University Leadership and Fundraising Campaigns: Don’t Switch Horses Mid-Stream

Guarantees of a successful university fundraising campaign are few, but there's no shortage of chaos factors that can set one back. One such hindrance, discussed by Kimberly Nehls, is the impact of mid-campaign shifts in presidential leadership. She published a study last year in Innovative Higher Education on this issue. It consists of interviews with university development officers and both incoming and outgoing presidents about what this churn does to concurrent fundraising campaigns. To the best of Nehls' knowledge, this study is the first of its kind.

She takes as her hypothesis a line from the resignation letter of Daniel S. Cheever, Jr., former president of Simmons College in Boston: "The [fundraising] campaign's likelihood of success will be greater if there is not a leadership change while it is underway," writes Cheever in 2006. The letter is publically available here; Nehls' article links to a password-protected version.

Feedback from the study validated Cheever’s anxiety. The interviews confirmed that such mid-campaign transitions “influenced morale on campus, altered timing of the campaigns, created negative publicity, and caused lost momentum."

Interesting? Great. But it leads into an ongoing debate about what kind of stuffing we want in our university administrators these days.

In past eras, the headache of fundraising remained the sole purvey of private universities; today, almost all postsecondary schools in the US rely on some form of donation. This changes the demands on the leadership at these universities. Yet, while the responsibilities of university presidents and development officers mutate, the process and criteria for selecting them does not seem to have noticed.

Nehls and others worry that university presidents, namely “those who have risen through the academic ranks, may not come prepared" for what Sarah DeShazo has called "the pick-and-shovel work of going over prospect lists" here at Inside Philanthropy.

Regrettably, age is another issue. Today’s lineup of college presidents is more George Clooneys and less Leonardo Di Caprios — more Meryl Streeps than Scarlet Johanssons than those of the past. The mean age of college presidents increased "from 52 to 60 over the last 20 years," according to Nehls. Consequently, The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently predicted that "a flood of college presidents" will soon retire.

Meanwhile, both the length and abundance of university fundraising campaigns have risen in kind. The confluence of these factors produces more of the mid-fundraising campaign leadership transitions about which Nehls is concerned.

The antidote? Some would suggest we need fewer silver foxes in our university's presidential offices, but that would not entirely solve the problem. More to the point, Nehls argues that universities must "provide more fundraising training for these top-ranking academic positions.” I would add that colleges need to be more real with those they recruit for these positions about the fact that fundraising, like it or not, is a responsibility that comes with the territory nowadays.