Cultivating Connections in a Contentious World: How foundations sustain their work of relationship-building in a challenging environment

Foundations of Consequence

By Naomi Dillon    //    Volume 32,  Number 1   //    January/February 2024

Trishana Bowden knew she was up for a big change when she accepted the dual role of vice president for university advancement and alumni relations at Virginia’s George Mason University and president of the university’s foundation.

Bowden had been wooed from nearby Goucher College, where she had served as vice president of advancement since 2015, by GMU’s then-president Ángel Cabrera’s commitment to serve a diverse constituency that could be cultivated into wide stakeholder investment.

But less than six months after starting at GMU in the spring of 2019, Bowden saw Cabrera leave to helm another university, welcomed an interim president, and then navigated arguably one of the most disruptive periods in modern history.

COVID-19 and quarantines. Remote work and burnout. Divisive elections and civil unrest. All would play out across the United States and beyond, challenging every sector and community.

“Yeah, my first two years at Mason were tumultuous,” Bowden says with a rueful laugh.

And the tumult isn’t over. Polarization and social media, rising income inequality, and shifts in workplace expectations, along with a host of other factors, have made the work of advancement professionals at institutionally related foundations, particularly those on the front lines and in supervisory roles, harder than ever.

But work they must, reaching ever-higher goals, often with fewer staff members to support the workload, exacerbating what has always been a demanding field.

Indeed, a 2019 survey of roughly 1,000 fundraisers in the United States and Canada by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that “too much pressure to meet unrealistic fundraising goals, coupled with too little pay and frustrating organizational cultures,” were leading to high turnover among fundraisers, with half of all respondents saying they planned to leave their job by 2021.

“As crazy as it may sound, it’s not the political challenges or the external strife that is the most difficult thing I have [to navigate],” says Bowden. “My role as a manager is.”

Shifting Landscapes, Rising Tensions

Within the dynamic realm of educational philanthropy, Mauria Brough occupies a unique perch. As the head of curriculum at Advancement Resources, a provider of professional development services to the philanthropic sector, Brough has a bird’s-eye view of the issues that confront leaders, who often turn to her for guidance.

In 2016, institutions began seeking Brough’s expertise to address the complex landscape of fundraising and donor engagement, where a confluence of power dynamics, money, and social interactions sometimes led to uncomfortable situations, including unwanted sexual advances.

The #MeToo movement focused attention on issues that had long posed challenges for gift officers, whose work entails cultivating relationships with powerful individuals who are used to being courted and accommodated. Recognizing the brewing concerns, Brough embarked on a design partnership with one of the institutions that had sought training, hosting focus groups and interviewing staff about their experience with sexual harassment on the job. She included in her research other clients who had reported the same issues.

By 2020, the pandemic, George Floyd protests, and political polarization created new challenges for frontline fundraisers. The goals of creating a safe, diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace culture were being challenged not just by sexism, but by deepened divisions about race, politics, and even the merits of institutional efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As universities renewed their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, many institutions made decisions to remove names and statues associated with historical figures tied to slavery or racial discrimination. This led to a significant challenge as some alumni, who held these symbols in high regard during their time at their alma mater, took umbrage at what was seen as disrespect for tradition or misguided efforts to accommodate student sensitivities.

While these societal shifts unfolded, educational philanthropy saw a transformation in its workforce. The Great Resignation, it’s been suggested, could more aptly be named the Great Retirement, as droves of older workers decided to leave the workforce during the pandemic. Younger professionals replaced them, bringing different expectations and perspectives, posing new challenges for managers.

Indeed, Gen Z is on track to outnumber Baby Boomers in the workforce by 2024. Although Gen Z employees’ desire for a shorter workweek, better compensation, and more time off isn’t new, their influence is growing. Younger generations are redefining workplace norms, challenging the status quo. They believe in having a voice and using it to make a difference.

“So, now you’re seeing younger people move into higher levels of leadership but with perhaps less work experience and life experience,” Braugh says. “Meanwhile, our board members, our big donors tend to be of an older generation who grew up with different kinds of expectations and cultural norms. And when you put those two groups together, you have the opportunity for a lot of misunderstanding.”

The growing divide between staff thinking and donor values is among the biggest management challenges she faces, says Alisa Robertson, president and chief advancement officer at the University of Wisconsin Foundation. More than a third of her advancement team has come on board since the pandemic, most of them markedly younger than the average-age donor, who is 65 years old, according to data from fundraising software creator Blackbaud.

“For example, I’ll get a call from a donor who is very upset that one of our staff members included her pronouns in her email signature,” Robertson shares. “But that staff member works in student services, and if she didn’t include her pronouns other folks would be very upset. So, it gets complicated and it’s walking a tightrope sometimes.”

The increasing concentration of wealth in the United States compounds the problem. “What used to be the 80–20 rule is more like 95 percent of dollars coming from 5 percent of the donors, which just makes it all riskier,” says Robertson. Her foundation board reviews their risk map at every meeting, and political divisiveness has been rated as the number one risk to the organization’s success.

Aligning Values, Words, and Actions

Managing the myriad risks faced by higher education institutions and the foundations that support them requires several key elements. Among the most important is a clear set of values, says Brough, who starts all her consultations by having clients provide her with those values.

In addition, clear policies and procedures must underpin these values, ensuring that they are not just words but principles that guide actions. Many organizations have values, but often they remain passive, displayed on websites or walls without real integration into the organizational culture.

“When I began this work in 2016, I was surprised by the number of foundations I ran into that either had values and policies that no one knew or didn’t have them at all,” says Braugh. The organizational documents aren’t just window dressing but should serve as touchstones to guide hiring, performance reviews, and interpersonal interactions.

When customizing training programs, Braugh emphasizes the importance of leaders’ commitment to upholding these values, which she asks for in the form of a written statement that is then shared with staff. It’s a step that can take time, several drafts, and the involvement of the legal team, she says, but it’s crucial for staff to feel that leaders are genuinely behind the values.

Many recent glimpses into the broader labor market identify a common source of workplace issues: employee discontent and role ambiguity. The latest annual Gallup survey unveiled a worrisome trend in employee engagement, with only 32 percent of workers feeling engaged, down from 34 percent in 2021, and 36 percent in 2020. This decline was particularly pronounced among younger workers and is largely attributed to a lack of clear definition of roles.

At the Utah State University Foundation, where Matt White wears two hats as president of the foundation and vice president for university advancement, the focus is on fostering clarity and accountability across all levels, with the board leading the charge.

Building and nurturing an internal culture of excellence takes center stage in the foundation’s five-year strategic plan, which includes an onboarding program for board members as well as for staff that lays out clear expectations of their roles and responsibilities.

“We want to make sure all our employees have an exceptional work experience and understanding of their role, and that starts at the highest level, with our board members setting the example as leaders. That trickles down to our employees—particularly those who are new to fundraising in external engagement roles—so they understand that expectation of appropriate conduct,” says White.

Besides an onboarding program, White has introduced a mentoring program that pairs new front-line fundraisers with a peer. The roughly two-month program includes shadow visits, coaching on appropriate and effective email and phone engagement, and role-playing in a range of donor scenarios as well as internal interactions. Mentors are compensated for the additional work and submit progress reports at the mid and final point of the official program, though many continue to serve as confidantes and go-to sources for their mentees well after that.

“My goal is that I want every fundraiser to absolutely love our field. Yes, we work hard, but we get some great experiences. We can have some difficult experiences, too, but we can train how to address those difficult experiences to make that overall experience better,” says White, who has nearly doubled the size of his advancement team in the six years he’s been in the post.

Not every situation can be prepared for, however, and sometimes there aren’t clear-cut ways to address an issue within the moment.

Robertson has introduced a professional boundaries training program at the University of Wisconsin Foundation for frontline staff as well as board members. She says active listening, adaptability, and prudence are the best tools at an advancement professional’s disposal.

“The word authenticity is really important, and I think what we try to build into this training is sincerity. We’re not asking you to compromise your values. But just as you choose a professional outfit to wear [to work], you also choose how to go into a situation, knowing first and foremost you’re a representative of the university,” Robertson says.

Fewer awkward situations and regrettable comments occur because of the training, she says, and when they do occur, staff are advised to reach out to their manager, underscoring the importance of developing leadership capacity among management.

“Oftentimes, the supervisor is the first line of response, and they have to be comfortable knowing how to judge, is this something where I can just coach or can we make some adjustments and have some conversations? Is this something I need to escalate to HR? Do we need to follow some specific procedures? They need to be comfortable working through that in their role,” Brough says.

At GMU, Bowden says she runs a leadership legacy program that equips supervisors with the skills they need to coach and manage others, skills that don’t always come naturally to high-performing individuals like fundraisers, she says.

“I’ve had outstanding fundraisers come from other institutions who understand metrics and could not manage people, could not get people to follow them to the corner store,” she says.

Bowden takes her own role as a supervisor seriously, regularly ingesting books and podcasts on leadership and management, tailoring her approach to suit the individual personalities and needs of each of her ten direct reports.

Some may need affirmation on a regular basis, others don’t want all the fluff. Sometimes she listens more, sometimes she’s counseling more.

“Regardless of what type of leader I am, I need to be an effective one, in order for my people to be effective,” she says. “You have to deposit into them so that they can pay it forward, and it’s the most difficult aspect of my job. The external stuff can exacerbate it. But it’s trying to be who you need to be for individuals.”

Questions for foundation boards and leadership to consider as they navigate these issues:

  • Are our foundation’s core values clearly defined and actively integrated into every aspect of our operations, from hiring practices to daily interactions?
  • How are we addressing the challenges of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our foundation, and are we effectively bridging generational and cultural gaps?
  • What measures are we taking to understand and improve employee engagement, especially among younger staff members?
  • Do all employees have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, and how are we ensuring this clarity?
  • Do we provide adequate training and mentorship programs to equip our staff with the skills and knowledge necessary for their roles, especially in areas such as donor engagement and professional boundaries?
  • What programs and opportunities are we providing to develop the leadership and management skills of our staff, particularly those in supervisory roles?
  • Do we have effective strategies and protocols in place to address conflicts or challenging situations that may arise between staff, donors, and board members?
  • Are we regularly reviewing and updating our risk management strategies to address potential challenges, such as political divisiveness and the concentration of wealth in fundraising?
  • In what ways are we cultivating adaptability and change management skills among our staff and leaders?

Naomi Dillon is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in Laurel, Maryland. She was senior director for communication for the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) until 2023.

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