Engaging your president and board is key to ensuring your institution’s fundraising success. Engaging faculty, staff and students is also important at colleges and universities. Engagement is a clear indicator of commitment, and commitment is a number-one prerequisite for fundraising success.
We have long admired Robert S. Poole, Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement at Meharry Medical College, for his success in leading a strong fundraising team. A seasoned advancement professional, Poole led Meharry through a historic $125 million campaign, and in 2010, the College reached a $100 million endowment milestone.
These successes are a result of strong philanthropic giving and prudent financial management. We recently turned to Poole for information about his strategies, and his insights to help impact fundraising at your college, university or non-profit.
A vital part of Meharry’s fundraising success has been the engagement of the College president, Wayne J. Riley. “As lead spokesman and vital leader/partner in every development discipline, the president is highly visible and engaged throughout the advancement program,” says Poole. “He’s involved in media (including op-ed features, video features, editorial board meetings, radio and TV interviews, health policy position statements, etc.), external affairs and government relations, donor prospect calls and campaign strategy, and alumni relations.”
Poole ensures the president is well prepared for these activities and has a clear vision of the College’s fundraising priorities. He discusses top prospects with the president and conducts briefing sessions before cultivation or solicitation visits. He also keeps him abreast of fundraising trends and best practices, as well as activities and progress at peer institutions. Poole says he works closely with the president to “develop and review new funding opportunities based on the College’s strategic plan and in conjunction with the deans and other campus executive leaders.”
Board engagement is another key part of Meharry’s fundraising strategy. Poole updates the board’s advancement committee and chair about fundraising and marketing priorities and objectives. He gives prospect briefings to board members who participate in cultivation and solicitation calls. “We also involve board members in planning major fundraising initiatives, both as policy makers and potential donors,” says Poole.
Poole’s team also strives to engage staff, faculty and students in fundraising initiatives. “We encourage them to share their perspectives on the institutional needs and opportunities they would like to see addressed through philanthropy,” he says. “We provide education on how the fundraising process works and, where appropriate, involve them in fundraising cultivation, solicitation and stewardship.”
Students provide testimonies for solicitation appeals, write letters of thanks to scholarship donors and participate in donor recognition events. Poole’s team draws upon faculty members’ expertise when crafting fundraising proposals and projects. Faculty members and deans are also effective partners in donor visits, reports Poole. In fundraising there is a role for everyone – especially the president and board.
Keep People at the Core of Fundraising
Amidst the practical challenges of a fundraising campaign, it can be easy to lose sight of an organization’s greatest assets: its people. People are at the core of Meharry’s fundraising success, reports Poole: “Donors, staff and leadership … deliver the most value,” he says. “The vision and support of leaders provide us with the rationale and tools to engage fundraising. The staff and volunteers enable us to launch our plans, and the donors offer their financial capacity, which ultimately helps us realize our potential.”
Poole says he looks for several important traits in staff, including strong critical thinking skills. Successful staff members have exceptional communication (and listening) skills and a genuine interest in other people and their interests. Staff are also expected to have an outstanding work ethic and the self-discipline to see tasks through to their completion. Poole says his team carefully follows a fundraising plan, which is “reviewed constantly and updated periodically as circumstance warrant.”
Keeping people motivated over long periods of time can be a challenge, Poole acknowledges. “Another significant challenge is recalibrating priorities in an effort to keep pace with the demand for greater service to constituents and other stakeholders, patients and the general public as an academic health science institution,” he says.
Meharry College’s mission keeps Poole motivated. He takes pride in “aligning donors’ giving priorities and inclinations with the College’s aspirations” and in helping donors imagine fulfilling outcomes they may not have considered previously. Above all, Poole is motivated by “witnessing the great impacts — sometimes life-changing — of philanthropy on campus.”
Poole cites several role models who have inspired his career as a development professional, including his first boss, Nathaniel Smith, at Fisk University as well as Arthur Frantzreb, Jerrold Panas, and Alice Green Burnett.”
When asked what advice he would give those pursuing a leadership position in fundraising, Poole shared the following: “They should be aware of the time and mind share demands — often you are mentally ‘on call’ 24/7. One should have a natural curiosity about people and a range of topics. Because of time demands, people in these positions should develop strong ties and support systems with family and friends to maintain perspective away from the job. Additionally, as advancement leaders they must be decisive but not judgmental, and rely on evidence and data as well as instincts in decision making. Good and honest communication and the ability to set and execute priorities are essential.”