Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Urgent Need to Better Relate

It has become axiomatic to say fund raising, particularly at the major gift level, is “about relationships.” Yet practice too often lags that pronouncement.

The most effective, sustained fund raising is not just about a relationship between donors and development officers but between donors and an institution. The more multi-dimensional and multi-faceted those relationships the better. As a number of recent studies have illuminated, larger numbers of constituents are expressing dismay at the tendency of many institutions to define them only as prospects or donors. If the reason for every visit, every contact, ever interaction with every constituent is fund raising or some thinly disguised pretext for it, it matters little if all visits are conducted by one or many representatives of the same institution. It’s one-dimensional and one-sided. The message is “we’re interested in you -- as long as you give.” In human relations terms, it’s like the person who only comes to see you when he wants something. You eventually see through him and find every reason not to meet.

Nor do constituents want to be parked, literally or figuratively, in the alumni house. For instance, when I was at Georgetown, we asked graduates what they wanted most from their alumni association. They came back with a very clear answer. They did not want the alumni association to be an end unto itself but a facilitative portal to the larger university -- its students, faculty, and administrators as well its signature programs and significant events.

That’s why the best development officers help prospects build multi-dimensional, multi-faceted relationships with the institution. They do not prowl for prospects like lone wolves unless they are forced to, unless they work within a cultural expectations that say, in effect, “Just get the money and don’t bother us with the details.” In such a culture, everything the front line development officer suggests to strengthen the institution’s philanthropic hand is, at best, met with a “is-this-really-necessary” sigh or, at worst, derision and indignation. It goes something like this (DO stands for Development Officer, RIA for Relevant Institutional Authority):

DO: We could stimulate more philanthropic interest if we had a more compelling vision.

RIA : Aren’t you supposed to just listen what we want to do and turn it in to something that donors want to hear?

DO: Our donors want more detail about where we’re heading and why.

RIA: We tried strategic planning years ago and it didn’t work.

DO: Our case for support sounds like a long wish list; can we get it down to a handful of institutional priorities?

RIA: If we do that, somebody will be upset.

DO: The alumni would like to see more of the faculty and to be engaged in more substantive events and activities.

RIA: The faculty say they never see any money after they do those things.

Too many university or academic leaders think the key to raising more money is to simply add development staff and/or task them to reach ever higher goals. They point to the proceeds of the most philanthropically productive institutions and ask, “Why can’t we do that?” They need only look behind any one of those successes to see that the building of philanthropic support is an institutional obligation that begins at the top and permeates the whole. It is not delegated to an isolated, culturally-distinct part of the organization.

With alumni participation at its lowest recorded rate, with only one out of every ten giving annually (and that’s after tens of thousands of non-giving alumni have been deleted for the sake of U.S. News ratings) we need to acknowledge that too many of our practices have been too one-sided and short-sighted. We’ve been too nakedly on the make. The smart, sensitive people that we educated are pushing back or, even worse, walking away. We need to change our ways. We need to commit ourselves to more considerate, reciprocal relationships. The longer we wait, the more we will have to spend on remedial relationship-building with ever more remote prospects for success, or watch the alumni participation rate continue to decline and hope that ever larger individual gifts will make up the difference. But what does it profit an institution if it relies increasingly on the largesse of a few while losing the hearts of many? And what are the real costs if we don’t contemplate and calculate those consequences very, very soon?

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