Note to readers: This column addresses topics bridging the divide between faculty and administrators. I hope that sharing an administrator’s perspective may lead to better communication and collaboration across that boundary. Readers’ suggestions about potential topics for future columns are welcome.
When I became a dean, one of my first priorities was to start a development and alumni relations (a.k.a. advancement) program for our residential undergraduate science college. The new advancement director expressed a keen interest in meeting our faculty members and learning about their work. It soon became evident that he and the faculty were eyeing one another across a bit of a communication divide: despite his best efforts to get acquainted, the faculty remained wary.
In retrospect, this should not have been surprising, as most faculty members’ prior experience with the university’s development efforts were limited to requests for personal donations. They were simply not aware of how development work could further their scholarship and teaching efforts while also supporting their students. Having identified the problem, the development officer and I made concerted efforts to explain why he really wanted to talk to professors, and the faculty began to respond. Today, the benefits of the advancement office are generally understood, and faculty members look to that office as a resource for helping students and programs find support.
Why does your local development or alumni relations officer want to talk to you – and what does s/he hope to discuss? This article reviews the benefits of faculty-advancement collaboration and suggests some key topics of mutual interest, in hope of sparking more profitable conversations.
Benefits of collaboration
From the advancement perspective: As individuals representing the college or department to off-campus audiences every day, development officers can be most effective if they are immersed in the academic unit’s culture. Successful fund-raising depends on communicating the most exciting accomplishments and aspirations of the college to alumni, donors and friends. Encouraging alumni to stay involved in the life of the institution also requires offering them tangible projects to which they might contribute their expertise. These aspects of development work are greatly facilitated by having strong ties to the faculty.
From the faculty perspective: Publicity and recognition for accomplishments are valuable and can lead to further professional opportunities. External funds can help make a long-desired course, program or research project become reality; helping to secure external funding is looked upon favorably by the administration. The advancement office can provide tangible assistance in all of these areas.
Topics of mutual interest
The advancement office wants to know when you receive a grant, publish a book or major article, have a media interview, win an award, or teach a unique course. Alumni and friends love to stay informed about the exciting things happening at your institution. Your local advancement office probably publishes on-line and hard-copy newsletters throughout the year, as well as maintaining a news listing on the alumni website. From the advancement officer’s perspective, faculty are an excellent, but sometimes elusive, source of highly interesting copy. S/he will be delighted to receive an e-mail about your good news … and quick to incorporate it into the next alumni bulletin.
If your recent topical course or scholarly work may be of interest to a foundation or corporation, tell the development office. Your institution wants to build strong relationships with external partners, and these often start by identifying specific projects on topics of mutual interest. Your recent article, senior seminar, or student event may be the link that starts a productive conversation with a company or philanthropic organization. That might, in turn, translate into some external funding for future courses or events. For example, when one of our alumni working in industry learned about our college’s undergraduate research program, his company began sponsoring a new research course in our college – providing funding, equipment, technical advice from staff scientists, and even internship opportunities, all designed to help students experience research at its finest.
Advancement may be able to help when a student needs funding to undertake an unusual educational opportunity. The development office has the most current information about scholarships in your department or college, including the detailed eligibility criteria. They may also know of donors who like to support special situations. For instance, our advancement officer was able to arrange one-time support for a student who needed airfare to accept an international research internship.
If a student is seeking a research internship that falls outside the parameters of established internship programs at your institution, talk to alumni relations. The alumni officer knows many of your department or college’s alumni personally, and has access to a database with information about the careers of many others. In the short term, s/he may be able to help match a student with an internship opportunity related to his or her major or prospective career. In the longer term, the conversations involved in helping one student may uncover existing internship programs the alumni know about or may encourage them to create new ones.
Make your local development officer aware of cases where specific and finite new resources (e.g., equipment, space or scholarships) could fundamentally transform teaching methods, student learning or research opportunities. Donors to academic programs want to know that their gifts will make a significant difference in the intellectual lives of students. Requests for funds to effect a dramatic improvement are generally more successful than requests to maintain the status quo. Truly compelling cases for support include detail about the learning opportunities that the new equipment or program would offer to students. So the detailed information that a faculty member can provide about the impact of new resources can be invaluable as the development officer communicates with potential donors. In some cases the ideas you share might lead to new proposals to individuals or foundations; in others, they might strengthen a proposal already in the works. Either way, you and your students will ultimately benefit.
If you are eager to involve alumni in a course, program, or event that you are arranging on campus, tell your advancement office. And if you have a specific idea about the role they might play, so much the better. Alumni often express a general interest in mentoring students, offering internships, and otherwise helping the next generation achieve their dreams. But this only becomes a reality if a specific course, event or program is ready to engage these alumni with students --- and if the alumni relations officer knows that the opportunity exists.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention that if you are inclined to make a donation of any size to the university, you should certainly discuss it with your local development officer. Faculty and staff support of the university is extremely important, not only because of the direct impact each dollar makes, but also because these gifts show a strong community spirit that inspires other donors.
As a faculty member, you can make your local development and alumni relations program more effective simply by keeping the advancement staff aware of your aspirations and letting them know what kinds of alumni involvement or donor support would be valuable. So pick up the phone or compose an e-mail to get the conversation started. You and your students will be the beneficiaries.
Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.