All aboard

I remember supporting my Vice Chancellor at the meeting that would, years later, prove to be one of the keystones in the success of the Cambridge 800th Anniversary Campaign.

Just the previous year, we had optimistically marched into the offices of one of London’s power brokers and began a conversation with this eminent and successful businessman about the necessity of building a Campaign Board to drive the £1 billion Campaign.

It was an excellent meeting but we were not able to secure a definitive yes. We left slightly deflated but hopeful. Our number one candidate couldn’t commit this year, too much going on, but he implored us to come back. We stewarded him and came back a year later. This time was different. He beamed when he announced that was ready to chair the Board.

Leaving the building in a dignified way, we waited until we got outside for our celebratory cheer.

Without him, the Co-Chair, other Board members and the Vice Chancellor, we would not have had the leadership and support at the top of the University that drove and sustained us throughout the long gruelling and tremendously rewarding trip we took up that mountain of a campaign. Prior to the Campaign, we had no Development Board and only a handful of senior volunteers. Now, with their direction and buy in they created followers who were also leaders: bringing the University and the Colleges and of course the University’s Development office into one powerful unit.

We did summit that mountain two years early and exceeded the £1 billion target: together the University and Colleges raised £1.17 billion to attract outstanding students, academic staff, support collections and foster big thinking. An extraordinary sum and the first time any University in the UK and Europe had scaled those previously unimaginable heights. It was truly a supportive team effort, we really had each other’s backs, and that was of course another important factor that results from buy in.

Support comes from the top.

But why are Board and organisational buy in so important? 

First, it is a signal to the rest of the organisation that there is either a culture change that embraces philanthropy as a necessary part of its DNA or reinforces the existing importance of a culture that puts philanthropy at its centre.  It says, ‘This activity is worth my time and philanthropy has a worthwhile and critical function at this organisation’. It says, ‘the CEO, VC or President has also recognised the value of fundraising and is putting his or her time – up to 25% – into making the programme work.

And let’s face it, without financial support the organisation will not flourish nor will it achieve its mission.

Second, institutional buy in is confirmation to the outside world that the organisation takes its responsibilities to its mission seriously and regards financial sustainability a part of those responsibilities.  Staff no longer look at philanthropy or fundraising as begging – an activity undertaken by those without resources, self-belief or self-value. Instead, your organisation is inviting partnerships to change the status quo, make the world a better place, assist in new discoveries, and support people in pursuit of their dreams for humanity and the planet.

Old fashioned views of fundraising as ‘begging’ can persist amongst organisations that don’t put philanthropy at its centre. They see asking for money as beneath them or undignified. But there is nothing more dignified than bringing dignity, life, hope and possibility to all people and their environment. If you can’t or won’t make that commitment to your own organisation, why should anyone else?

Externally, an organisation and board that has bought into philanthropy is viewed as one that knows how to engage with the outside world and compete. Most major philanthropists who would consider giving at a significant level want to know the organisation knows how to work with them and can offer transformational opportunities to realise a shared mission. Remember, they can support any organisation they like and yours is just one of many possibilities.

Third, it signals that the organisation has set up a process and structure to support the fundraising programme (or is trying to!). It is as ingrained in the organisation and seen as important as HR, IT, academic or research programmes. The activity isn’t cut when funding gets tight because the organisation knows cutting fundraising is planning for failure.

A fourth factor not to be overlooked is the power of a united, collaborative team spirit. This flows from the top who buy into the activity. Prior to the start of our Campaign, our shared sense of purpose was lacking as was the trust that we could work together. The master stroke of changing this culture was led by our Director Development and Alumni Relations whose intelligence and diplomatic skills set the atmosphere as collaborative. He worked equitably with the Colleges and the University to agree on a Memorandum of Understanding – a document that guided how we would work together – so that our alumni and donors knew we valued them and would steward them well. We avoided the all too often scenario with several people turning up to discuss their possible giving. We all realised that we were part of one community.  It was all about his tone and approach. This wouldn’t have happened without Board’s and University’s buy in.  And, our VC who when asked by a College Development Director or Donor how she saw a College gift said, ‘A gift to the College is a gift to the University’.  By the end of the campaign, each Board member had made gifts to both. As Maya Angelou has said, and I paraphrase, ‘people won’t necessarily remember the words you use but the way you made them feel.’

Our leadership, our VC and our Board, set the bar high by calling forth key messages and delivering them with sincerity, hope, ambition and a collaborative spirit.

What does collaboration look like? 

If you have ever watched 5-year-olds playing football, with everyone chasing the ball, you have seen a reasonable proxy for a poorly functioning fundraising operation. The best teams pass the ball and work together to score a goal-sharing credit with colleagues and having a collaborative sense of accomplishment.

There is a flow to unified integrated fundraising. The senior leadership work with the Development team and departments keep the Development team at the centre of their communications and discussions. The Board and the organisation show their buy in by doing so. Once when a Department Head consistently didn’t copy me into his/her communications, the VC asked if their ‘cc’ button didn’t work! By setting an example in communication, tone, and ambition senior leadership alerts the rest of the organisation that this is important. If they spend their time on it, you are expected to do so as well.  This is a no excuses culture.  They delegate responsibly and share information.

In other words, the organisation makes it clear that there is a reciprocal relationship with colleagues at the Development office and in Departments. It is one for all and all for one.  Information flows both directions and in a timely fashion.  Conversely, everyone knows who is calling the shots and they work together to achieve the goal.

The Board’s buy in

It is worth making a few separate comments about the Board’s buy in. Your Board is a measure of your profile with the external world. They move in the circles that command attention. Once you have such a group, they can help you get leverage on your activities that you simply could not do without them. However, be warned, these individuals have high expectations (as they should) and not only must they be kept informed but stewarded properly and meaningful meetings with the head of the organisation.  Are you getting their advice? I recently spoke to a Board member with a particular expertise. He told me that in the four years on the Board he had never been asked to share that expertise. What a loss! An effective Board member is willing to introduce, support and ask potential donors to engage with your cause. He/she can be the difference between reaching the summit and turning around and going home.

Without the driven leadership pushing, promoting, supporting and proactively promoting a philanthropic culture and leading the charge, philanthropy will falter.  Philanthropy must absolutely be at the heart of the organisation. It is not a ‘nice to have bolt on optional extra’ tool for leadership to use occasionally but the heart and lungs of any successful University or Non-profit.

As some might say across the Pond, it signals, ‘We are ready to get off the porch and play with the big dogs’.