Dr. Kneeland Brown is a Fellow in our Higher Education plank.
If I were currently working in a formal business setting, I would just say “investors.” Since I’m in higher education, I will say “donor.” If you are trying to tell the difference, it is probably a lost cause because there isn’t much. Investors fuel organizations, partnering through giving access to their capital, it may be financial, intellectual or relational, but they give it because they believe in the work that a company is doing. Likewise, philanthropic donors in the higher education environment make financial, intellectual and relational investments because they believe in the cause of the institution.
It has always been important for universities to maintain strong connections with donors (individuals and organizations) whose passions align with the institution because they are willing to make investments that support the mission and vision of the school.
Early on in my journey as a higher education administrator, I learned that I was fairly good at communicating with donors. My ability was affirmed by the fact that I was invited to the table during a high-level donor visit to the university I was employed with at the time. The invitation made me so nervous; I almost turned it down. I was a very young professional very early in career, and this seemed like too much, but I worked up the course to accept.
I wrote out the three things I wanted to share and practiced them meticulously until memorized. I made a clear decision that I would only communicate what I thought was valuable to know about the school and share no further pontification. When my time came, I shared my heartfelt lines and then closed my mouth.
Not to toot my own horn but apparently I hit a home run. The foundation visiting made a commitment to giving a sizeable long-term gift, and I was given many verbal accolades in the following weeks. Apparently the donor did appreciate my words, along with everyone else around the table that day.
After that episode, I was clear on one thing. I WAS GOOD.
Due to my wildly successful participation with the previous donor, I was invited again to a table to share with a potential donor. This time it was a small lunch with only 3 participants, the donor, a member of the university development team, and me. I accepted quickly and awaited the day of the lunch with great anticipation.
This time I did not prepare with notecards, the nerves were not present and when the donor asked the first question I engaged eloquently. I shared with great depth and clarity upon many subjects. In fact, it seems that as I elaborated on one topic another topic would pop into my head that dovetailed perfectly, so I would pursue that line of thought. In my mind I was doing a great job, I was painting the picture, I was giving the compelling and passionate vision of the institution. The only problem is that I was the only one at the table thinking this.
I was on cloud nine on the ride back to campus with my colleague from donor relations. It was mostly silent but as we neared the parking lot I asked that age-old question, “so how did I do?” My dear colleague slowly worked her way into the answer, you know, in that “let me share some good news before the really bad news” kind of way. To this day I cannot recall the nice thing she said to begin, but I do remember a couple of pieces of advice she gave me after she made it clear that I had fumbled this opportunity BIG TIME.
Success is intoxicating, failure is sobering. I find that more is learned and retained when we are sober rather than intoxicated, this is the benefit of failure.
Here’s a life lesson whatever your professional venture. Donors and investors shouldn’t partner with you because they are enticed into it. That’s a recipe for disaster and often encourages the misrepresentation of organizations. They should partner because the vision in your heart connects with the vision in their heart. Because they believe in the utility of whatever it is that you are doing.
Don’t seek to be impressive, seek to be hardworking, sober-minded, trustworthy and genuine and the right partners will choose to come alongside.