What I Learned From My Term as Acting President

Hugh Porter shares his perspective and provides advice for both advancement officers and new presidents.

March 10, 2020
 
 
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I recently completed a one-year term as acting president of Reed College in Portland, Ore. Although I’ve worked at Reed for 21 years, 19 of them as vice president for advancement, the appointment was surprising to some people, given Reed’s long history of selecting faculty leaders to serve as interim presidents.

Colleagues in advancement at Reed and elsewhere have frequently asked me what I learned during this assignment. Their questions may have emerged out of deserved fascination with the special information presidents have, perhaps in hopes for a collegiate version of the President’s Book of Secrets that could guide our institutions through transition periods. But mainly the interest was practical: a desire to understand what advancement looks like from the vantage point of the university’s top leader.

Increasingly, institutions view fundraising as a kind of panacea to resolve all the challenges facing higher education -- the one lever that institutions can pull to improve programmatic offerings and strengthen long-term financial health. Announcements for presidential searches emphasize fundraising acumen, and all presidents are told that fundraising is one of the most important parts of their work. The pressure can lead to uncomfortable moments between a new president and the advancement staff they inherit. In my case, because I knew my term would probably be short, and because of transition in Reed’s senior team in advancement, I did not hire an interim vice president for the year. So I mostly faced arguments with myself.

While I don’t think this year gave me magical insights, I do want to share thoughts that I hope will be helpful for advancement offices and new presidents.

For Advancement Professionals

Manage your expectations of what is realistic for a president to accomplish during the first year. Presidents, the boards who hire them and advancement offices are eager for presidents to engage immediately in a host of external activities, typically including an alumni welcome tour as soon as possible. But the amount of work, in terms of the range of issues to address and the number of people to meet, as well as the time needed to formulate thoughtful ideas about the community and the future, can be a bit of a shock -- even for someone like me, a long-serving vice president.

For newcomers to our campuses, the most important job in the first year is to join the community, to wallow in its joys and eccentricities, and to engage carefully with faculty, students and administrative staff to gain an honest (ideally shared) understanding of the opportunities and challenges. Although I knew a large portion of the alumni, being at events around the country, presenting my views and listening carefully to a wide range of exuberant critiques and exhortations was taxing. It would be invaluable to structure events whose main purpose might be simply to offer thanks and support for the new president.

Keep in mind that the complexity of presidents’ roles regarding their boards affects fundraising. Professionals who work in advancement are often eager for a new set of gift requests to come early in a president’s tenure. But they should remember that, especially at small colleges, trustees play a large part in supporting fundraising efforts at the top of the giving pyramid. Trustees are presidents’ key strategic partners and their supervisors, so the fundraising agenda will need to fit into this relationship, not dominate it.

Advancement vice presidents may be ideally placed, for instance, to make the requests and have presidents follow up with various donors to advocate for their consideration. It can also be the case that a particular president does not resonate with some trustees. The advancement office can be the bridge between the two, reminding both of their shared support for a common goal.

Don’t expect presidents to be miracle workers. Donor relationships that are stuck or not productive will most likely stay that way. It is certainly true that a donor who particularly disagreed with a previous president might embrace the new leader. But in cases where there has been little contact or no positive interactions, neither advancement nor a new president should imagine that this situation can change quickly. The best outcome may be re-engaging someone who has been disaffected and rebuilding trust in the institution while testing the waters for a future gift request.

Don’t encumber the future. A complaint from some new presidents has been that lead donors are committed to long-term pledges and are sometimes in the midst of paying previously made commitments for 10 years or more. While such pledges help meet ever-larger campaign goals, they also limit the impact a new president can have on meeting changing strategic challenges. They also allow little flexibility for the most loyal donors to respond generously to emerging campus priorities and crises.

Give feedback. Presidents are eminently human, just as prone to flights of fancy and errors of judgment as the rest of us. They also often have limited prior training in and experience with fundraising and advancement. Think carefully about all the assumptions you have for everything they might do in those areas, including engaging donors and speaking publicly, to name a few. When things go awry, be clear and specific in describing why. Presidents often ascend from roles in which their particular professional expertise and their personal viewpoints are of paramount importance. It can be a difficult transition to communicate from an institutional point of view on a wide range of challenging issues, particularly early in a tenure. Even early gaffes can be difficult to overcome and will only get worse and be less tolerated over time. Practice and professional coaching can be invaluable.

For New Presidents

Prioritize vision. From the president’s perspective, the most important and difficult task of advancement is to articulate a shared, compelling vision for the future -- one that will galvanize the institution’s most capable potential donors. Success here generally requires that the vision results in not only a stronger institution but also a better world. If you are not able to do that -- and it is a truly difficult task -- fundraising results will be limited.

For that reason, it is usually a good idea to give advancement a seat at the planning table (and sometimes to let it help you run the process). That will help you evaluate the fundraising potential of the wide range of ideas that generally emerge from campus planning. For instance, some ideas that make excellent sense will realistically need to be supported by sources other than those from fundraising.

Make external constituencies part of the strategy. Another challenge is to evaluate and manage the effects of strategic priorities and actions on external constituencies. Major changes to campus programs will likely reverberate loudly with alumni and other people. Their engagement in the decision-making process, combined with careful communication from you and your staff, can help ameliorate disagreements and engender support. Advancement professionals are enormously helpful in evaluating the potential for support and dissent and in creating a plan to move forward. Remember that the loudest voices you hear are probably not representative.

Understand the difference between counting money and raising money. The largest gifts to higher education are the products of decades of work and engagement. If they happen on your watch, celebrate and remember that your job is to create similar opportunities for future presidents.

If they don’t happen, your first assumption should not be that advancement leadership is at fault. It is too often the case that new presidents seek new leadership in advancement. As search firms report, there is a shortage of qualified professionals in this area, and you are likely to spend at least a year in the search process. The new vice president may then want to make changes, causing even greater delays. In the meantime, you will be counting money generated by previous efforts but not raising funds to support your own vision.

Travel sensibly. The amount of travel that advancement professionals may ask you to do will be significant. Some of us thrive in such environments, while others find the process exhausting. Be realistic about your own capabilities. In some ways, less can be more by demanding the most effective use of the time you have available. Be clear about your limits. Can you fly all day and have dinner that night? How will time changes impact your effectiveness during morning or evening events? It is not uncommon for presidents to quickly become exhausted or ill from trying to pack too much in when traveling on behalf of their new institution.

Take feedback. If you are fortunate, your advancement professionals will give you honest feedback on your meetings with donors, your speeches and various other communications. Encourage and treasure this opportunity. Many presidents benefit from professional coaching in these areas, and most trustees are eager to support such development. Know that donors are particularly loath to let their true feelings be known, but you can trust advancement colleagues to assess the effect you had in, say, a meeting with one, and they can partner with you to craft and implement next steps.

I was fortunate to have had this opportunity at Reed, which stemmed from my long tenure, academic background and service with a number of presidents. I would encourage anyone offered such an opening to pursue it. The job gave me a new bird’s-eye view of the institution, a chance to see and support efforts to bring disparate areas on campus together around our shared purpose, and the opportunity to spend more time with the students and faculty members who animate and inspire our work. At a time when many people criticize higher education, serving as acting president gave me renewed hope for the value and sturdiness of the college where I have long worked.

Bio

Hugh Porter is the vice president for college relations at Reed College in Portland, Ore. He served as Reed College’s acting president from July 2018 to June 2019.

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