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by Donald P. Coduto

Outside Our Comfort Zone

The times require deans and department chairs to learn the serious business of fundraising.

The days of generous government support of higher education are gone, probably forever. For example, when adjusted to 2010 dollars, California's general fund allocation to its state university system declined from $13,200 per student in 1967 to $8,970 per student in 2008. The current recession has further exacerbated this problem. Concurrently, the cost of providing higher education, particularly in engineering, continues to rise, thus creating a strain on both sides of the balance sheet.

Much of this widening gap is being filled with student tuition and fees, which have been rising 1.5 to 2.0 times the inflation rate for at least the past three decades. However, this solution is not sustainable, particularly because it increasingly disenfranchises lower-income students. Thus, public universities, even those that once relied almost exclusively on these two sources of funding, are becoming more reliant on other sources, and college leaders, particularly deans and department chairs, are now expected to be actively engaged in pursuing these new sources.

One such source, particularly in engineering, is income and equipment from external contracts. Even institutions that historically have been focused primarily on undergraduate teaching are placing additional emphasis on funded contracts. Fortunately, engineering faculty, chairs, and deans are generally comfortable in this realm.

Academics tend to freeze up when it comes to the "ask."

Another source of funding is philanthropic gifts, especially from corporate sponsors and alumni. Engineering has much more philanthropic potential than most disciplines, but the pursuit of such gifts is significantly outside our comfort zone, so this potential is largely underdeveloped.

Most public universities have been increasing the size of their development offices, often adding cabinet-level administrators to oversee this work. However, effective fundraising is not something that can simply be handed over to the development office. It requires close collaboration with college and department leaders. Engineering deans must now dedicate significant attention to fundraising, and some spend as much as half their time doing so.

In this context, the most important role of deans and chairs is to develop and clearly articulate a vision for engineering at their institution, then drill down to specific initiatives that support this vision. Development officers need this guidance, and are largely ineffectual without it. Likewise, complaints of development officers going off on inappropriate tangents are often rooted in a lack of clear vision and direction from the college.

Deans and chairs also need to be directly involved in cultivating potential donors, stewarding current donors, and (perhaps the most intimidating part of all) participating in the "ask." Does this sound like unfamiliar jargon? If so, then it is time to become more familiar with the principles and practices of effective fundraising.

One of the most common complaints from development staff is academic leaders who expect major gifts from sources that have not first been cultivated. Rarely will a donor provide a major gift after only one or two contacts. Development of significant donor interest requires a great deal of time and effort, and major gifts typically come after years of cultivation. Thus, deans and chairs need to have a long-term perspective on the fund-raising process.

Most academic leaders can enthusiastically discuss their projects and activities, but many freeze up when it comes time to present the actual request for a gift-the ask-or even to properly respond to a potential donor's question "What can I do to help?" Experienced academic development officers often have stories of potential gifts gone awry because of missteps by deans, chairs, or faculty in such situations. One way to begin overcoming these problems is to realize that potential donors want to help. Alumni are appreciative of the impact an engineering education has had on their lives, and insightful corporate leaders know the university provides their sustenance in the form of well-educated employees.

Advice is available. One source is the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Most important, we must consciously allocate the time to learn by doing.

Donald P. Coduto is interim dean of the College of Engineering at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.




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