How to Engage Your Deans to be Better Fundraisers

Originally published November 12, 2014

“I’ve never met a donor who gave a big gift to a dean they didn’t know or didn’t like.”  This quote by BWF founding principal Bruce Flessner touches on a critical element of higher education fundraising: the engagement of academic leadership makes a difference to donors.

The past decade has reflected that need, as expectations have risen at many institutions for deans to spend 25%–50% of their time on development. However, changing the job description is much easier than changing the behavior. The dean who is effective at fundraising is still a relatively rare find at any university.

Here are five strategies for engaging your deans meaningfully and productively in fundraising:

Emphasize the partnership with frontline fundraisers.

Deans who are effective fundraisers tend to partner with effective development officers. Deans who view their frontline fundraisers as simply additional administrative support tend to be more disengaged in fundraising.

  • Deans who actively seek their development officer’s advice on major gift prospect strategies, partner with the development officer on making prospect visits, and regularly meet with the development officer to evaluate fundraising progress and results are more likely to produce more fundraising results.
  • Many best practice shops not only engage the dean in the hiring process of unit-based fundraisers, but also include him/her in discussions on performance expectations and time management.
  • Training and/or strategy sessions that focus on clarifying expectations for each type of development activity between these partners can make the creation and revision of that relationship more seamless.
Provide opportunities for deans to hear and learn from their peers.

Deans value hearing from peers about their challenges and victories in fundraising. Facilitating sessions where deans have the opportunity to share with and hear from each other can build camaraderie around the roles of deans as fundraisers and encourage them to think about fundraising success as a point of pride.

Involve the institution’s leadership in training and facilitated sessions.

Even if your president or provost can only provide an introduction at a training on solicitation, for example, his/her presence makes a difference, because this involvement:

  • Communicates to deans that advancement is valued by your institution’s leaders.
  • Encourages deans to attend and participate. If your senior leaders’ time can be secured for more than an introduction, deans will have the rare chance to engage their top academic officers, completely framed by the topic of fundraising.
  • Reinforces the president and/or provost “leading by example” in their personal involvement in the institution’s fundraising.

Discuss time management and involving others.

Remember that deans are very busy—that is part of how they became academic leaders. Emphasizing fundraising can sometimes feel like pushing another item off on a dean’s already full plate, especially if the message is communicated as an order and not a conversation. Remember that deans as well as all of us make time in our busy schedules for work that we decide is important. Therefore, we need to help deans understand the importance of fundraising to the success of their colleges, schools, or units.

If we want deans to spend more time on fundraising, we need to be seen as allies on how to manage other responsibilities and tasks in a way that frees up valuable time. Bringing in active associate deans can help drive a meaningful discussion on how fundraising fits into an academic unit’s workloads and priorities. The other side of this coin is ensuring that when deans spend time on fundraising, their time is being used productively. Clearing out or protecting a dean’s schedule for development activities will only become a regular practice if that time is used wisely and outcomes are soon realized.
Build training around who your deans are and how training can enhance their fundraising skills.

When engaging a dean as a fundraiser, the element you have the least control over is the individual’s personality and strengths. There may be best practice and personality expectations for deans, but reality has a way of deviating from template. That element of the dean as an individual is what will drive successful relationship building with donors; therefore, use training as an opportunity to highlight and enhance his/her personal strengths.

Do you have deans who do not like to meet new people in one-on-one settings?

  • Use training as a platform to brainstorm when and where they are most comfortable in meeting new people and who might help introduce them to donors.
  • Are other deans detail-focused and administering a wide variety of programs in a large college? Training can be an opportunity to integrate their knowledge of each program into the larger picture for donors to understand.
  • Let any training that focuses on development messaging also focus on the stories of deans as individuals, because no matter how polished a speech may be, donors will sense if it isn’t coming from a genuine place.

Training isn’t about changing deans; it’s about elevating their story, packaging their ideas, and partnering with them to meaningfully engage in fundraising. Teaching the basics of fundraising may come into play, depending on the background of your dean, but ultimately, the best training for deans is that which links any new knowledge to real action items and tools for the dean to use moving forward.


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