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From the admin chair

Nine tips from an amateur fundraiser

Fundraising, Part 2.


Fundraising is now an essential strategy in university financial planning, and for those in decanal or executive head positions, it demands a large percentage of their time. This could be seen as a classic example of the Peter Principle: Because we’ve developed academic expertise and moved from the classroom and laboratory to the committee room, we’re thrown into something for which none of us was trained and with which few have experience. We’re expected to convince people that they want to part with their dollars for higher education and, specifically, for the institution we represent.

This is an intimidating proposition for deans and other senior administrators. We have three major fears.

First, we live in the Canadian culture of non-imposition. We are not comfortable turning ourselves into the embodiment of that voice on the phone that always calls around dinner-time.

The second fear is fear of rejection or, even worse, of appearing silly. For myself, I had thou-ghts of the awkward moment when a prospective donor would receive my request with stunned silence or worse.

The third concern is simply that the whole process is mystifying. Aside from selling raffle tickets for our children’s school project, many of us have never done fundraising. Notions of cultivation, stewardship and, most of all, when and how to make an “ask” are foreign to us.

Yet, surprisingly, I have found that fund development on behalf of the university can be a positive activity, where a real feeling of accomplishment is possible. So, for what they are worth, here are my tips for academics thrown into the world of fundraising.

  1. Believe in your purpose. If you have doubts about the cause, the institution’s direction or the particular project, you’re in trouble. You can change the project, of course, but if you doubt the institution or the cause, you shouldn’t be where you are.
  2. You are not working alone. Every university now has a team of fundraising professionals. Rely on them and their expert advice. They should do the legwork, open the doors and provide the necessary research.
  3. Have a clear understanding of your role, and then invest the time. When will you be brought into a discussion and for what level of donor? The answers will depend on your position and institution, but both you and your development team should understand your role and time commitment at the start.
  4. Just because you have a team around you, don’t relinquish common sense.  We are academics and researchers and have been trained to question. If the approach or the amount seems wrong, challenge it.
  5. Get to really know your prospective donors. The worst thing you can do is jump to conclusions about people’s interests. Of all these suggestions, the most important might be to talk less and listen more. You will often be surprised.
  6. Enjoy the people you meet. The academic world can be a tight-knit community. Some administrators fear that if they start soliciting “out there” they will meet people who feel free to explain why we are doing a bad job. That can happen, but those people won’t likely be your donors. Most of the donors are intelligent people who have led fascinating lives and who want to make a difference.
  7. A solicitation should not be a surprise. If you have listened and if your team has done its work, both parties should understand that there is interest and that an approach will be made. Ideally, the level of the gift should also be more or less known, although occasionally the mark gets missed.
  8. Beware the gift that keeps on taking. It is natural but risky to focus on achieving the campaign numbers. Suddenly a donor offers something that isn’t a priority, or isn’t sufficient, and this ends up undermining rather than supporting the mission of the institution.
  9. Steward your donors. It is both tactically stupid and ethically dubious to take a major gift from a donor and then ignore them. This person has made a commitment to you and to your institution. Donors deserve to know how things are going and they deserve to be respected for their contribution.

Read Part 1 of this series.

Doug Owram is deputy chancellor and principal of UBC Okanagan. He is also a Canadian historian and member of the Royal Society of Canada.

Doug Owram is deputy vice-chancellor of UBC Okanagan and a Canadian historian.
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