Advancement’s role in interdisciplinary initiatives

There is growing recognition inside academia that solutions to both society’s greatest challenges—climate change, healthy societies, global supply chains—and its greatest opportunities—alternative energies, artificial intelligence, smart materials—will only come from properly constituted research teams collaborating across academic disciplines.

Outside of academia, there’s a growing expectancy and urgency coming from industry, government, philanthropists, and society in general to help solve the world’s most vexing, even existential problems.  We need to go no further than citing academia’s imperative to discover treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

Accelerating advances in multiple disciplines—science, technology, medicine, engineering, among other fields—presents a new dynamic where advancement programs must rise to the challenge of partnering with their academic colleagues (and funders) with greater sophistication than traditional past practices.

Essential skills, core characteristics

Convincing donors to invest in interdisciplinary initiatives requires a different skill set than traditional major gift fundraising.

The advancement leaders who successfully structure interdisciplinary gift concepts with their academic partners at the $50 million- to $100 million-level typically possess an entrepreneurial mindset, a keen intellect, and a tenacious pursuit of excellence. They have a high tolerance for risk given that some proposals will not get funded, even after enormous time is expended. In this context, a chief advancement leader engaged in large-scale initiatives also needs to have a strong supporting team that can help lead and manage the advancement organization while the chief advancement officer devotes time to pursuing transformational gift opportunities. Further, those individuals leading advancement programs should empower their principal and major gift colleagues to think outside traditional norms and instill the best practices of interdisciplinary gift concept development across the entire major gifts team.

Rethinking donors’ roles

As institutional leaders map out their vision, they need to be willing to rethink donors’ roles. While many  gifts result from the institution reaching out to prospects with innovative ideas, the highest performing  programs are also willing to engage with ideas proposed by potential funders or are shaped by in-depth conversations with potential benefactors. In this way, advancement leaders and their institutional heads benefit from an openness to embrace donors as thought partners, rather than intruders in the academic enterprise. Similarly, strong donor relationships are dependent on an advancement leader being seen by donors as a credible and trusted partner, as well as a bridge to faculty scholars and as a facilitator of complex conversations.

One successful example of this dynamic is a C$100 million gift made by Gerald Schwartz and Heather Reisman—via the Gerald Schwartz & Heather Reisman Foundation—to the University of Toronto to support a large capital project for a new innovation complex. The complex was to house the university’s innovation programs in artificial intelligence and regenerative medicine, including the renowned Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence. A side conversation around the societal and human impact of such disruptive technologies led to the inclusion of a highly interdisciplinary new Institute for Technology and Society, exploring the ethical and societal implications of AI and other emerging technologies—a theme that had surfaced repeatedly in the institution’s strategic research plan. The donors both had prior volunteer involvement with the university, but had never made the University of Toronto a primary destination for their philanthropy until this initiative seized them with a sense of societal mission. Fundamentally rooted in the institution’s strategic plans for innovation and entrepreneurship, the gift was advanced in close collaboration with university leaders, including the current president, a former president, and three vice presidents (university advancement, research and innovation, and university operations and real estate partnerships).

Keys to success

While many institutions recognize the benefits of engaging in interdisciplinary research initiatives, developing a culture within the university that breaks down academic silos, fosters collaboration, offers seed funding, tolerates risks and builds upon failure requires substantial commitment from university leadership—financially, intellectually, and inspirationally—to achieve success.

The central administration also needs to play an important facilitating role in the development of interdisciplinary ideas. That does not necessarily mean creating a large bureaucratic structure or taking a top-down directive approach. Instead, it needs to ensure that there’s a strategy in place which encourages and enables ideas to bubble up from faculty, individually or in teams.

Institutions also need a transparent, objective decision-making model—especially one that engages the president, the provost, the vice presidents for research and for advancement and others—to fairly determine priorities. After all, not every idea is a good idea and not every initiative will succeed and sustain itself over time. Donors with the vision to fund interdisciplinary initiatives of transformational quality will likely leverage the institution to invest its own funds beside that of the donor.

After GG+A’s work at the University of Toronto on the subject of accelerating interdisciplinary initiatives, the university created a  “startup hub” for new initiatives with the appointment of a new vice provost and associate vice president for strategic initiatives, straddling the offices of the vice president and provost, the vice president for research and innovation, and the vice president advancement. This new office, one of the first of its kind in higher education, aims to stimulate and support very large-scale interdisciplinary initiatives by providing expertise in project management, grant-writing assistance, budget development, collateral resources such as  websites and videos, and coaching/mentoring on what success looks like.

Bringing greater value

Academia is changing. The most enlightened, progressive institutions will dedicate time, resources and talent toward enhancing their capacity to initiate, fund and sustain large-scale, interdisciplinary initiatives. By doing so, the highest performing, most societally-impactful institutions will bring innovative solutions to the world’s greatest challenges, cement their global leadership and prominence, and attract exceptional faculty and students. Advancement needs to seize the opportunity to become  more entrepreneurial and engage more fully with its academic partners in shaping interdisciplinary initiatives. In doing so, the advancement enterprise can bring greater value to the institution it serves, and, in turn, help facilitate solutions to both the challenges and opportunities we face in society.


To learn how the University of Toronto’s advancement department partnered with its academic colleagues (and funders), join Rod and David Palmer, vice-president of advancement at the University of Toronto, for a GG+A webinar, “The advancement leader’s role in interdisciplinary initiatives” on Nov. 5 at 12 p.m. CST. Click here to register.

If you would like assistance developing a interdisciplinary initiatives strategy for your institution, please reach out to Rod at RKirsch@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Rodney P. Kirsch

Senior Vice President

Rodney P. Kirsch, Senior Vice President, brings a wealth of experience in alumni relations and higher education fundraising to the firm. Over his 34-year career in university advancement, he has provided executive leadership in raising more than $5 billion of philanthropy. Rod is currently Senior Vice President Emeritus for Development…