Sustaining High-Impact Diversity and Inclusion Initiatives Through Strategic Fundraising Management

lewisWhen state funding to support public higher education began to recede in the ’90s and took a free fall during the 2007-2009 recession, many programs and initiatives saw damaging budget cuts. During these austere times, resources for diversity and inclusion efforts — which for some institutions have been seen largely as secondary to the core academic mission — have experienced reductions.

As I reflect on the necessity for chief diversity officers to engage in strategic fundraising to dull the sharp pain of retrenched budgets, I recall a conversation I shared over a lunch meeting with a major donor to our university. Although not an alumna, this woman had such passion for the university’s mission that she gave generous amounts of scholarship dollars to support students who were the first in their families to attend college. I was curious to know what fueled her philanthropy, so I inquired. She stated that she had not always had the financial capacity she currently enjoys. If she had, she would have given 20 years ago. She wanted to do her part in creating a more just society. She wanted to provide resources that had an immediate impact on students’ lives today.  Her rationale for giving now reminded me of the adage, “The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

By applying this saying to fundraising, this alumna was using her wealth to help sow the lives of students now, knowing that four, five, six, or even 20 years from now, it would be too late to influence the arc of the trajectory of their lives in the present.

Given the reductions in state funding to public higher education, tuition caps, and increasing infrastructure costs, the time is now for chief diversity officers to engage in strategic fundraising management.

A strategic approach to fundraising management is comprehensive in scope and scale and includes the annual fund, special projects, planned giving, and a capital campaign. These four aspects of fundraising are known as the four-legged stool. I learned these four aspects and much more while completing a certificate in fundraising management from the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.  more_fundraise

Prior to participating in the certificate program, I thought fundraising was simple. I thought you develop a relationship with a potential donor, and when the moment is right, you make “the ask” — similar to getting that first kiss. I was sorely mistaken. Barring unforeseen circumstances, it can take 18 to 24 months to secure a major gift.

The responsibilities of the senior-level diversity officer in higher education are complex and ever-changing. If you scan job postings for senior level diversity officers, you will discover an increasing expectation for these officers to engage in some sort of fundraising. This expectation was not as prevalent 10 or 15 years ago. Therefore, developing competencies in fundraising management is becoming more and more fundamental to the profession.

Fundraising is both art and science. It is a function that is extremely technical and nuanced. I have become proficient in the diversity-speak language. I can talk about inclusive excellence, inclusive pedagogy, and unconscious bias with the best of them. The language of fundraising, cultivation, prospecting, stewardship, gift range charts, and revocable living trusts are an entirely different story.

With ever-increasing pressures to do more with less, the time is now for senior-level diversity officers to learn the language of fundraising.●

William Lewis Sr., PhD, is an alumni fellow at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, where he previously served as vice president of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board.