Jim will keynote the CASE Indiana fall conference coming up on November 12 in Indianapolis. The conference has a great lineup, and I hope to see many of my Hoosier State higher ed colleagues there. Prior to creating Langley Innovations, Jim held vice president- or vice chancellor-level advancement positions at Georgia Tech, UC San Diego, and Georgetown. His blog, the Langley Angle on Philanthropy, is a must-read.
Thanks to Jim for his time and insights, and please feel free to recommend an advancement professional to be featured in the future.
1. The challenges (as well as the opportunities) facing higher education have never been more compelling. What are the most significant challenges (short-term and/or long-term) for university advancement programs today?
The long-term challenge that worries me most is our eroding base of support. Alumni participation has been declining for 15 straight years, at about a percentage point each year. For years the trend was masked by overall increases in private giving. We were raising more and more but from fewer and fewer donors. Had we been able to preserve or even widen our base in the good years, we might have better weathered the bad years by offsetting the decline in the average gift with a larger number of more modest gifts. But more importantly, the decline in the base also suggests a growing emotional disconnection with higher education. That not only affects our philanthropic proceeds but our public standing which, in turn, affects public policy and public funding. The greatest short-term challenge for advancement programs will be preserving their base budgets so that they can help their institutions engineer a turnaround. If advancement operations are cut too severely, relationships with alumni and other key constituents will be strained, even severed, which will result in a higher rate of disconnection and disillusionment which will prove ever more expensive to remedy. Advancement operations must do their part in balancing the institution’s budget, of course, but I hope enlightened leaders will see them as a larger part of the solution going forward.
2. Could you share any strategies for dealing with these challenges?
We all need to better understand why our base of support has been eroding. Research suggests a combination of factors: the rising cost of tuition and the resulting grind of paying of long-term debt, a growing emotional disconnection and a weariness of repeated fund raising requests that fail to speak to specific, achievable objectives. If we can achieve a better understanding of the emotional barriers, we can begin designing strategies to overcome them. In the meantime, there are many specific, cost effective, emotionally intelligent strategies that can be applied. The key is to show that communications are two-way, that we are as interested in hearing from our alumni as we are in communicating our hopes and needs. At Georgetown, we put current students in the field to interview inactive alumni and saw an upsweep in giving after, even though they had never been asked. An emotional connection to young people who reminded them of themselves and made them feel good about the future was the key.
3. Donor attrition clearly continues to be an issue for institutions. Where are colleges and universities missing the boat when it comes to donor loyalty?
The key is sustained, personalized connections on a large scale. It’s not easy to do but, with so many organizations vying for support, donors will gravitate to those that seem most accessible, welcoming, appreciative and focused on solving real problems or making real differences. I advocate using traditional vehicles, like telefund callers, to not only ask for support but to canvas the opinions of donors, to ask how the school is doing, how they are reacting to a recent campus controversy or change, how events like homecoming and reunion can be improved, and what it would take to get them back to campus. In this way, we can turn one-way communications into something that is more respectful, responsive and reciprocal. This approach would work even better if it were followed up with a letter or e-mail from the president to those interviewed saying, in effect, “I have heard you voice; I value your opinion, and here’s what I’m doing about the concerns that many of you have raised.” If I’m a giver, it tells me I also have a voice that gets to the top.
4. Where do you see the greatest opportunity for university advancement programs to leverage the power of the social web?
Ironically enough, I think it’s a “new and improved” version of class notes. Yep. That’s right. We had social networks before they were fashionable but were constrained in the way we could manage class notes by the size and frequency of our alumni magazines. With the web, we can make class notes interactive, both from institution to alumnus, and from alumnus to alumnus. We should invite class notes on personal milestones (e.g. weddings, births of children), professional milestones (e.g. promotions, transfers, changes), and volunteer service activities. On the professional side, we can help alumni in similar or complementary lines of work network with one another. With volunteer service notes, we could help define and facilitate common causes. If, for instance, a large number of our graduates have gone into Teach for America, and then become involved in school reform, we should help them connect with each other, consider using the auspices of the school as a neutral convener to bring them to campus to identify cross-cutting concerns and remediating strategies. We should also explore how these interests of these alumni align with the scholarly interest of our faculty and the volunteer activities of staff. Wherever possible we should encourage the convergence of cause and the creation of greater service communities. In the past, we were passive receivers of class notes. With the web, we can be active facilitators. Even more importantly, in this way we can recognize and express appreciation to alumni for doing things other than giving to us. We can recognize them for living the values as alumni that we espoused when they were students. We can create a more palpable sense of an extended educational community working in unison to address issues of great import. So, again, the keys are to invite class notes, respond to them, to select some for larger feature stories or even awards, and to facilitate mutual interests. The relationships we form in college are some of the strongest and longest lasting in our lives, yet as many of us move or become absorbed with building careers and raising families, we lose connections. Colleges and universities could help us keep in touch with each other over the years.
5. This blog often explores books related to advancement. Is there one particular book that would you recommend to university advancement colleagues?
My recommendation is Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History, edited by Lawrence Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie. It’s not an advancement text, but it will give every practitioner a deeper grounding in the origins and cultural significance of our business.