Sunday, October 31, 2010

Encouraging Developments

In the past week, I had the great fortune to be in Gainesville, Florida and Alva, Oklahoma. In both places, I met with accomplished professionals working to strengthen the foundations of philanthropy.

At the University of Florida, a dedicated advancement team is promoting community through a campaign of words and deeds that lift up the joys of being a part of the “Gator nation.” If you get a chance, take a look at their halftime spot. It celebrates how the wearing of UF brand allows Gators of all generations to recognize one another, to exchange friendly words or share campus experiences when their paths cross in their day-to-day activities or their worldwide travels. It reminds them they are not only graduates of a prominent university but members of a cohesive, caring community -- for all their lives. It’s a very wise approach and stands apart from many university spots that say, in effect, “Look at us! Isn’t what we’re doing on campus great?” These spots typically speak to the exemplary research being done by faculty or the remarkable achievements of students. While the spotlighted feats are laudable, the spots come across as boasts designed to impress viewers with campus goings-on. The University of Florida campaign, in contrast doesn’t say, “Here’s why some of you should be impressed with what some of us are doing.” It says, “Here’s what we have in common; here are the joys and benefits of community that bring us together across time and space.” The latter is far more powerful than the former. And the understanding the distinction is important. At the heart of American philanthropy is a spirit of “we the people” working together to create more perfect unions.

In Oklahoma, I learned the citizens of Alva had voted for increase in the sales tax to provide scholarships for the students of Northwestern Oklahoma State University (NWOSU). There is a wonderful symbiosis between the campus and the citizens of Alva, a sense of shared interest and enterprise. The leaders of NWOSU, meanwhile, have worked hard to contain costs and deliver long-term value. As a result, the graduates of NWOSU enjoy the second lowest student debt burden in the country. The low debt loads allow their graduates to invest more in building families and careers, and when their alma mater calls on them for support, to be more receptive to the message and more generous in their response. I applaud the administration of NWOSU for understanding that the greatest form of financial aid for the largest number of students is low tuition. And, when cost are carefully managed, tuition can be kept to more affordable levels for more families, the vast majority of whom have not seen their earning power increase in recent years. Moreover, low tuition magnifies the impact of any and all financial aid and scholarships. What might not look like a large scholarship to a student at an Ivy League school can greatly alleviate the modest cost of going to school in Alva, Oklahoma.

Being “out there,” visiting various campuses, and meeting with leaders of “on-the-ground” non profits provides me with no end of encouragement. They are building communities of support and delivering real value. Their investors have and will see a great financial and emotional return on their philanthropic investment.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Emotional Return on Investment

I had a fascinating conversation last week with the incoming chair of a major university’s foundation board. We were talking about the general state of philanthropy in this country when he brought up the topic of “donor fatigue,” a condition that he described as disturbingly widespread. I probed further, trying to understand the dimensions of that diagnosis. He confessed that he shared that feeling so I asked him to describe how it came about.

It was, in part, he said, a function of being asked to give often but that was not that alone. It was also being asked for donations to support various parts of the same university without ever understanding how they worked together to advance the whole. And it was about never really comprehending how he had made a difference. But, there was something else that he couldn’t quite name, a nagging, gnawing feeling about his relationship with the university.

I asked him if the university provided an adequate “emotional return on his investment” and his answer was an immediate, emphatic “no.” But then he smiled and asked what I meant by that term. I explained that all relationships are, at heart (pun intended) emotional, including the relationship that an individual donor or volunteer has with an institution. However, I said, many institutions fail to recognize that phenomenon and think only in terms of rational return on investment. They thank their donors and volunteers, offering examples of institutional progress made, but don’t celebrate the uniqueness or singular impact of the individual. I told him that one of my greatest concerns was the growing emotional barriers between alumni and their alma maters, a trend that continues at even some of our most impressive colleges and universities. I hastened to add those barriers could be transformed into gateways if those institutions learned how to listen and respond in an emotionally-intelligent way. The trustee smiled broadly, as if he now understood that nagging feeling, and related the following story to me.

“My family and I found a sushi restaurant we really like,” he said, “so we go there all the time. I mean, a lot. Yet, no matter how often we go, or how much we enjoy the food, no one ever says “welcome back” when we come in or “we hope to see you again” when we leave. The chef never comes from out behind the counter to let us know that he has some special ingredients in stock that evening or ask if we would like our food prepared in any special way. But the worst thing was when we told our waiter how much we enjoyed our California rolls, especially the cucumber, and asked if we could have one to take home and were told when the cucumber was presented, “That will be $3.”

Look at it through his emotional lens. He has spent thousands of dollars at this restaurant but never been recognized or welcomed as a repeat customer, never been offered any special “valued customer” treatment, and then, most gallingly, asked to pay $3 for a cucumber. If would have been so easy to have given the cucumber to him as a small token of appreciation to a generous patron. The restaurant in question demonstrated a staggering lack of relational intelligence and, as a result, is in danger of losing a big account. No, it’s not enough to provide fine sushi. You see, the repeat customer seeks, without ever defining it or giving it voice, an emotional return on his or her investment. It’s not a quid pro quo, it’s a subtle but extremely important form of reciprocity.

So, what kind of emotional return on investment does your institution offer its contributors? Do you thank them for each gift they give each part of the institution without ever acknowledging them all? Do you thank and steward repeat givers in a different way or speak to the collective impact of their gifts? Do you make repeat givers feel like valued customers by offering special treatment or providing a higher degree of personal attention? Does the relevant academic or administrative leader come from “behind the counter” to ask how they can be brought closer to the institution? And, do you sometimes impose petty charges on donors who have given millions or hundreds of thousands of dollars? Do you tell them that they still have to pay their alumni dues or give an annual gift to attend the annual fund dinner? You see what I’m getting at.

The value of relational intelligence can be under-appreciate within institutions that see themselves as bastions of rationality. Yet, emotion underpins rationality. When the emotional parts of our brains are damaged, we lose the ability to reason. Decisions are rooted in emotionality -- including which organizations we align with and how much we give to them. be it time, talent or treasure. The most successful organizations and institutions of the future will be the most relationally intelligent and provide the highest emotional return.

P.S. I’ll be in San Diego December 6 and 7 to provide a workshop on Board/Advancement partnerships. I’d love to see you and your trustees there. Please click on this link for more details: i=1024&q=6708v274891yT

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Hopes and Concerns

My thoughtful colleague, Rob Zinkan, was kind enough to feature me in his most recent blog. The link below will allow me to share those thoughts with you as well, and introduce you to Rob and his very informative blog.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Higher Education, In Retrospect

Here's an op-ed piece I published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, January 25, 1989, -- 21 years ago! I'll leave it to your good judgment as to how we have done since then and if these issues still apply.

"Are we witnessing a rising tide of anti-intellectualism in this country that sometimes manifests itself in the form of “university bashing?” or are we failing to recognize and respond to a growing number of public concerns about higher education?

The tide-watchers point to several disturbing signs, including our Presidential candidates’ less-than-artful dodging of their ivy-beleaguered pasts during the fall election campaign, and the tendency of well-educated office-seekers elsewhere to hide impressive academic credentials in the closet alongside other political skeletons.

Observers cite George Bush’s crack that Michael Dukakis formulated his foreign policy at a “Harvard Yard boutique” and Dan Quayle’s chiding “Dukakis and his Harvard buddies” for suggesting that Iowans supplant all-American corn with something as sissified as Belgian endive. This seeming pandering to what H.L. Menken called the “booboisie” is seen as a part of a larger pattern of anti-intellectualism, supposedly a major force in American politics. Certainly some portion of the American public is anti-intellectual, but how much of the intellectual community is anti-public?

Peruse your reference books of famous quotations and you may find a couple of brickbats directed at intellectuals, but you’ll find many more snide swipes at the American public penned by intellectuals.

That said, there is no question that many Americans love to deflate, puncture, or lampoon those who seem to be putting on airs, and I hope no one would argue that higher education is not given to pretension from time to time. The United States is still a young democracy, one that wrested its freedom from a monarchy a mere two centuries ago. Our revolution was fueled in part by a desire to shed the yoke of aristocratic privilege and let natural ability seek its own level. Deeply ingrained in the American character, then, is an anti-aristocratic, anti-elitist streak.

But even when “intellectual” is used pejoratively by a critic, we might remember that the word is laced with multiple meanings and that there can be a great difference between one person’s implication and another’s inference. Someone may use the word to connote fuzziness, abstruseness, impracticality, or haughtiness while making a grudging concession to intelligence. If “intellectual” is too often used in a derisive way by the American public, “genius” is more often used in an adoring, if not an indiscriminate, way.

Americans are not viscerally anti-intellect; they cherish genius of the Thomas Edison, applied-intellect sort, while remaining wary of the absent-minded professor type. Americans also are not viscerally anti-higher education, as is demonstrated by the many polls that show solid support for our mission and by increased private giving to colleges and universities.

Laying too much of today’s criticism of higher education on the doorstop of anti-intellectualism is intellectually lazy and bad public policy. Blaming the public for our problems will not endear us to those whose support is so vital to our future.

The best way to respond to criticism is to break it down into manageable parts, separating the major from the minor, while remaining particularly sensitive to that which reflects widespread public concerns, whether they are expressed by politicians or by the Bennetts and Blooms of this world. The worst possible tack is to act as if all our critics are a part of an unholy alliance of dunderheads bent on mindless destruction.

Nor is it wise to focus on the personality or motivations of our critics without countering the criticism itself. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett has lost his pulpit but not his disciples. While Allan Bloom continues to convince many people that higher education has been closing their minds, the defenders of the academic faith respond by charging Bloom with marrow-mindedness. He scorches the academic landscape and we call him names. Hardly an effective response.

If we take a hard look at such criticism, especially that which strikes a responsive chord with the public, we might gain invaluable insights into the way higher education is perceived by key constituencies. If we hope to broaden our base of support, we cannot continue to discredit public concerns by exaggerating the prevalence of anti-intellectualism.

There is, of course, a problem with this line of argument. If we are not swimming against the tide of anti-intellectualism, why aren’t we making greater progress in winning public support?

Who is to blame for the misunderstandings and misperceptions that do exist? To a large extent, we are. And nothing demonstrates our shortcomings better than this tendency to dismiss, if not smite, our critics. Yes, in recent years we have done a much better job in communicating and fund raising, and in establishing ties with elements of the private sector. We’ve let down the drawbridge and sent out more and more emissaries, but we’re still leery about letting anyone but unabashed advocates within our walls.

We are, it seems, still somewhere in transition from the pre-Vietnam War era, when higher education seemed above reproach and a college degree was a sure-fire ticket to success, to a future where greater public support and understanding will come at the cost of greater scrutiny and accountability. We want the best of both worlds and so, in our official pronouncements, we continue to read from yellowing lecture notes filled with platitudes about the intrinsic value of higher education, assuming the public will play the part of dutiful students and ask only the most respectful questions.

If we want to increase public support, and enjoy all the benefits that flow from it, we much conduct nothing less than a concerted campaign. Ours must feature the elements of all successful campaigns, including savvy spokesmen, well-developed positions on major issues, a willingness to seek out constituents and engage them on their ground and in their own terms, and effective communication of a limited number of compelling themes.

In the current climate, the most important themes must be those of creating opportunities and remaining accountable.

If we can show that we are carefully scanning the horizon and consciously creating opportunities for students and the general public through our admissions efforts, curricular design, research endeavors, and cooperative arrangements with the private sector, we stand a better chance of convincing our constituents and the public that the rising costs of education are justified; that we seek more revenue to improve the quality of their lives, not just ours. The opportunity theme will help illustrate that our intentions and instincts are ultimately democratic, not aristocratic; that we seek to be the means by which our society can become more of a meritocracy.

Contradictory messages must be resolved. For instance, we can’t boast of our inclusiveness to the public at large while assuring our students, alumni, and major donors that they are participants in a highly exclusive society.

A theme that stresses accountability will make us seem less prickly ad show that our doors and books are open. We must show that we have not become a world unto ourselves. We must demonstrate that we are consumed with something more than enhancing our individual or collective reputations, that we are willing to be judged by criteria other than those which we establish for ourselves. Individual institutions must show that they aspire to something greater than a pinched superiority measured by the S.A.T. scores and class ranks of incoming freshman, by the total dollar value of externally financed research, or by the ludicrously arbitrary ratings of guides to colleges and universities.

The campaign, which must be waged by institutions and their national associations, must focus on the major misperceptions about higher education. These can only be gleaned by listening more carefully to our constituents through formal surveys, informal conversations, and every other means available. Creative communications could dispel some longstanding misperceptions – that scholarly prominence can be achieved through something less than herculean effort, that the return on the public investment in higher education has been something less than remarkable, or that applied research is a more sensible alternative than basic research.

Higher education will continue to be confronted by critics. The question is how will the public view the confrontation? Will they see us as a good-natured Gulliver being taunted by grumpy Lilliputians, or as an arrogant Goliath underestimating the damage that can be done by determined Davids? Much will depend on our actions.

A more effective public policy must begin with a more considerate attitude toward the public. If we want the public to appreciate us, to understand our multifaceted character and our numerous contributions, we could begin by doing the same for the members of the public. We stand to benefit from listening to their doubts."