How to engage academic partners for win-win results

When most people look back on their university days, they often remember a faculty member who took a special interest in them, who led them to their academic passion, or who opened a door that led to a life-changing opportunity. Many faculty members build lifelong relationships with former students. And faculty members who are deeply committed to and enthusiastic about their work are the best spokespeople for the academic enterprise. That’s why there’s no better resource for an advancement team than an academic partner who is willing and able to effectively engage with alumni and donors.

However, faculty members’ willingness to work with advancement is dependent upon trusting relationships between the two. That isn’t easy. It sometimes requires advancement to dispel the notion that fundraising is distasteful, offensive, and insensitive to donors or is otherwise done unprofessionally. That can be difficult at times because those ugly stereotypes exist for a reason.

Advancement shops that successfully leverage their academic partners do so by cultivating their relationships with academic partners. That starts with learning about their work, being respectful of their time, educating them on how advancement works, and demonstrating how faculty members’ participation benefits them. When faculty members are embraced as part of the team, they can help at all stages of the philanthropic process.

Find the right partners

Not all faculty members will want to partner with advancement, nor will all be good at interacting with alumni and donors. That’s why it is important to  find the right ones, rather than trying to teach the entire faculty about advancement.

Some potential partners will self-identify. Others will have to be found. In addition to getting suggestions from the deans and other academic leaders, look for those faculty members who demonstrate externally-facing service and volunteerism. Notice who gives talks in the community to non-academic audiences, who’s tapped by local media, who collaborates with others outside their disciplines, who receives recognition for teaching, who shows up at events, who is featured in a university newsletter or magazine, and who is particularly good at explaining their complex research to lay people.

Once you identify some potential partners, get to know them and learn about what they do. Be interested and curious. That means meeting with them on their own turf, whether that’s their lab or their office. Ask them to explain what they do, their motivation, and the impact they seek to have. Be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Take the extra step of sitting in on a lecture, if possible, observing them in their studio or reading something they’ve published. Truly understanding the faculty members’ work will reveal the opportunities for philanthropy and will demonstrate that the advancement team is there to help.

For example, at a university where I was the advancement vice president, there was a faculty member conducting ground-breaking research on hereditary cancer with an international team. I, along with and other advancement colleagues, spent a significant amount of time reading about her work, visiting her lab, attending her presentations and listening to her talk about what she was doing, what she sought to accomplish and what she could do with additional resources. She was clearly energized by talking about her research and she was able to explain its complexities in an easily understandable way.

The relationship led to advancement proposing to bring foundation board members and other donors to tour her lab. Because we understood her work, we could bring alumni and donors who were predisposed to be interested. And, because she trusted that our motivation was to help her enterprise, she agreed. While she admitted to being nervous at first, she found it fun and rewarding to demonstrate what she was doing for the visitors. Over time, and enabled by the strong partnership, some very notable gifts were made and she and the donors developed close, personal relationships that remain fulfilling for all involved.

Make them part of the team

Just as with donors, cultivating the relationship needs to happen before conversations about fundraising to build a foundation of trust that will be mutually beneficial. Some academic partners are hesitant to tell advancement about their former students who may be good donor prospects. They may fear that fundraisers will somehow impinge upon their relationship or redirect potential gifts to another program.

When faculty members share their knowledge with you, share yours with them in return. Take the opportunity to include them in the process. Give them a seat at the table for strategy discussions, seek their input and, when you’ve had contact with the prospect, follow up. Let your academic partners know what happened and collaborate on next steps.

Don’t try to control relationships between faculty members and prospective donors that existed long before advancement got involved. Instead, define the faculty members’ role in the donor process. Encourage continued relationship building, and let it happen organically. However, make certain that there’s shared understanding that when thoughts and conversations turn to giving, there are strategies to be coordinated to ensure the best possible outcome for the donor and for the university. With your academic partners as part of the strategy development, that understanding is cemented.

By being inclusive and transparent, your strategy is enriched, and trust is built.

Set them up for success

Advancement is responsible for facilitating a positive experience for those partners who not only are willing to share their knowledge and advice, but who also want to be part of implementing the strategy. However, it’s important to define their role according to their skills and comfort levels and to be judicious in the use of their time. The most important role they can play is to share their enthusiasm for what they do, its importance, and its impact.

For example, I might propose involvement in a cultivation visit by beginning a conversation like this: “Mary Smith, your former student, is going to be on campus in a couple of weeks. Based on some indicators, she might have the capability and interest in supporting your program. What do you think?”

“May I bring Mary to your lab for about 30 minutes so you can show her the research you and your team are working on now? She’s working in a related industry and is interested in what you’ve found so far. Her son is looking at colleges now and is interested in undergraduate research opportunities. You don’t have to disrupt the schedules of any of your lab assistants. It would be great for her to see students in the lab.”

By asking them to do what you already know they’re good at and about which the donor is curious, in a setting that’s comfortable for them and interesting for the donor, and with little disruption, you ensure a positive interaction.

At the same time, it’s also important to show faculty what success looks like. Part of setting them up for success is framing realistic expectations. While success can be measured by closing a gift, it can also be measured by the number of positive interactions that move prospective donors closer toward making major gifts.

Don’t forget to prepare your partners prior to the donor visits, provide them with the background information they need, answer their questions and discuss intended outcomes. Walk them through your role during the interaction or even role play if that’s helpful. Afterward, take the time to debrief. Ask how your partner thought it went and how it made them feel. Find out if they learned anything that would further develop the relationship or if the prospective donor said anything to indicate her degree of interest in what she was seeing. Ask how they’d like to be involved in the next steps.

Regardless of the outcomes, keep the academic partners in the loop. They are part of the relationship-building team. Copy them on your contact reports and your thank you notes to the prospective donors they’re helping with. Provide them with the donors’ mailing address and some wording for a thank you note of their own. Even if the potential donors say they’re not interested or the timing is not right to think about further engagement, it’s important to inform the faculty members so they understand the progress that was made and what’s next.

Having participated in the strategy development and in the interaction with the prospect with you, and knowing the outcome and next steps, your academic partners will learn first-hand that giving is donor-driven. They’ll see advancement’s role is to match donors’ interests with university opportunities, not to push one, for a gift that’s mutually gratifying.

Once faculty members have been part of the process and have experienced a successful donor interaction, they’ll be more likely to lend a hand. Those who haven’t been inclined to help, will see or hear about their colleagues’ positive experiences—and may even notice gifts coming in to support colleagues’ programs—and perhaps change their minds.

The same principles that encourage faculty members’ participation in donor cultivation and build trust hold true for the solicitation and stewardship processes as well. Find the right partners. Learn about them. Make them part of the team. Engage them in the process. Set them up for success. Keep them in the loop.

Proceeding in the new normal

The pandemic-caused shift to remote work and virtual visits doesn’t have to be an obstacle to engaging academic partners in advancement work. Instead, take advantage of technology. Faculty members can participate in video calls and can give abbreviated tours of their labs or studios with their own smart phones—live or recorded. You can also drop personalized video clips that highlight your academic partners’ work into email correspondence, as well as share links to their articles and presentations.

Faculty members can provide tremendous value to advancement programs. To realize that value, advancement must work to cultivate those relationships and engage faculty members as true partners.


If you’re looking for assistance developing strategies to engage academic partners in bolstering relationship with alumni and donors, please reach out to Laura Simic at lsimic@grenzglier.com.

Grenzebach Glier & Associates Inc http://gga.ugmade.co/wp-content/themes/gga/assets/img/grenzebach-glier-and-associates-print-only.png
About the author

Laura Simic

Vice President

Laura Simic, Vice President, brings more than 35 years of experience in fundraising and executive leadership in public and private higher education to the GG+A team.  She has frontline development officer and two decades of executive leadership experience encompassing all areas of advancement including alumni relations, advancement services, communications, annual…