I once had a conversation with a prospective donor who said that he felt that the homeless shelter in his city needed the funds more than the university for which I worked. He was a little surprised when I said I could see his point. However, I did not simply let it go at that and walk away. I said that he should not support his alma mater because we “needed” the funds in the same manner as the homeless shelter; rather he should support us because of our excellence and how that distinctiveness in turn goes on to better the community and the world in which we live.
I went on to describe the superb work of our faculty in creating new discoveries that change lives. I talked about the students we attract and how we mold them to go on to do great things in the world. I referenced alumni who are making an impact right now. I made the point that, by supporting his alma mater, he would be supporting true excellence in faculty and the students they mold, who in turn are in a position to make a real difference in the world. I have used this approach many times with great success.
When positioning our universities and colleges for support with donors, it is important to realize that the “charitable play” is not our best platform. In other words, people do not make gifts to higher education institutions because we “need” the funds. Look around many campuses – the beautiful grounds, the buildings, the makeup of the student body and faculty – and it is easy to draw the conclusion that we are not in need of much, at least not in the same manner as most community-based charitable organizations.
Rather, people choose to support our institutions because we represent excellence. As major gift officers, we motivate donors to support us by focusing on those areas of excellence and distinction at our universities.
Each institution has its own unique areas of distinction. I suggest that you find those areas of strength and highlight them often – even if they aren’t particular areas of interest to the individual prospect with whom you are working. People want to be proud of their alma mater and the institutions they support.
When I worked for Georgetown University, we had a brilliant document called “Indices of Excellence,” which was a one-pager that succinctly described our areas of true distinction. The first time I saw it was when I was a job candidate, and that document did a great deal to sell me on the institution. I wanted to be part of an excellent culture, and our donors do too.
There is a venerable book on fundraising, one that people of my generation and older know well, entitled Designs for Fundraising by Harold “Sy” Seymour. Although the content is dated in many ways, Seymour articulated some fundamental truths in fundraising that were as true in the 1940’s when he wrote the book as they are today. One of his gems is, “People want to be a worthwhile member of a worthwhile group.” Put another way, people want to be a member of a winning team. In those few words, Seymour summed up the marketing platform for higher ed fundraising: position your institution as a winner and ask others to get on board.