Development is a team sport. Every person who is committed to the work of the organization plays an important role. Institutions of higher education are fortunate to have a two-person team who can play an especially effective role: the institution’s leader and his or her partner.

The spouse, partner or significant other of a president or chancellor can have a significant influence on a college’s or university’s development efforts. Recently, we had the opportunity to interview a university president and his wife for a research project. In the interview, they shared lessons they have learned about working as a team on fundraising:

Carry the Message into the Community

“Fortunately, it’s not my role to directly ask for donations. I think the spouse’s role is best served by helping to cultivate relationships— making them see the value of what we’re doing— connecting the right people to the university. And then you leave the rest of it up to the professionals to close the deal.”

—University President’s Spouse

For this couple, the first role for the spouse was to learn the vision of the university and how funding priorities would accomplish that vision—and then carry that vision into the community. She does that through speaking engagements, through interactions at events, and through one-on-one conversations in her professional and personal networks.

Discover What Motivates Potential Donors

“She does her research, too. She’ll hear things and say, ‘Is this person on your radar?’ A lot of potential donors have grown out of her network.”

— University President

This couple recognizes that “Development Magic” happens when a donor’s personal story connects to a funding priority at the university. As the spouse conversationally shares the vision for the institution, she listens for individuals’ personal stories that match any of the university’s funding priorities for the vision. She also takes the important step of making sure that these individuals come to the attention of the foundation.

Be True to Yourself—But Stretch

I think we need to push ourselves to get out of our comfort zone. You don’t grow until you do something that helps you build confidence.

— University President’s Spouse

A president’s significant other must know him or herself. Not all will be comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, for example. The partner must focus on those activities with which he or she is most comfortable. That said, this president’s wife told us that it’s important to stretch. Some activities may be intimidating at first, especially if one lacks experience in that area. Start slow, she said, and build confidence.

Pair Up When Meeting Pairs

Often, the people we’re talking with about giving are husband and wife. I think it’s good to have another husband and wife who are passionate about their organization and who give in the room. I think it adds so much to the equation.

— University President

Donors often come in pairs. Each individual in the pair has his or her own philanthropic passions, unique personality, and level of commitment to a particular project or program. The partners in this presidential team leverage their own unique attributes to adapt to each individual, communicate most effectively, and engage the donors in a meaningful way. And, they recognize the message it sends when they themselves have skin in the game—their philanthropy can set an example for other couples.

The other benefit of being part of a pair is being able to divide and conquer. The presidential couple we interviewed recognized the importance of networking separately at social events. At events that involve meals, the couple often sits at separate tables, allowing them to touch twice as many people.


Ask and Act:

  • Is the partner of your institution’s leader an effective philanthropic ambassador?
  • How might you leverage his/her unique talent and skills to raise the level of philanthropic support?
  • What opportunities exist to strengthen his/her abilities in the key roles he/she might play?
  • Can you tap into the power of other teams that exist at your institution? What unique talents and skills that exist among the spouses, partners or significant others of your deans and faculty members?

Discover ways to tap into the power of your academic partner by attending one of the public offerings of Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders.

Professional Fundraising for Deans and Academic Leaders