Chapter 3: Making the “Case” for Sustainability

by Robert L. Jackson, Ed.D.

Posted on October 16, 2023

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Public colleges and universities continue to face great fiscal and structural challenges. The past 25 or more years have seen a precipitous decline in state appropriations and monumental challenges in enrollment and retention as college-going rates dip, inflationary pressures drive up costs, performance funding models in many states provide limited new resources, and college-going students decline in a generational demographic shift. In short, institutional budgets are very tight, and financial pressures continue to grow as tuition increases are severely limited due to the importance of access and affordability.

As we address the aforementioned challenges, it is vitally important that college and university presidents focus more time and energy on private fundraising. The president’s job today requires a daily focus on development efforts while at the same time enhancing academic quality and related initiatives, ensuring competitive compensation and benefits for faculty and staff, advancing recruiting and retention efforts, addressing student life and the growing needs of our students, focusing on campus infrastructure needs, advancing athletics, and balancing governmental matters, among the many other duties on the daily schedule. 

It is a near-constant effort pursuing private funds from generous alumni, friends, corporations, and foundations. While raising private gifts has been a centuries-old pursuit in higher education, a president’s job continues to evolve in order to bolster operating budgets and address academic priorities, and many presidents are ill-equipped and oftentimes have limited to no skills in this important area of work. 

Following are some key thoughts, an outline of a development plan of sorts, as we focus on fiscal sustainability and major components of advancing philanthropy at our public colleges and universities. 

1. Develop a plan and “make the case.”  

Your fundraising plans and especially your major capital campaign efforts should mirror your mission, vision, history, and strategic plan, which should be crafted in a manner to enhance all areas of your college or university. Every academic and component unit of your university should have a fundraising plan. What are the priorities? Do these priorities match your mission, vision, and strategic plan? Are these priorities realistic and match with donors’ interests? These are just a few questions that should be asked. 

Every academic and component unit of your university should have a fundraising plan.  

From academic initiatives, athletic enhancements, and campus improvements to student life needs, you should have a development plan. The term in the fundraising world is a “case statement.” Can you make a case for these areas and related wants and needs? Once you have a case statement, keep a copy with you, have it ready, and be prepared to discuss it with passion and interest. 

2. Spend adequate time.  

In a study I conducted several years ago (and anecdotally, I do not think the results have changed a great deal today,) the results indicated that the typical public college or university president spends little time in the area of private fundraising. The study found that on average, only 6.7 days per month were spent by the institutional president on fundraising, 3.9 days per month were spent away from campus raising private funds and 5.3 days per month were spent hosting donors and potential donors on campus. 

Spend time every day in advancing your fundraising efforts. Outline a monthly, quarterly, and annual plan. An easy and intentional effort is to regularly include donors, prospects, alumni, and friends at your campus events and activities—these are special people to your institution, and they love to be included and invited back to campus for an important visit. 

3. Partner with your Offices of Development and Alumni Affairs.  

Meet regularly with your administrators in these offices. Attend their events on and off campus. Ask them to compile and share with you call, visit, thank you, note-writing, and invitation lists of donors, prospects, alumni, and friends in order to invite them to important campus events and activities, to stay in touch, and to simply say “thank you.” It is imperative to know, or to get to know, your key alumni, donors, and friends of the institution. These efforts are especially important during a major capital campaign. 

It is imperative to know, or to get to know, your key alumni, donors, and friends of the institution.  

Also, work in partnership with these offices to develop donors and prospects through identification, research, cultivation, and “ask” lists. Donors support and give to institutions because they know and trust the leadership and other individuals and, importantly, they believe in the institutional mission and vision. This relationship and trust-building with donors and prospects takes time and a great deal of energy by the president who is the keeper of the vision. 

Coupled with these offices, do your part to create a culture of philanthropy by developing internal rewards and recognition programs, town-and-gown initiatives, and special dinners and receptions, among other events and activities to recognize and thank your outstanding alumni and friends and major donors of your institution. 

4. Be prepared.  

My same study from a few years ago indicated that a large percentage of university presidents had little or no training nor experience in fundraising activities. Fundraising is one of the most important, visible, and time-consuming roles of a university president. It requires training and experience. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and American Council on Education (ACE), among others, provide excellent training seminars, summer institutes, and educational programs in this important area of work. Make time to take advantage of these opportunities. 

5. One of the best parts of your job.  

Visiting with dedicated alumni and donors is extremely rewarding. It takes time, preparation, and hard work; but few things are more exciting and important in your role as president. Your donors and alumni want to advance “their” institution. They are vested and eager to help and want to hear your vision, passion, and plans on how you will move the institution forward.  

Also, engage your administrators, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other donors in this important work. These individuals can be impactful messengers regarding the case statement, vision, and mission and can communicate the firsthand and transformational effects of gifts to the institution. 

Enjoy your fundraising duties and the process of moving forward; it will impact your university in numerous ways. 

These five items are simply a starting point. To note a real-world example and a point of pride for our institution, we recently celebrated a record fundraising year and just launched a new $100 million campaign during our Centennial Year Gala. The items stated above are part of our fundraising roadmap and elements of the campaign process as we make our case to positively impact scholarships and need-based aid, enhance academics, and make campus improvements.  

Finally, your fundraising efforts provide many tangential benefits by bringing good news and attention to your university and the many great areas you are working to advance. These items will help you be more focused as you develop a strategic plan and fine-tune your mission and vision, which dovetails into a case statement as we make the case for sustainability in these turbulent times in higher education. Now, have fun, go make your case, and best wishes!