From Higher Ed to Nonprofit and Back Again
In more than 20 years as a fundraising professional, leader of development teams, nonprofit administrator and consultant, I’ve figured a lot of things out, such as…
- The difference between a charitable remainder trust and a charitable lead trust, and how to structure both.
- That canceling the golf tournament won’t mean you’ll lose alumni, friends and gifts.
- That there are four reasons—and only four—why a donor refuses to make a major gift.
But for all I’ve learned, there is one matter that stumps me. I’ve talked to others, read up on the subject and have lived through it personally. And yet, I don’t have the answer.
Why is there a seemingly mysterious divide between those who fundraise in the higher education space versus those who fundraise in the nonprofit space? Why do so many people feel that there is a bridge between these two worlds that somehow can’t be crossed?
Higher Ed vs. Nonprofit
Or perhaps, shouldn’t be crossed?
I’m thinking about a person who shall remain nameless. Years ago, as a chief unit advancement officer at a Tier I research university, I had the opportunity to add to my fundraising team. This person applied for the major gift position and had it all—major gift experience, a prospect management background, special event knowledge and even annual giving. As I recall the resume, about the only skill this person didn’t have was eating fire swords.
But I didn’t hire this person. Why not? Because all of that talent was accumulated in a nonprofit setting. I worked at a major university, and we didn’t “go there.” This was a refined higher education setting after all, and nonprofit employees just “didn’t translate.”
I ended up hiring someone of lesser experience and results (but all of it higher ed), and the person fizzled out within months. I still look up the passed-by candidate on LinkedIn to see where they are. You guessed it—highly successful and still fundraising, and in a nonprofit setting.
Fast forward years later, and I am leading major and planned giving at a globally recognized animal nonprofit. As vacancies and new positions presented themselves, I made my hires almost exclusively from the higher education world. Maybe part of it was because I, myself, had transitioned from higher ed to nonprofit. Maybe part of it was retribution for passing on a home run hire years before. Maybe part of it was me trying to show the world that no, the bridge between higher ed and nonprofit isn’t broken.
Some hires worked, and others didn’t. What I learned was that where the person came from, what sort of fundraising context they’d worked in before, had nothing to do with their success. Read that again, slowly. If you work in higher education, you are not hiring a “lesser” fundraiser just because they’ve worked the nonprofit scene (all other things being equal). If you work in nonprofit land, you’re not hiring someone “incompatible” if they’ve only toiled in higher ed.
The Key to Fundraising
The key to success to a frontline fundraising position in either context isn’t the type of experience one has had. Donors are donors. Gift agreements are gift agreements. Events are events. Appeals are appeals. Databases are databases.
Rather, the key is emotional maturity. Fundraising success is derived from a winning combination of hard-skills knowledge and soft-skills wisdom, and you can be sure that wisdom—specifically the art of self-awareness, reading non-verbal language, asking good questions and listening well—wins the day.
Emotionally mature people are comfortable in their own skin. They recognize the difference between the controllable and the uncontrollable, and they don’t fight the uncontrollable. They have empathy for others, but retain a sense of objective judgement. They maintain a positive attitude toward people and situations but aren’t gullible. And they genuinely love forming meaningful, trusting relationships with others.
Beyond gaining and retaining emotional maturity, how else can a fundraiser get across the bridge? Several thoughts here:
- Higher ed leaders: Remember that your compatriots in the nonprofit arena typically wear more hats than you and balance them well. It’s not uncommon for a nonprofit fundraiser to turn the crank on prospect research, annual giving, special events, donor relations and stewardship, and grantwriting, in addition to major gifts. This means your potential hire knows not only their job, but likely also others’. They have a sense of perspective of how these important functions fit and must collaborate to produce top performance. And remember: in many cases, a nonprofit organization does not have a defined constituency. Both nobody and everybody is a potential constituent. Success in major gift fundraising in the nonprofit space is the result of excellence in messaging, storytelling and impact demonstration.
- Nonprofit leaders: Remember that your colleagues in the higher ed world achieve success through relationship-based fundraising and high discernment in the process. Tens and hundreds of thousands of alumni grace the rolls of universities, and gift officers are under tremendous pressure to do relationships well in order to achieve maximum philanthropic return from their valued graduates. Higher ed fundraisers understand the value in forming an authentic relationship with an alumnus. You would not do bad to hire someone who can build close and deep ties with your constituents and make them feel great about giving experiences.
Here’s to the idea of a continued melting pot of fundraisers who can learn from, and succeed next to, each other!
Scott Koskoski is the managing director of Changing Our World. Prior to joining Changing Our World, Scott served for four years as the co-founder and principal of a fundraising consulting firm that led a significant percentage of its clients to secure the single-largest gifts in their histories.
Prior to this, Scott spent 20 years as both a frontline individual contributor and development administrator, both participating in and leading fundraising teams and campaigns. His experience has been largely in major gifts, board engagement, corporate and foundation relations, annual giving, special events and staff leadership development.
Scott is a graduate of Mercyhurst University and Robert Morris University. He is a past trustee and National Alumni Association board president at Mercyhurst and currently serves on its Presidents Associates group. He is a former AFP board member for both the Denver Metro and Western Pennsylvania chapters.
Scott currently serves on the boards of Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Resurrection Power, Washington Youth Baseball and is an elder at First Presbyterian Church in Washington, Pa.