Telling Your Story
My first job out of college was working in the development office for the College of Arts & Sciences at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Specifically, my job was to raise major gifts for the social sciences at the college. Even though I had graduated with a degree in history, the history department chair greeted me skeptically in our first meeting--so did the African studies chair, and the economics chair, too. I learned quickly that there was mistrust between academics and fundraising.
Academics tend to think of development and advancement as the necessary evil of non-profit schools: the glad-hand, cocktail-party side of the work that is necessary for funding -- work that quickly and visibly surfaces inequities across the community. And although that mistrust arises quickly, it can also dissipate swiftly, as Academic Leaders come to understand that advancement work can supercharge a school’s ability to meet its mission, expand opportunity, and provide amazing experiences for kids. It’s possible to bridge the gap between advancement work and the classroom when we focus on how both further the mission of the school.
Effective advancement work is really about authentic communication. When Academic Leaders understand the fundraising priorities of the school, and when advancement officers make the connection between fundraising and programming explicit, schools demystify the work of fundraising and quell skepticism. It’s also essential for advancement offices to be explicit about the ways that fundraising can both amplify and defuse inequity. Fundraisers need to reassure academics that they are aware of these challenges and working to overcome them. This is another way that effective advancement work is about authentic communication: it does not avoid inquiry or offer easy solutions.
School donors want to know that the resources given will make the lives of students on campus meaningfully better. To make the case, advancement and development officers need to share the lived experiences of students and faculty. The development officer job is much easier when they can say to a donor: “I visited an English class the other day and this amazing conversation happened...” or, “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that our students are doing in their science research projects...” Just as advancement officers need to open communication with Academic Leaders, Academic Leaders need to welcome fundraisers into the life of the school. Invite your development team to classes and other academic functions, or sit down with them to share some of the incredible work your team is doing.
When donors meet with a development officer that authentically represents programs, full of real anecdotes, they are much more likely to give. At the same time, Academic Leaders become more trusting of their colleagues in the development office when communication is open and direct. Effective partnership between the advancement office and Academic Leaders is essential to the school’s mission-aligned success.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)