Wednesday, October 03, 2012

When Fundraisers Attack, Part One

I’m at the CASE conference in San Diego, seeing what “development” (that is, fundraising) officers at community colleges talk about when they gather.  (CASE is the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.)  It’s a national organization of development officers from all sectors of nonprofit higher ed, but this is their first conference focused specifically on community colleges.  

It’s a fascinating world.

Most of the conferences I’ve attended have been populated either by faculty or by administrators from the operational side of the college.  This one is dominated by the folks who raise money, and it’s a different crowd.  For one thing, it’s a lot more female; I’d guesstimate that the crowd is about two-thirds women.  It’s also much more diverse in age than most conference crowds.  Perhaps owing to the setting, the dress code is much more, well, colorful than I’m used to seeing.  And it’s a far more extroverted bunch than I usually see.  During gaps between panels, complete strangers introduce themselves.  People who know me in real life would generally describe me as reserved, but here, everyone is chatty.  It’s contagious, and a refreshing change of pace.  Even I mingled, which is unusual for me.

Looking at community colleges from development folks’ perspective is a little disorienting, but mostly in a good way.

The opening plenary by John Lippincott -- at which they announced a conference attendance of 450, which is remarkable for a first effort -- was devoted to the results of a survey of community college presidents and chief development officers (CDO).  A few of the takeaways:

- Longevity matters.  When the CEO and the CDO have more than four years together, they tend to raise far more money in any given year.  It’s hard to prove causation -- it may be that successful teams last longer precisely because they’re successful -- but it makes sense that having the fundraising person and the public face of the college on the same page would help, and that it might take a while for the two to gel.

- Chief development officers tend to have longer tenures in offices than presidents.  You may make of that whatever you wish.

- Apparently, some colleges have conflicts between their board of trustees and the board of directors of their foundation.  This leads to all manner of drama, since the president needs to be attentive to both.  I’m happy to say that I haven’t seen this on my own campus, so it hadn’t even occurred to me, but it seems to be a real issue in some places.

- The CDO’s wish list includes more staff -- not surprisingly -- but also more campus buy-in to what they’re doing.  The survey included a quote from one wishing that her president would “give a damn.”  CDO’s often have to mentor their presidents -- which is to say, their bosses -- in the art of fundraising, which can raise some sticky issues.  Respect for their work was a major theme, which came as a surprise to me.

At a breakout session exploring the reasons that major donors give to colleges, the same theme of longevity came up.  The presenter, Russell Hammond of SUNY-Orange County, noted that most major donors had been “associated” with their chosen college in some sort of active way for at least ten years prior to giving the big gift.  He also noted -- and this came as a bigger surprise to me than it probably should have -- that of the philanthropic dollars given to higher education in the U.S., community colleges receive less than one percent.  That’s an astonishing figure, given that over forty percent of the undergrads in America are at community colleges at any given time.  At the plenary, we were told that it was an “old wives’ tale” that alums of community colleges mostly give to their subsequent schools, but I’m not sure how to square that assertion with the less-than-one-percent figure.  The old wives might be on to something.

In terms of “why,” he stressed the need to discern individual donors’ “philanthropic narrative,” which takes time and patience -- again, the longevity theme.  He noted, somewhat drily, that different donors will have wildly contradicting political rationales for supporting the same program: what a liberal might see as a strike for social justice, a conservative might see as an alternative to the nanny state.  A development officer who can play the long game can figure that out and frame opportunities accordingly.  Notably, nearly every major donor he studied was over the age of 55.

A subsequent breakout session by Mark Greenfield of the University of Buffalo about using social media to reach out to Millennials brought a much younger audience.  The major takeaway from that one was the importance of ‘mobile.’  For example, using a QR code to direct people to a website with Flash is largely self-defeating, since anyone with an iphone or ipad will be stymied.  I was also struck at how quickly popularity can shift among social media platforms.  

Between the two sessions, I couldn’t help but notice once again that we Gen X’ers fell between the cracks.  Alas.

Coming from the academic side, as I do, I generally assume that fundraisers get a great deal of respect on campus; after all, they bring money.  And that’s certainly true on my campus, where the CDO is a respected figure.  But judging by the conference so far, that’s still the exception; apparently, many community college presidents still don’t feel that fundraising is properly part of their job.  In a perfect world, it probably wouldn’t be, but given the realities of the last few years, it will be.  As an academic, I wish there were more like me here, just to hear it all.

On to day two.  Jet lag eventually fades, right?