Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Cause Makes the Best Case

In his recent New York Times article, " Alma Mater is Asking. Do You Give or Not Give?(Saturday, November 29, 2008)," Ron Lieber quoted me as saying, "Schools need to start acting like a cause and stop acting like an institution. They need to learn lessons from the Obama campaign, which had a powerful and unifying message that made people feel like they wanted to be a part of it." Allow me to develop that thought a bit more.

A cause, according to one dictionary, is "a series of actions that advance a principle or tend toward a particular end." To act like a cause, then, would entail articulating a powerful principle and a specific set of actions to advance it. World peace, for instance, is a cause well worth moving toward but defining concrete, achievable actions to advance it is quite difficult. A powerful principle without a set of actions won't inspire strong support, nor will a set of actions that are not unified by a powerful principle. We need both.

To act like an institution, on the other hand, is to make the crux of your case for support around the physical needs of a facility and the development of the talents of those who people it. A university that acts like an institution, for instance, makes a case for new construction or renovation, faculty excellence and student support. It looks inward and asks for donations so that it might persist and thrive, and further distinguish itself from other institutions. It calls primarily on the loyalty of its alumni to make their alma mater better so that the value of their degree will increase and their pride of affiliation will continue to grow. It assumes that its right to exist is unquestioned and that many who benefited from its excellence will respond to periodic calls to give to the institution's priorities out of some combination of gratitude and obligation. And it's all those assumptions, I would argue, that result in a relatively weak case for support.

An institution asks for support to create a better institution; a cause asks for support to create a better world. The latter is far more enticing particularly when donors have less to give. The best way to determine if a case is institutional or cause-oriented is to see if it motivates the uninformed, un-involved, non-loyal prospect to give. So, if you are writing or reviewing a case for a university, try reading it through the objective eyes of a non-alumnus who has had no previous interaction or involvement. If that prospect had no prior knowledge of, and no contact with your school and received a degree from another institution, what in your case would motivate him or her to give? The plain truth is that in most cases for most colleges and universities, there is very little. Since they rely on alumni support, they fail to make the case for the non-alumnus or the independent philanthropist. Since they assume a high-degree of built in loyalty from potential donors, they tend to plead or promise more than they they reason or persuade.

And here's the rub: Most analyses I have seen put the segment of alumni who give out of loyalty alone at 10-15 percent of your potential base of support. The rest, while they may look back with gratitude, give to bring about some specific improvement. In short, their philanthropy is far more future-oriented and cause-oriented than loyalty driven.

When I began planning the launch of a campaign at the University of California, San Diego, in 1998, I was advised by professional fund-raising counsel that we did not have the base of alumni support to raise our goal of $1 billion. They were right -- in part. At the time, the University was only 38 years of age and the vast majority of its alumni were very young. The "older" alumni had little history of giving to their alma mater. So we raised 98 percent of the proceeds from non-alumni. Yep, that's right -- 98 percent. How? We didn't write a case for alumni alone. We didn't call on loyalty. We advanced a set of bold ideas that captured the attention of those that had a stake in the greater community, including high tech leaders and venture capitalists. Our case and our cause was about fueling innovation under the rubric "Imagine What's Next." We cast ourselves as a start-up, not an institution, and sought support primarily for people and new programs. As a result, UCSD became the first university established in the post World War II era to raise over $1 billion.

So, if you want to prepare a truly persuasive case that appeals to a wide spectrum of potential donors, first define the cause that you seek to advance, a cause with a broad, unifying message that makes people feel like they want to be a part of it, even if they were never a part of your organization before. A cause creates and sustains a sense of community; it enlivens the imagination and feeds the soul. It lays out a practical path to a noble end. It becomes a foundation of enthusiastic support. It taps into the deep cultural core of American philanthropy -- "we the people" trying to create a more perfect union and a better world.

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