As universities and colleges implement more integrated and comprehensive approaches to development, the dean’s role in fundraising is becoming ever more critical.

We were fortunate to have the opportunity to interview one particular dean who has been very active—and highly successful—in donor engagement. He shares five “best practices” that he has adopted.

1. Practice Patience and Enjoy the Journey

For too many deans, cultivation is a means to an end where cultivation is the journey, and the “ask” is the destination. Think instead of an ongoing journey that has many asks along the way as the trust-based relationship grows and deepens.

I learned very quickly when I stepped into the dean’s job that you first have to have your own style and you cannot just go in and make an ask. In fact, I don’t even believe in the ask as a definitive term. It’s a process, and it’s driven by the donor’s schedule, the donor’s current level of engagement, the level of trust, and how well I am able to articulate our strategy. It’s a process.

A dean’s job is all about relationships—relationships with students, with faculty, staff, and donors. And nothing takes more brainpower than relationships, so you have to work at it. It’s very complex. But the first part of that relationship is, without question, trust.

2. Articulate a Compelling Vision

Donors have no shortage of philanthropic opportunities from which to choose. To make an impact, the dean must communicate funding priorities in a way that is compelling, clear, memorable, and sincere.

When we convince donors we’re taking an entrepreneurial approach, they understand that. Most of these donors have been successful in business. Many of them are entrepreneurs who have started businesses, many businesses, and failed and then succeeded later on. They’re glad to hear it, but I have to really articulate it. I have to have the data. I have to have confidence in myself and in my staff, and I have to exude confidence to them. It is part of the trust factor.

3. Make the Donor Part of the Team

It can be challenging to align a donor’s passions and interests with organizational objectives and priorities. However, sometimes receptivity and creative thinking can reveal entirely new possibilities.

I had a donor with a very successful career in sales. He’s been a very good supporter of the university. One of his visions was to create a sales institute in our marketing department.

At first, his vision was not my vision. I was able to identify that, and raise the priority of it and fit it into my vision. I merged it with our entrepreneurship initiative of the college and our overall mission of economic development for the state and region.

When you get them excited, that’s when you step back and let them go. That’s why I think, the ask is really not where it’s at. It’s about engagement.

4. Show Donors the ROPI

Creating a meaningful return on philanthropic investment (ROPI) is vital. Share the enthusiasm for what has been accomplished with their support, and the excitement of what is yet to be achieved.

When I visit, I like to always give donors tangible improvements. I don’t like to just say oh, our ratings are this high, and U.S. News and World Reports say we’re such and such. I like to mention specifics. Specific programs launched, the success it’s having nationally, partnerships, and advances.

All of us want to make meaning of our time on earth. That’s important to me and I know it’s important to the donors. And when you can engage them in that kind of conversation it really becomes exciting and very productive.

5. Foster Productive Relationships with Your Team

To be truly successful, deans must rely heavily on partnerships with development professionals and leadership.

The development professional has to be the right-hand person of the dean. They have to understand the schedule, priorities… it’s a very special relationship. My relationship with my development team is much more special and complex than even my department chairs. We’re exchanging emails at 3 in the morning; we’re on the road together.

We spend a lot of time together before and after visits. One of the first questions I ask after a visit is, “Did I say anything I shouldn’t have said?” And we go over that.

You can’t put a number on that. It’s been a very trusting relationship, and we’ve really had to look out for each other. I spend over half my time fundraising, either on the road, or thinking about it, or working with my development officer or exchanging emails in the middle of the night.

Strengthen the culture of philanthropy at your institution by attending a public offering of Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders with your development professional.


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About the transcripts:

Our blogs share valuable insights, pain points, and experiences of deans and academic leaders, development professionals, and donors. Our interviewees participate in these interviews to promote a culture of philanthropy and raise the level of philanthropy throughout the world. We are incredibly grateful for their participation in our interviews, and keep the names of participants confidential.