By: David T. Shufflebarger, Senior Partner

At the core of all that we do in securing gift support for our institutions are the relationships we build with each donor. Now, mind you, if we don’t have a good case for support and leaders, both volunteer and professional, to put that case forward, we are not going to be very successful.

Building those relationships, however, is rarely the result of one person. Dr. Joe Johnson, President Emeritus of the University of Tennessee, emphasized that point when he was honored recently by the Knoxville AFP chapter for a lifetime of achievement in philanthropy.

He noted that he was put off by claims from candidates for UT development positions that they had gotten this or that gift. That is rarely the case, he said, and told how folks congratulated him when UT received an eight figure gift from an alumnus. He went out of the way to point out that all he did was present a proposal to the donor. No one in the Development Office had the alumnus on her or his radar, but his major professor had a strong relationship with him and they stayed in touch with each other over many years. On one occasion the professor told him about a critical capital project that had been delayed many years, to which the alumnus responded with a suggestion that he make a double challenge gift, one for construction and one for endowment.  It worked magnificently. Dr. Johnson let everyone know that this gift would not have happened without the relationship the professor had with the donor.

My colleague John Taylor made the same point when he advised a college that ‘it takes a village’ to get a gift.  He was trying to tear down the silos that sometimes inhabit advancement shops and to point out the need to share data across the institution.

The concept of building a ‘culture of philanthropy’ is much in vogue, as well it should be. I commend Craig Shelley’s article, “Defining a Culture of Philanthropy” and the “What Does It Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy” report from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund (no relation to our founder Be Haas). They offer excellent perspectives at the macro level.

But the rubber meets the road at the micro level. We worked with a university which implemented a team-based incentive compensation program. If stretch goals were achieved, every staff member got the same percentage of salary bonus. It worked splendidly. I recall vividly the advancement services staff staying after a meeting to ask the major gift officers what more they could do to help them achieve their goals.  Further, the MGO’s paid more attention to getting in timely contact reports with bio updates and telling their alumni relations colleagues about alums who wanted to get more involved.

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of speaking at a university’s ‘academic summit,’ which brought together the provost, deans, and department chairs with the alumni and development staff to strengthen internal relationships for the good of all.

So, if you aren’t working to build internal relationships and teamwork, you are not as likely to be building strong relationships with your prospective donors. While you should be conversant with the macro, don’t get overwhelmed by it in trying to build a culture of philanthropy on your campus.  Just as you do with donors, take it one step at a time.