5 steps to effective fundraising


Fundraising is central to a college or university president’s role. It is one of the most important duties, and often an area where guidance is most needed. We asked Robert A. Scott, senior advisor to the Grant Thornton Higher Education and Not-for-Profit practices and President Emeritus at Adelphi University and Ramapo College of New Jersey, for his views on effective fundraising.



When I was a college president and people asked how much time I spent fundraising, I always answered 100%. Every campus event I attended, and every student and faculty member with whom I spoke, contributed to my understanding of campus life. That understanding informed the background I shared with donors, who enjoyed hearing about campus life.


Alumni donations of about $12 billion represent nearly 25% of the close to $53 billion raised each year. One measure of campus success is the percentage of alumni who give to an annual fund. While the average is about 8%, some highly selective liberal arts colleges average over 45%. Ranking guides and bond rating agencies use this metric to indicate campus strength.





Act on the five “I”s of fundraising


A survey by the American Council of Education found that college and university presidents ranked fundraising as the second highest area where they need guidance, after entrepreneurial ventures. In my experience, helpful guidance can be summarized by five words that begin with the letter I: identify, interest, inform, involve and invest.  

  1. Identify prospects and learn their passions. You may know these prospective donors from news stories about their accomplishments, or you may have met them at an event. Perhaps they enjoyed a performance and sent a note of congratulations or even a donation. 
  2. Interest those identified through various forms of communications and activities. Inviting potential donors for coffee or lunch can reignite a dormant interest. Invitations to visit campus for special lectures, artistic performances, exhibits or sports events can effectively introduce them to the events and people on campus. 
  3. Inform interested individuals about how the campus mission is being fulfilled, and about the successes of faculty and students on and off campus. Inform them through newsletters, e-news blasts and similar initiatives. Proactively communicate how the campus is serving the broader community through cultural events. 
  4. Involve alumni by doing more than simply asking for money. Possibilities include inviting them to:
  • speak on campus and share their expertise and experiences
  • provide career advice to students
  • be profiled in student and alumni publications as an inspiration to others
  1. Alumni and others can invest their time, talents and treasure. Time, of course, is a most valuable commodity. Possibilities include inviting them to:
  • interview prospective admission candidates
  • serve as an expert adviser on a task force
  • join a fundraising committee
  • serve on the Alumni Association Board or the Board of Trustees
  • contribute to the annual fund, knowing that the alumni participation rate can benefit higher education rating guides, foundation grants and bond-rating agencies



Follow the 5 rules of fundraising


In addition to the five “I”s, I have observed five rules for fundraising: 

  1. Fundraising is about inviting prospects to become partners as investors in quality, affordability and fulfillment of aspirations. 
  2. Not every conversation is about money. Every gift is the result of the five steps outlined earlier, which cannot be rushed. The pace can be quickened, but the steps cannot be skipped. I have experienced the five stages taking 45 minutes and 45 months. 
  3. Listen. When we are with high-potential prospects who ask questions, we should, of course, respond with all requested information. It is equally important to listen to what is asked so we can learn about the prospect's interests. By listening, we can honor the integrity of the institution and the integrity of the donor. 
  4. Know your institution’s story and history, and your vision for the future. Stories of current students, faculty, staff and alumni help give life to what makes the institution memorable. Prospects want to know that they are joining others who are dedicated to the campus. 
  5. Remember that you are a steward of the gifts you receive. Donors are due timely and complete accounting for how their gifts are recorded, managed, used and celebrated. Thank-you notes from student and faculty beneficiaries, as well as from you, are always welcome. 


The five steps — identify, interest, inform, involve and invest — and the five rules for fundraising are time-tested. Fundraising probably won’t make up for a shortfall in revenue or increased expenses, but it can support priorities such as scholarship assistance and faculty development. It can also demonstrate to accreditors and bond-rating agencies that the institution has loyal supporters.





Dennis J. Morrone

Dennis Morrone is the National Managing Partner of Grant Thornton's Not-for-Profit & Higher Education Practices.

Iselin, New Jersey

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