Being a development director at a college or university can be one of the best jobs in fundraising. It is immensely rewarding to become an “expert” on a college’s or research center’s programs, forge strong relationships with faculty members and staff, and have daily interactions with the students and faculty members who benefit from the philanthropic contributions you help inspire.

Whether you are new to the higher education setting or you are an experienced campus colleague, making this utopian environment your working world takes a wonderful combination of skill and luck. Here are several things you can do to help create this ideal existence:

  1. Talk with Everyone

    More than one major gift has been given because a caring departmental secretary helped a student in his or her time of need. Maybe the administrative assistant from Trinidad is the campus advisor for the Caribbean Students Association and knows all about the tech company started by a graduate student from Jamaica. People in your unit have knowledge and connections that can result in meaningful donor engagement in ways they never imagined.

  2. Befriend the Controller of the Calendar

    Who controls the dean’s calendar? Have you built a collegial relationship with the dean’s administrative assistant or whoever does her/his scheduling? Smart development professionals know how important it is to create allies among the “gatekeepers” of the world, and that applies to our internal environments, as well.

  3. Do Your Research

    Explore your website in depth to learn background information about the strengths (and weaknesses) of the unit you are representing. The information there can help you ask appropriate, informed questions of the dean, department chairs, and faculty members whose teaching and research interests comprise excellent donor engagement opportunities. Knowing who to connect with (and, just as importantly, who to avoid) will help you shape effective and appropriate donor interactions.

  4. Master the Jargon

    You probably got a feel for this when you studied the website, but really understanding the language of higher education, and your unit in particular, is helpful in internal conversations. (Just remember to “translate” the jargon in meetings with donors/potential donors when necessary.)

  5. Work the Academic Calendar

    When do classes begin? When are finals, breaks, etc.? This knowledge is key when inviting alumni and friends of the college to visit campus, as well as managing internal meetings and commitments. Consider the development director who thought she was smart by inviting an alumnus to campus during spring break because parking was so much easier. (“He can park right next to the college!” she said with enthusiasm.) But the alumnus completely missed out on that energetic campus vibe that makes donors smile and want to engage.

  6. Learn the Numbers

    Every dean has to make tough decisions about resource allocation. Really knowing and understanding your unit’s priorities and opportunity costs helps you more accurately describe them to donors.

  7. Study the Higher Education Landscape

    With student debt such a hot topic in the national media, are you ready to talk about financial aid at your institution? How has your university re-shaped academic offerings to accommodate changes in student interest? How much do you “discount” tuition for those who are academic stars while also attracting students who haven’t yet found their intellectual niche? Becoming knowledgeable about these and other higher ed issues helps you build confidence and credibility both on campus and in the community.

  8. Practice Discretion

    One of the most common situations for development professionals is to have a direct reporting structure to the university’s foundation and a “dotted line” reporting relationship to the dean or other unit-based executive. This dual reporting relationship can be a real challenge when one of the entities is behaving badly. A wise development director knows not to “air dirty laundry” about the units he or she serves and understands that building and maintaining mutual respect is key to a high quality of working life.

Serving a college or university as a unit-based development professional affords a wide range of opportunities to engage donors and inspire philanthropy. It truly can be one of the best jobs in fundraising.

An Advancement Resources Coach can help you learn more about how to succeed as a unit-based development professional in higher education. Contact us to learn more about Advancement Resources’ Coaching Services.


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