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Philanthropy and Higher Education: What Defines Success?

As our guest this month, Dr. Bruce Mack, Associate Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations at the University of Nevada, Reno, says, "Fish where the fishing is best." So, is fundraising in higher education about finding the right fishing hole? How has the economy changed the development goals of colleges and universities and has it affected the attitudes of donors? Dr. Mack answers these questions and gives us his take on the current state of fundraising in higher education and where success lies in this month's interview.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Dr. Mack, you have an impressive tenure in the area of higher education fundraising. What made you choose fundraising as a career path and what keeps you engaged in this arena?

Dr. Bruce Mack, University of Nevada, Reno: I became involved with development during a graduate internship with a small private college in Michigan while I was finishing my master's at Michigan State University. The internship was in continuing education - my M.A. is in Adult and Continuing Education - and the college had nowhere to house my desk so I was located in the development and alumni relations office. While I did my internship, I got to know the development and alumni staff and learned about their work over lunch conversations and other informal interactions with them. I had hoped my internship would lead to a full-time position, but the college was unable to offer me a position due to budget constraints. So when my internship concluded, one of the development staff members told me about an alumni and annual giving position with a small private college in Wisconsin. This idea appealed to me, so I applied and was offered the position with the school in Wisconsin.

Hibel: Congratulations on The University of Nevada, Reno Foundation celebrating its 30th anniversary of philanthropic fundraising efforts. 1 How does the work of the foundation impact the university and does the fundraising impact of a state supported school differ from a private school?

Mack: At Nevada, we raise money for the university's priorities, which are determined around the president, provost and persons in leadership positions, e.g., deans. I should point out while we have a foundation at Nevada, all of us who work in the Office of Development and Alumni Relations are employees of the university. So there is a close relationship between the university's plans and priorities and how we focus our professional time and work to address those plans and needs. On the public/private difference, I would say it depends on the plans, leadership and priorities of each type of institution. At a private institution, development - fundraising - is a key source of revenue for the institution. While at a public institution, development - fundraising - is a source of revenue, but not as high level as it is with a private institution. This does not mean development is not valued at public institutions, it simply means the volume of dollars is not as a competitive as, say, state support - which for many public is decreasing - or research funding. However, tuition and fees irrespective of the public or private sector still remains a key - and maybe the primary - source of revenue for both types of schools.

Hibel: Drawing on your experience from working at several universities, what do you think is the perception from other university departments regarding the development department and does this differ if the department is part of a separate foundation rather than incorporated wholly into a department?

Mack: On the subject of perceptions, I would say it depends. It depends on how closely a department is engaged with the alumni and/or development work we do. For those that are, they become good partners and allies within the institution for the work we do and the way we need to approach our work. This also applies to the foundation. Also, I would like to say we all know development and alumni work depends on good relationships with donors and prospective donors. In terms of a department, we in development spend as much - and possibly even more - time building internal relationships with departments on campus so they understand what we do and how the development process needs to function to raise the level of philanthropic support they desire for their departmental needs. As we build these internal relationships, we need to help the people outside of the development organization gain an appreciation for and understanding of the time perspective development needs. Additionally, it is also necessary to appreciate the need to be persistent in our work yet understanding the patience that is necessary to generate new and increased levels of private support.

Hibel: The economy has obviously changed over the past decade. How has the economic downturn affected university fundraising in terms of projected goals and pledges as well as realized donations?

Mack: Yes, I would say the economy does affect the work we do in development and alumni relations. While economics does factor into and affect our work, I believe an individual's personal perceptions on giving are affected as much and maybe even more than their actual wealth when they are making a charitable gift. I say this because for those who are employed and receiving salaries, benefits, etc., it is possibly their perception they are not in a position to make charitable gifts to a college or university. Being a contrarian, I would say these people are capable of making gifts, it just may not be at the levels they would like or they think they are not able to do so. However, I do respect the decisions people make about their giving even though I "think" they have the ability to do something at some level of support. I would also add in light of today's or yesterday's economics shifts, I believe it is our goal in development to explore what sectors of the economy are doing well and focus our time where our efforts will realize gift income. For example, I work in Nevada, a state where the mining industry has done very well the past few years when the overall economy has been down. This means a larger share of our time recently has been thinking about and working with those people in the mining industry. I think the same could be said of other parts of the country where sectors of the economy are up when other sectors are down or experiencing difficulties. In short, I tell our staff "to fish where the fishing is best."

Hibel: Again, thinking of the change in the economy, how has this changed state and federal funding received? Does this put more pressure on the development departments to secure private funding?

Mack: In terms of state or federal funding, yes, this shift has certainly affected our work. You asked about the pressure that puts on development, I would say that again depends. It depends on what the institution has been doing historically with its development and alumni relations program. If institutional people have been engaged and active with our programs, they will certainly look to us as a means to help provide some additional funding as needed. But, if they have not been engaged with our development program, they realize our ability to increase philanthropic support as a way to replace reduced levels of state or federal funding will not come quickly or easily. Thus, the institutional culture about development and alumni work and the level of engagement done by institutional people - those outside our development and alumni relations program - will determine the level of pressure exerted on development and alumni relations when the economy shifts downward.

Hibel: Many institutions have started a parent giving program where contributions from the parents go directly to the operating budget to help bridge the gap between tuition and the actual cost of the education. With tuition already being quite high for many parents, do you think this is an effective fundraising effort?

Mack: Yes, I believe parent programs are a good investment of resources and staff time by the development and alumni relations office. I say this having worked in the private sector where we had such a focus that was successful, and I felt parents enjoyed being engaged as donors and volunteers. I would say on the public side we probably have not pursued parents involvement at the same level as our private school colleagues. Also, I believe parents are a good constituency to pursue, because if they have trusted us as an institution of higher learning with their daughter's or son's education, they believe in what we are doing and provide for their children in terms of their education and maturity. Since they are "believers" in us, why not engage them as volunteers and donors, or most certainly in both areas.

Hibel: In recent news 2, President Susan Hockfield of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced she will be stepping down as the planning for a significant new fundraising campaign begins. Hockfield said "A campaign on this scale will require the full focus and sustained attention of the institute's president over many years. I have concluded that it would be best for the institute to begin this next chapter with new leadership." With this said, how much does the fundraising efforts of a university fall on the president?

Mack: The president is certainly a key person and factor in all that we do in development and alumni relations. The president provides the vision for the future and institutional plan to let donors and prospective donors know where we are headed as an institution and why it's important to pursue those avenues. I have had the experience of having some donors delay or opt out of a possible gift because they were unclear or uncomfortable as to where the institution's leadership was taking the school. This has prompted the donor to wonder if her/his/their philanthropic investment would be worthwhile or helpful. I believe it is important that we engage a variety of people - faculty, deans, directors and other personnel of the institution - in our development and alumni relations work. Leadership is not limited solely to the president. Other leaders, deans, department heads, etc., can be as, and at times even more, effective in our development efforts because they can provide the vision, rationale and credibility as to why someone's philanthropic support will be the key difference with a program or results of our work. So, while presidents are key components, I would caution people not to overlook other institutional people who can be as effective in helping move the development and alumni process along. As the old saying goes, "people give to people."

Hibel: Do you believe that instilling the culture of giving in students, starting from when they first arrive on campus, is a successful tactic for future fundraising? If so, how can this be done delicately without turning off students and/or future alumni?

Mack: Yes, I would say engaging students when they arrive makes sense. I would add that this is a process which needs to be done over time and that the institution needs to realize such work does require an appropriate level of resources - people and funds - as well as an investment of time. I think the student process needs to be done as a progression, say from freshman or sophomore year to senior year, and engages students in meaningful activities that educate them about the development and alumni process. With that said, I would not lead initially with a gift program, but build to that point so students see a reason/rationale to be involved with development and alumni work. However, at some point, probably late junior year or heading into their senior year, some aspect of fundraising ought to be presented to them.

Hibel: Your past several roles have been in positions of leadership. What is the secret to your success in terms of leading a successful team towards a fundraising goal?

Mack: Not sure these are secrets, but I am a big believer in communication. I think the better people are informed about what we do, how we should do things and why we do the things we do, the better it is for all of us and that has a positive impact on our fundraising work and results. I also want people to assume a leadership role in what they do, which is why we hired them. I do not try to hover over people or their work. I believe they need the resources - money, time and support - to do what they want to do and then let them pursue their efforts. This comes back to my communication statement. Along the way, as people do their work and pursue their plans, we need to be in contact with one another about how things are going - or not going - so we can make adjustments so their efforts are successful. Finally, I believe people need to know what expectations they need to meet, which means we need to establish reasonable goals and objectives they need to achieve.

Hibel: When evaluating a person to join your development team, what do you look for in a good candidate both on paper and in the interview?

Mack: On paper, I look at the core areas most of us do, their education and professional background. Beyond that I like look for what I call "life experience." Have they been in a variety of situations so they will not be scared when certain known and unknown things confront them in a development or alumni situation. Additionally, I look at their communication skills, how they write, how they present ideas and basic grammar skills. In an interview, I look at how they communicate, both verbally and non-verbally. Communication I believe is the key to what we do in development and alumni relations work since information is the key to our work and results. I also look for a level of maturity, which goes back to my life experience variable; will they be easily swayed or unnerved by a donor's or prospective donor's comments? Finally, I try to assess if the person is willing to live on the edge - within reason - but not fall off. What I mean is that I want someone who is independent with their work and in their thinking, but is willing and able to communicate institutional perspectives and its vision in a meaningful and sincere way.