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Between December 14th and 17th, I attended the CASE V Regional Annual Advancement Meeting in downtown Chicago. CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, has 8 regional districts across the country, and is comprised of 70,000 professionals involved in University Advancement – (i.e. development, fundraising, alumni relations, communications, etc). I was so enthusiastic to attend my first ever professional conference, and spent hours planning my schedule in advance – determining the track sessions I would attend, the networking opportunities I would take advantage of. I wanted to maximize the learning experience, to become a sponge. Absorbing all information I could about the field of Advancement, I learned from various professionals from all over the country, with varied experience levels ranging from 2-25 years.
It all began on a 2-degree, snowy Saturday at the Sheraton Hotel, where I attended a Young Professionals Summit (best described as bootcamp). From that very first day until the last, I pondered one major question: “How can I apply what I learn about university fundraising and cultivating donor relationships to ZSR, as Wake moves into the next phase of the Capital Campaign?” Before I attempt to answer this (partially), I would like to express 10 major lessons that I learned.
Lesson 1: Network. Network. Network!
Development is a field comprised of naturally outgoing people, so it is no wonder that there were breakfast talks and lunch round tables and dinners and networking opportunities throughout the conference. On the first day alone I interacted with at least 15 fundraising professionals in a lunch round table, an afternoon coffee connect, and a happy hour for networking. It became clear that by learning how to “navigate networking ,” we were really learning how to become development officers.
Lesson 2: Development involves a complex process of building and maintaining relationships.
The field of fundraising is 100% relational, and to be successful one must understand the purpose of giving, the motivation behind it, and the importance of storytelling.
But it does not stop there. A cyclical process takes place, where one must identify the proper donor, discover their passion(s), cultivate a relationship, engage in an effective solicitation, and follow up with a proper method of stewardship. Teamwork, leadership, and effective communication play a fundamental role in this process.
Lesson 3: That true grit is necessary to fundraising success.
One must pursue goals, not just outcomes. One must cultivate habits that perfect technique. One must get serious about feedback. All of this requires true grit, which James Husson, Vice President of University Advancement at Boston College described, as a combination of urgency and humility. Three key strengths repeated throughout the conference in an ongoing conversation surrounding grit were concentration- focus- and technique.
Lesson 4: There are currently misconceptions about the alumni relations field.
Alumni relations professionals are not just “friend-raisers,” and that concept is no longer appropriate. They are not just the party planner that identifies the super fan, but the avenue or pathway that connects front line fundraisers to direct donor prospects. They are essential, and must be able to wear several hats. Which leads to lesson 5.
Lesson 5: Front line fundraisers and alumni relations professionals must engage in partnership strategies, as the future of University Advancement depends on it.
This is something that we do well here at Wake, since both of our offices work under the same umbrella. This allows for more effective communication and transparency across all outlets, helping the university effectively raise money.
Lesson 6: The way in which we interact with alumni is rapidly changing, and digital alumni engagement is the future.
Advancement professionals must recognize that technology has not only rapidly affected the student learning environment, but how we interact with those students once they graduate and leave Wake Forest. We must be adaptable, recognizing that powerful entities like LinkedIn are changing the way we connect to our alumni, and that an online community has an identity that is viable for raising money.
Lesson 7: A sales approach can be helpful for major gifts officers.
Sales is more results driven, and examines giving capacity more than giving history. Gifts are on the donors terms, and direct disclosure is present. This not only makes the process more efficient and fosters a strong business relationship between a donor and a major gifts officer, but it establishes trust early on. The more you directly listen and respect your prospect donor, the better the interaction.
Lesson 8: Prepare and Practice.
I heard people often repeat this point in several sessions. Development officers need to be prepared. They have to not only know their top 3 selling points, but they have to be willing to abandon them if they are eliminated from the conversation. They have to be prepared for rejection, and know how to tactfully respond. They need to be strategic, and be ready to listen. Practice makes intention behind delivery effortless.
Lesson 9: Patience is key.
It is no surprise that fundraising can be a difficult profession. An average development officer remains in their position for 18 months. The reasons for turnover can vary, but after many conversations, I think that countless rejection, conflict, and burnout might be among the top 3. An average fundraising professional will make 8 calls, and may reach only 4-5 of these calls. They may land 1 visit, and only schedule about 5 of these visits per month. Out of these 5 visits, they may be lucky to solicit 2 substantial gifts.
Many folks encouraged people to remain steadfast in their positions , and provided wonderful, positive ways to approach rejection. I found myself repeating, “Don’t stop, don’t give up!!
Lesson 10: Warm and competent relations can and will drive fundraising, most importantly for the Annual Fund.
There is a universal way we form relationships. Over 50% of behavior depends on warmth and competence. University Advancement teams must be aware that not all engagement involves an “ask,” and that there are unique ways to engage alumni that will appeal to their hearts before their wallets- which leads to something bigger and better later. Not only is it important to recognize different types of alumni groups, but it is important to acknowledge that these various groups have diverse interests and must be recognized for what they give and/or how they engage with the university.
So what does this mean for Wake Forest and ZSR? Well, to be honest, I am still trying to figure all of that out. There will likely be challenges ahead. As many professionals said at the conference, Capital Campaigns can breed campus-wide competition, as various organizations compete for the same prospect donors. However, I firmly believe that ZSR has an opportunity to remain a key stakeholder.
At ZSR, we have an opportunity to not only write “our story,” but to share it. If we can weave together a narrative that explicitly states the multitude and expansive nature of our services, as well as our relevance and importance on campus, then we can be successful at fundraising.
Al Gurganus, a recent donor to the library recently stated in a video, that the reason he and his wife chose to donate to the library was to ‘”maximize utility.” It became clear he said , “That when you help the library, you help everyone- students, faculty, and staff.”
ZSR will continue to write its narrative and find ways to tailor it to various donors depending on their interests (i.e. technology, academics, programming , etc). We are doing a superb job with digital alumni engagement through ZSRx and other methods, and will continue to expand our mission to help our alums succeed. I am confident that ZSR will shine through as the heart of our campus, and that we will raise the money needed to make our home even more excellent!