Challenges in Strengthening Development Programs

Recently we were asked for our thoughts on the many challenges in strengthening development programs that are faced by presidents of emerging public universities.

This is an especially critical issue for these leaders as they deal with declining state and federal support and restraints on tuition increases. Given this scenario, increasing the role of philanthropy in supporting the institution becomes a high priority.

So, a la David Letterman, here is our Top Ten List of challenges.

  1. Figuring out a way to fund a robust development program at a time when resource constraints mean cutting some academic budgets.
  2. Introducing philanthropy into strategic planning when it has never been there before. In public higher education, our mantra for four decades was that gifts were the ‘margin of excellence,’ but today they are an essential strategic resource.
  3. Making development a priority when it was typically last to the table in our institution’s advancement program.  Most of our programs began with an emphasis on public relations and a modest alumni relations program. Government relations was often added before development, which then came in a poor fourth.
  4. Institutionalizing the proper stewardship of gifts when, for many years, modest development results were treated as ‘slush funds’ rather than the margin of excellence.
  5. Complying with across-the-board state policies that put emerging institutions at a disadvantage (e.g., institution must provide 25 percent of first $75 million of a capital project in Tennessee).
  6. Learning on the job since many Presidents come to the position with limited or no background in development. The same can be said for many deans.
  7. Putting an emphasis on major gifts by building close relationships with the relatively few donors who can make the most impact when the campus culture has historically been mass cultivation.
  8. Losing your best development officers to more established schools just when they are hitting their stride.
  9. Inheriting a weak program that needs fixing fast, at the same time a new president has other urgent priorities to address. This happens more often than not because the majority of emerging institutions have underperforming development programs.
  10. Transforming a university foundation functioning solely as a repository for gifts into a strong volunteer leadership force for philanthropy.

And, as always with Alexander Haas, you get more than promised, so here’s an 11th.

11. Building a campus-wide culture of philanthropy  with every member of the university community understanding that she or he has a role in enhancing giving.

We welcome your thoughts on other challenges in strengthening development programs.