Monday, January 27, 2014

The Advocacy Conundrum

At the first CASE conference specifically focused on community colleges, back in 2012, I heard a story that has stuck with me since.  A fundraiser was lamenting an exchange he saw his president have with a potential donor.  It went like this:

Donor: Is there anything you need help with?

President: (thoughtful pause)  No, I think it’s a pretty well-run institution.

Fundraiser: (jaw drops to floor)

The fundraiser’s point was about the need to coach presidents in the art of the “ask.”  That’s true, but I see it as a president getting caught up in the two stories that presidents of community and public colleges have to tell, and believe, simultaneously.

First, the “need” story.  Public colleges -- and especially community colleges -- have been hit hard by a one step forward-two steps back cycle of appropriations for a long time.  Most of them run quite lean, just because they have to.  The “need” story is focused on deficits, and on the need to fill in very real and harmful gaps.  If legislators don’t understand the “need” story, they’ll divert even more resources to other things.  When your business model is built on subsidy -- which is a feature, not a bug -- then you’d better tend to the subsidy.

Second, the “success” story.  For all the talk of outcomes assessment, scorecards, and the like, higher education remains a largely reputational industry.  That’s true on the recruitment side, and it’s true on the donor side.  Most donors prefer to feed and increase success, rather than to fill in gaps.  

The impulse to feed success makes sense from a donor’s perspective.  You want your gift to make a positive difference.  That’s likelier to happen when the institution or program receiving the gift can show convincingly that it knows what it’s doing, and that it has a track record of success.  Scholarships lend themselves to that concern, since it’s easy to point to the individual people for whom they made a difference.  

Both stories are true, as far as they go.  Community colleges generally need more (and more consistent) public funding than they receive, and even in those difficult circumstances, they make tremendous positive differences in the lives of many people.  Every year brings new stories of student success, positive community involvement, and fresh budgetary challenges.

The trick for presidents is in knowing how to harmonize the two stories, and knowing which one to emphasize at a given time.

The easiest way to harmonize the stories is to use the “future conditional” tense.  “We could be even more successful if…”  That works even better when it has some sort of visible, concrete referent, whether it be a music studio, a planetarium, or a scholarship program.  It acknowledges need, but places it in a larger context of success.  Done well, it’s a wonderful -- and true -- tale with a clear moral.  (Notably, this is the polar opposite of the “fall from the golden age” argument often wielded by critics.)  It’s a variation on the classic “call to action,” because that’s essentially what it is.

The problem with the “call to action” is that it works best when it’s largely unencumbered by history.  “Onward!” is a much more thrilling call than “Restore!”  When the past is necessarily de-emphasized, it can be easy for the aggrieved to feel like the aggressors have been given a free pass, and sometimes there’s truth in that.  The trick is in knowing when you can get a better result by choosing to exercise what Niebuhr called the “spiritual discipline against resentment.”  Scoring debating points is fun, but securing resources actually helps.

It’s a difficult and complex balancing act.  The president in the opening anecdote didn’t modulate well between “need” and “success,” let alone have a well-developed call to action that enveloped the former into the latter.  He just went with “success,” and left a willing donor hanging.  I understand the impulse -- it’s easy to get defensive -- but focusing only on one side or the other won’t work.  

None of this is to say that people in other roles shouldn’t hit the “need” argument hard.  It’s just to say that coming from a president, that argument would backfire catastrophically.  The president in that opening anecdote leaned too far in one direction, to ill effect; leaning too far in the other would be even worse.  Yes, we’re terrific, should go the response, and we could be even better with your help.