile in the first place.

Culture of Philanthropy
In a true culture of philanthropy, everyone associated with the school serves as its ambassador and recognizes that external funding is critical to the mission of teaching, research, and service. A well-developed culture of philanthropy also means that organizational structures and functions are in place to allow development officers and other fundraisers to do their jobs effectively.

Energetic and Generous Board
Governing boards and advisory councils are at the heart of an institution's approach to philanthropy. Boards should have a giving requirement, and every member should make at least some financial gift to the institution. The chair of each board and advisory council should make it a priority to achieve a 100 percent giving rate among the members.

Active and Committed President
In most cases today, the president plays a very active role in ensuring progress toward an institution's goals and also in setting them. The president's level of commitment to fundraising and increasing an institution's financial support is vital to the success of those efforts.

Case for Support
Almost every successful fundraising venture in higher education begins with a case statement or case for support. The case is a concise and compelling summary of why donors should consider supporting a particular activity and what benefits are likely to result from it. Case statements also play an important role for the school's internal stakeholders, making sure everyone understands and appreciates the fundraising goals.

Full Use of Human Capital
Successful fundraising requires the engagement of volunteers. Task forces, project support groups, advisory councils, and governing boards are all essential to securing philanthropic dollars. These groups each have their own areas of interest and networks of influence that can greatly amplify the work of the paid staff.

Assessment Strategies
Measuring the performance and impact of any fundraising activity relies on Key Performance Indicators for activity and gifts received. KPIs should include, but not be limited to, measures related to funds received, total amounts given, total amounts pledged, number of proposals submitted, and number of visits with prospects. In addition, your assessment strategies might include reports on individual donors and potential donors, indicating what the future plans are for interacting with each person.

Wheels Up

Your pre-departure checklist prepares you for many things that may occur throughout your development journey. Of course, being prepared is not the same thing as predicting every eventuality. There will be twists and turns, unexpected roadblocks, and opportunities for surprising side trips. But exploring the five cultures of academic development and consulting the final checklists will make your path easier to navigate and your journey more productive. Happy travels!

The Five Cultures of Academic Development
This article is adapted from the new CASE book
The Five Cultures of Academic Development: Crossing Boundaries in Higher Education Fundraising, by Jeffrey L. Buller and Dianne M. Reeves. Purchase the book at the CASE store.

About the Authors

Jeffrey L. Buller is director of leadership and professional development at Florida Atlantic University and a senior partner at Atlas Leadership Training.

Dianne M. Reeves does business as P3: Partnering Passion with Philanthropy.