Having resided for much of my life among dairy farms in either upstate New York or northeast Wisconsin, I’ve had a lot of exposure to silos—the physical structures in which farmers store grain for their livestock. But the experiences I’ve had with college and university silos—the metaphorical but nonetheless very real structures in which schools, departments and disciplines isolate themselves from the rest of their institution—have been far more profound and always more troublesome.
The presence of academic and administrative silos within an institution inevitably influences the behavior of fundraisers who serve those subunits. Such silo-induced thinking leads fundraisers to act in counterproductive ways that minimize fundraising yields at both the institutional and subunit levels, mostly because they are focusing on their own program’s bottom-line needs and not giving primary attention to the interests, motivations and aspirations of their donors.
Top donors usually have multiple points of contact with a college or university they are supporting; nonetheless, those donors tend to view their multi-faceted colleges and universities as a single entity. Even if interacting with multiple units and personnel, they are interested in the overall success and reputation of the entire institution. They also believe—often wrongly—that the various people and parts of the institution are communicating with one another.
When academic fundraisers operate in silos and do not actively collaborate with their counterparts from other silos, several bad things can happen:
- Confusion: Donors may mix up the multiple appeals, confuse which personnel represent which program, forget what gifts they’ve made, or overlook pledge payments.
- Frustration: Donors’ confusion can quickly lead to irritation, which may result in reduced giving to one or more subunits—or no giving at all.
- Inefficiency: Even when donors give generously to multiple programs, if that giving is not coordinated there is still wasteful duplication of dollars and efforts expended on soliciting and stewarding those gifts.
- Uncertainty: At some point, a donor who observes a multiplicity of uncoordinated fundraising efforts from a single college or university is going to have doubts about the management and leadership of that institution, which will likely affect that donor’s future giving decisions.
On the other hand, when fundraisers climb out of their silos and collaborate, several positive things can happen:
- Efficiency: Eliminating duplication of expenditures and effort means that more resources can be devoted to other donors and other projects.
- Synergy: When formerly siloed fundraisers collaborate, they create the potential for synergy from sharing of ideas, information and perspectives about a donor that may help both of them be more effective in their solicitations.
- Teamwork: If two or more fundraisers and their programs coordinate their strategy and tactics, their combined solicitation team can be more persuasive than if they operated separately…and they will also eliminate the possibility of a donor playing one program against the other.
- Camaraderie: When fundraisers collaborate, greater respect, trust and support tend to emerge; from this camaraderie can develop an environment in which colleagues look out for one another and make a point of sharing information and new possibilities.
- Karma: From a culture of camaraderie and trust may emerge a belief that if a fundraiser in one program shares a promising prospect with a colleague in another program, that act of collaboration will eventually be reciprocated by the original beneficiary and/or by other colleagues.
- Donor-centricity: If we de-emphasize what’s best for our unit and our own best interests, the focus will shift to what’s best for our donors. When that happens, donors will become more fully engaged with our institutions, become more informed and excited by all that we’re doing, and ultimately increase their overall giving—often to the benefit of the fundraiser and unit that took the initiative to expand the donor’s engagement.
Some readers will no doubt react to this mini-rant against siloed fundraising as self-evident and a description of behavior in which they and their institution would never engage. If that’s indeed the case, you have my congratulations and admiration. But fundraising in silos remains a far more common phenomenon that I’d like to think, and my visits to several large, multi-faceted universities over the past year have confirmed for me that it’s still alive and impeding progress at numerous institutions.
I am a firm believer in doing the right thing and seizing opportunities to expand a donor’s engagement with our institution, even it means “sharing” our best prospects with other. I believe this because I think it’s philosophically the right thing to do. But I’ve also witnessed how it’s good for business and ultimately pays off.
The most illustrative example from my career involved a top donor to the school I served at a complex research university. While the donor had been generous to our school by most any measure, we knew he had the potential to do much more, but numerous attempts had failed to unlock it. Then, after discovering our friend had a passion for architecture and historic preservation, I persuaded my dean that if he were to introduce the donor to the leaders of our historic restoration program the donor and the university leadership would all appreciate his sharing. Skipping over a lot of detail to get to the end of the tale, I can report that the donor did indeed become very involved in the historic restoration effort, was appointed to the university’s governing board, and made an eight-figure pledge to the university’s next campaign. And my dean—the one who shared this generous donor with others at the university—received from the donor a naming gift for a new facility that far exceeded any of his previous gifts to the school, as well as a coveted award for community-spirited contributions to the university.
For more about the dangers of silos and the benefits of cross-division collaboration, I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s enjoyable 2006 book, Silos, Politics and Turf Wars: A Leadership Fable About Destroying the Barriers That Turn Colleagues Into Competitors (http://www.tablegroup.com/books/silos). According to Lencioni, silos—and the turf wars they enable—devastate organizations by wasting resources, killing productivity and jeopardizing results. His book provides useful advice on how to “eliminate the invisible barriers that separate work teams, departments and divisions, causing people who are supposed to be on the same team to work against one another.”