Foundations of Consequence: How Foundation and University Leaders Can Work Together

By Greg Willems    //    Volume 28,  Number 2   //    March/April 2020

After nearly two decades in the profession, I have read about or heard of numerous unproductive, adversarial, and even toxic relationships between universities and foundations and in each case there was a significant financial consequence for the institution.

What small missteps or seemingly reasonable concessions over time eroded the trust and cooperation that should be serving this partnership? How did they cast aside mission and partnership objectives as secondary outcomes and dig a moat around their enterprises, lowering the drawbridge for the minimally required interaction at a quarterly board meeting?

Flawed articles of incorporation, bylaws, mission, vision, values, policies, partnership MOUs, etc., are rarely to blame. The culprit most often is human beings, rather I should say human egos. It was the leaders who acted or interpreted things in a way that deviated from mutual benefit and success for all, to my success before others—even at the expense of others.

In my experience, building a highly productive relationship between a university and a foundation begins with the university president and the foundation CEO. They set the example and tone for other senior leaders and their respective boards. I’ve been fortunate to work with many out-standing counterpart leaders in my career. Most recently at Kansas State University, President Richard Myers and I have lived by a core set of values and principles that are serving each other and our respective institutions exceptionally well.

Mutual respect and trust: We respect each other’s profession and responsibilities. We also respect each other’s time and never see each other’s professional activities as any less important than our own. Formal governance leadership roles in each other’s enterprise to participate in thoughtful deliberation and decision-making builds trust. The expertise of each other in the room has also directly contributed to better solutions.

Relational engagement vs. transactional interaction: We genuinely care about the sustainable progress of each other’s enterprise—their problems are my problems and vice versa. Frequent accountability updates on key performance indicators and partnership initiatives continually strengthen the relationship. Lastly, we always assume honorable intent in interactions and do not expect unreasonable considerations—achieving success at the others expense is never sustainable.

Strive to be servant stewards vs. controlling owners: Control and ownership posture can often be a dysfunctional orientation promoted between universities and foundations. We are all temporary custodians of care in these leadership roles. These institutions and resources will outlast us all. Focusing on how we can create mutual value and benefit from the privilege to use these resources during the time we serve as leaders has been a healthy orientation for us.

Be advocates for each other within your organizations: Part of my job as the foundation CEO is to help our board see the value in supporting our institution in new ways. Select projects and unique initiatives we could deliver that helped our president be successful in his role have become points of pride for our staff and board. The university president, likewise, is consistently highlighting the foundation’s value and contributions to the mission of the university to  the provost, deans, faculty, and staff.

Don’t pick sides: We are, in fact, separate legal entities and too often that can be used to promote independence and undermine interdependence. At our foundation a philosophical saying serves us well: “Our legal structure shall allow us to be more effective for the university rather than simply separate us from the university.” In the end, we are all here to serve the same mission—supporting students, faculty, staff, education, research, and service to communities. We are all on the same side!

Over time, two committed leaders can change the culture and the partnership strength of two organizations to achieve extraordinary outcomes together. As in all relationships, personal or professional, all it takes is for one of them to make the first move.

Greg Willems is president and chief executive officer of the Kansas State University Foundation.

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