Building External Constituencies and Departmental Fundraising

Posted by admin on Aug 10, 2018 10:31:47 AM

University departmental isolationism is a thing of the past. The watchword of twenty-first century academe is engagement. University Deans have seen the terms advancement, development, and fund raising added to their job description. Now department heads are being presented with the same challenge.

There is a rapidly developing trend to have departments directly involved in the types of outreach activity that define engagement and promote fund raising. As one university president said, “Either get on board or get left at the station. Your choice is critical to the funding your department will receive.”

Building external constituencies and fund raising go hand in hand. Without the external constituency the department lacks a base of prospects to solicit for contributions.

The question university departments are asking is, “Where do we begin?”

There are three basic opportunities for building an external constituency. The first step is to establish a departmental advisory board; second, provide opportunities for the department’s alumni and friends to spend time on campus, and, third, to reach a broad audience it may be necessary to “take your show on the road.”

The thought of creating an advisory board often sends chills through the soul of a department head. It is important to engage in extensive planning to determine the purpose for convening a board, assessing the expectations of the department and the board members, and in explaining the strategic value of a board to some reluctant faculty.

As state support of public universities has diminished, the need of additional sources of funding has increased. The most likely individuals with the interest and capacity to provide extra support are those who are intimately involved with the department. If you were to trace the donations of any nonprofit organization you would find that the most consistent and largest contributions to the organization come from either the members of the board or from those who have served as volunteers. At universities, it is not unusual for present and former faculty to be leading donors.

Peter Drucker was quoted in a 1989 Wall Street Journal article saying, “People no longer give to charity; they buy into success.” Every university department has an external constituency consisting of alumni, friends, corporations and former faculty. It is a constituency with sufficient financial resources to support the needs of your department. In many cases they are untapped or under-utilized resources. They are simply waiting to be asked. They are ready to give their time, expertise, and dollars if they are convinced the department has a plan that will lead to academic and professional success for students.

It is essential for a department to have some internal dialogue to determine what type of board will be most beneficial to the department’s mission. Clear parameters must be established before invitations are proffered. Typically, the primary purpose of a departmental board is identified in one of two categories: an advisory board or a board with a general capacity to provide financial support. The categories are not mutually exclusive; rather, a decision must be made about which side of the equation will receive the most weight. The decision about the type of board a department should have dictates the pool from which board members can be recruited.

As university budgets have tightened there has been a move toward emphasizing the financial aspect of board membership. In many cases board membership comes with an understanding that the member will meet a certain contribution level. This is particularly true of corporate boards. It is not unusual for corporations to commit to a contribution from $5,000 - $25,000 to have the opportunity to participate on a department’s board. If you are starting a corporate board an appropriate level might be $1,000.

If it is the clear intent of the department to use the board as a fund raising instrument it is not inappropriate to establish a minimum contribution for members. Whether the amount is a few hundred dollars or a few thousand it is crucial that the amount be clearly established and understood by those receiving an invitation to join the board.

The critical mistake made by any organization is the failure to be explicit in defining the role and expectations of those who serve on the board. Board members should know the rules of the game before they join the team. Are they expected to make a minimum contribution? How many meetings per year will they need to attend? How much time will they need to invest to fulfill their commitment to the department? Should they pay their own expenses to attend meetings? How many years is their term? Is it their role to listen to the department head and faculty members and provide feedback or should they be proactive and come to meetings with a bag full of suggestions for the department?

Finally, prospective board members need to know that they will be providing a valuable service to the department. Board members need the assurance that their thoughts, ideas, and suggestions are going to be heard.

Board members agree to participate out of a sense of loyalty, devotion, interest, appreciation, and with a strong desire to help the department succeed in preparing students for life beyond the university.

Serving on a university department’s advisory board can be an expensive and time consuming project. Board members need to know that they are appreciated, their observations and recommendation are taken seriously, and that, ultimately, students benefit from the boards input.

Finding Board Members

Finding people to serve on a departmental board may not be as difficult as it might appear. There are natural places to start your search. First, identify individuals who have consistently shown an interest in and commitment to your department. This may have been expressed through volunteering to lecture or through some other type of service in the department. Second, those individuals who have been consistent financial contributors are prime candidates to be board members. Third, most universities have research departments that can identify alumni by job title or by the industry in which they are employed. There may be alumni in positions in corporations where you would like to strengthen your relationship. Fourth, solicit faculty members for the names of their former students who would be desirable as board members.

A manageable size board tends to have seven to seventeen members. It is important to have enough members that there is an opportunity for some diversity in gender, age, culture, and experience. Invariably some members will be more committed than others. One way to stimulate commitment is to set the agenda and to conduct the meeting in a manner that promotes full participation by the board.

Engage the Board

It is important to keep the board informed about issues in the department. It is essential for the board to know that they are being kept in the loop of departmental priorities. At the same time, if a board meeting becomes a “dog and pony show” where members are spoon fed information without being given a chance to respond, the overall interest in the meetings will be diminished.

Departments must always keep site of the reality that individuals agree to serve on a board because they believe they can have a positive impact on the direction of the department. They are not there simply because the department has a need; they are there to meet the need. You want board members to be focused on those issues where they can provide the most help and support.

What Can You Expect From the Board?

You can expect the board to keep the department connected to key constituencies. Each board member has a set of friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, beginning with those alumni who were their contemporaries. They are a conduit through which your department’s energy and enthusiasm can be passed. You can encourage this enthusiasm by having them meet with students and faculty.

Board members provide a perspective that is valuable because they are a main source of contact outside the realm of the university. They can give fresh ideas to the department and they add clout to plans that fit the department’s goal. Once they have accepted the need for a project they are quite capable of insuring its success.

There are three fundamental reasons individuals agree to serve on a board. First, they are loyal to the department. It is their department. Second, there are individual’s who have a desire to pay back the interest and attention someone gave them during their student years. Third, many individuals are simply honored to be asked.

Invitation to be a Board Member

Invitations to serve on the board are best done on a personal basis accompanied by a written outline of the board members’ obligations, duties, and expectations. The point of emphasizing obligation, duty, and expectation lessens the probability of later misunderstandings. If a donation is required to be a board member, it should be clearly stated in the letter of invitation. It is important that there be no ambiguity concerning the role of the board member.

When the board meets there is an obligation on the part of the department to listen to what the board has to say and then to be responsive to their suggestions. Even when implementations of the board’s suggestions are not practical or possible the department needs to acknowledge the advice and offer an explanation of their objection. All the advice given by a board does not have to be followed; however, it is important to acknowledge the department’s position and provide feedback.

Bring Them In

Seldom does a graduate of a department refuse an opportunity to return to their alma mater to present a lecture. Alumni find it exhilarating and exciting to be recognized by their department. As students, most of them never anticipated being in a situation where they would be invited to campus to speak. One forum that has worked well for many departments is a careers seminar. Leading alumni can be asked to speak even if they are in a different field than what they had planned in college. The appreciation becomes a two-way street. Students enjoy hearing about the career success of the department’s graduates and the speakers are inspired by the bright and inquisitive students.

Another possibility is to provide a career-based seminar for graduates of the past ten years. You can schedule the seminar on a football weekend and have the sessions on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. It is an inexpensive opportunity for the department because you are able to use your own facility and experts to update graduates on the progress being made in a variety of fields related to their degree.

On the Road

There are some wonderful opportunities to meet your alumni in their locale. It requires some forethought and planning but can be well worth the effort. A primary opportunity occurs when a department head or other faculty members attend conferences. It is a given that you will have alumni in any major city in the country. By sponsoring a reception at or close to the convention site, you are able to invite your alumni who are attending the conference and alumni who live in the area. Careful planning can help contain the cost and maximize the contact.

Whenever a department head or other recognizable faculty are traveling, it is often possible to set up a dinner where four to eight alumni from the area can be invited. This provides the department’s representative to have direct and intimate contact with a group of alumni that may never be back for a campus visit. This type of engagement strengthens the alumni connection to the university and to your department in general. The next occasion where they receive a departmental solicitation will invariably result in a contribution that more than covers the cost of the dinner.


Building an external constituency and fund raising are requirements for maintaining the financial health of a university department. This article has outlined a few of possibilities but the opportunities are limitless. Every university department has a core of very successful alumni and friends. Each direct contact you have with them renews their interest and enthusiasm for what your department is trying to accomplish.

When you demonstrate the department’s commitment to the success of students, share their stories, and inspire your alumni; you begin to find a new level of generosity being directed at the department.

All of these engagement activities require hard work, efficient planning, and effective execution. The rewards can be tremendous. The result of not starting these activities is that your department will be left standing on the platform as the train of success and advancement leaves the station.

Mr. Jones is the Director of Development for Biological Sciences at Purdue University. Reprinted from “Academic Leader” with permission from Magna Publications, Inc., Madison, WI,

Custom Development Solutions, Inc. (CDS) is one of the most sought after fundraising consulting firms specializing in the strategic planning and tactical execution of capital campaigns for non-profits throughout the United States and Canada.  If you have a fundraising question, please call CDS at 800-761-3833 or send an email to

Topics: Board Development, board relationships, Capital Campaigns, Fundraising Principles, Major Gifts, volunteer relationships

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