Foundations of Consequence: Reflections from a Foundation Leader

Elizabeth King, President and CEO of the Wichita State University Foundation and Alumni Engagement Team

By Carol Schuler    //    Volume 31,  Number 5   //    September/October 2023

With the tenure of many senior executives in higher education growing shorter, it pays to know those whose careers have not only endured, but also have transformed institutions in truly remarkable ways. One of these people is Elizabeth King, a member of AGB’s Council of Foundation Leaders, who recently announced her retirement, effective February 2024, as president and CEO of the Wichita State University Foundation and Alumni Engagement (WSUFAE)—where she is wrapping up a career marked by not only institutional success, but also enormous change in the scale and sophistication of public higher education fundraising.

With more than 45 years of experience in higher education, King started her career at Wichita State as vice president for university advancement and executive director of the foundation in 1991, becoming president and CEO in 2006. Between 1991 and 2006, Elizabeth also held the title of vice president for university advancement, responsible for the foundation as well as university communications and marketing, the Ulrich Museum of Art, and the board of trustees. She was the youngest vice president ever named at Wichita State and the second female vice president.

According to the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s Voluntary Support of Education data, when King began her career at WSU Foundation, all philanthropy directed to education from individuals, corporations, and grant-making foundations totaled $11.2 billion. By 2022, it had grown to $59.5 billion with giving to public colleges and universities accounting for half of the reported total—the result of exponential growth in fundraising for the sector.

Fundraising at Wichita State, under King’s leadership, has grown even faster. The year prior to King’s arrival at Wichita State, the university raised $6 million. Now, and for the past three years, the average for fundraising by the WSU Foundation is roughly $50 million annually. Since King’s arrival, the foundation’s assets have grown from $54 million to around $400 million. Most recently, she led the Foundation’s “Shock the World” campaign, raising nearly $308 million and surpassing the original goal of $250 million.

In addition to being one of the longest-serving foundation CEOs in the country, she is one of the most highly respected. She’s been an engaged and valued volunteer with AGB, helping to shape what have become industry standard practices for foundation leaders, and a friend and mentor to scores of colleagues. What accounts for this level of success, especially during decades subject to rapid change and unparalleled societal and economic challenges?

King credits the fundamentals. “What has not changed is that we are still in a relationship business,” King says. “All these other things have changed around us; the world has dramatically changed. But when you come down to working with your alumni, working with your donors, engaging with those who are special to you as a university, it’s all about building trust and building relationships.”

New Structures, New Donors, New Priorities
King’s career at WSU reflects how the structure of public institutional advancement programs has evolved, with foundations becoming increasingly important in philanthropic leadership, advancement programs becoming more closely integrated, and with foundation and alumni associations sometimes merging. According to King, the WSU Foundation underwent a major organizational change 17 years ago that resulted in her consolidating dual roles and moving the foundation to a more holistic operating model that not only streamlined operations, but also positioned the foundation to raise its own operating funds. And last year, it merged with the WSU alumni association.

WSU Foundation receives just 9 percent of its funding from the university. “We do not have any employees on our state university payroll,” King says. “The funding we do receive through our MOU is a grant for fundraising services that goes into a general pot. So, I would never want to get too reliant on it. As it is, we control our own destiny.”

The structure of the foundation allows King and her team to be nimble and gives her more authority as CEO to make decisions for the team, always with the board by her side. Hiring and terminating employees is simpler than at the university, but one challenge is ensuring that the foundation can fully fund the capacity it needs to be successful. Currently, King has a team of 52 with four open positions. She says, “We are under size for the level at which we are performing. We should probably be at around 65.”

To address the need for operating funds, King and her board implemented at the outset of its most recent campaign a five percent across the board gift fee. While a common practice, such fees can sometimes be a problem with donors.

“Even though research at the university will charge a 40 percent fee, we find that similar and smaller fees for us are problematic with certain donors…. We remind them that their accounting firm, architectural firm, and others all charge fees, but the donors keep saying, ‘No, I want every dime to go to this or to that.’ And so, we’ve had to look at our policies, but we have no other sources of funding except for what we create.”

King notes that this reflects a changing donor mindset. “The group of donors with whom we are now working are more focused on the return on their investment,” she says. “In the early days of my career, it was much more common for donors to say, ‘you know best,’ as in you, the university leadership, know the best way to use my gift. Today it’s much more of us trying to determine their passions, and also being able to prove that we will be good stewards of their funds. I think that’s one of the biggest changes that I’ve seen.”

Similarly, King states that some WSU donors are less interested in endowment giving and more disposed to making gifts that have an immediate impact. Younger donors and those who may have worked in multiple organizations or had multiple startup companies are less interested in the idea of perpetuity or something made of bricks and mortar.

Reflecting on how foundation boards have changed, King notes: “When I began my career, I reported directly to the president, yet I was CEO of the foundation and worked with the foundation board heavily. Over time, I’ve worked with 16 board chairs and six presidents. And today, I think the issues are just so much more complicated.” She adds, “Back when I started, our endowment assets were smaller, but it was just pretty simple—60 percent in stocks and 40 percent in bonds. Now, the whole investment world is complicated. We didn’t know anything about private equity in those days. Today, it’s a huge driver of performance.”

Another change King and her team have managed is the increased pressure on time and attention. “Just as our lives have become more complicated, our board members’ lives have as well,” King says. “We have to be extremely cognizant of their busyness so that when they are working with us, they feel productive. Otherwise, they won’t give the time. They’re not going to sit on a board just to have a name on a board. And that’s a big difference to me.”

Leadership and the Board
King describes the structure of the WSUAE’s leadership as a trio that includes the university president, herself, and the foundation board chair. WSU is overseen, along with other higher ed institutions in the state by the Kansas Board of Regents. She also serves as an invited member of the president’s executive team and his smaller strategy team, which allows her to be involved at the front end of discussions about institutional challenges and opportunities that might align with donor interests.

WSU’s president participates in foundation board meetings and retreats and any planning for campaigns and now, succession planning for King’s role. She credits the engagement of the president as critical in the foundation’s success.

“WSU’s president, Rick Muma, is a phenomenal partner to work with our team,” says King. “I’ve worked with him for 29 years. He has a big vision. He is a great listener. He came up through the medical field. He’s very humble and confident.”

“He’s a fixer and he’s fun and he trusts me,” she continues. “I’m respectful of his time, but if I need him, all I have to do is text and say, ‘This is super important.’ And he will rearrange his schedule. That level of compatibility and trust is invaluable for a successful president working with somebody in my role.”

“He tells stories that connect with the donors,” she adds. “If we’re talking about being an institution that creates a pipeline for the workforce, he will give examples of students who are working at Spirit, Textron, or Koch Industries, or at one of the banks. He will give examples of what we’ve done to move that student from an 18-year-old to being in internships through their whole time at WSU, and then becoming a functioning engineer, finance person, or whatever it is. So, he’s a great storyteller.”

Another initiative of King’s to enhance relationships is to schedule regular group lunches with the chair-elect, the chair, the immediate past chair, and the president. She describes the meetings as social, but also opportunities for the president to share what is on his mind—an important time that gives the president a sounding board of top volunteers.

King also notes that the president stays on message about college priorities whenever he speaks, emphasizing WSU’s commitment to access and affordability, building a talent pipeline, and creating economic prosperity for the region and the state. This message resonates with alumni, but also business leaders in the community who are not alumni. And it reflects the experiences of alumni who are largely first-generation college graduates. King notes that 48 percent of WSU’s student body today is first generation. It is for many, she adds, an impetus for supporting the university philanthropically.

Game Changers

Challenges that King cites as shaping the foundation’s work during her career are the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe drops in the market during 2008, when many endowments lost roughly 20 percent of their value “almost overnight,” within a one-month period. King and her colleagues navigated through those losses and did so without layoffs. “We just all hunkered down and made it through,” she remembers. In fact, adapting to change is something that has characterized King’s career since she landed at WSU.

Beginning in the 1980s, public colleges and universities looked to private support to fund what was commonly called a “margin of excellence,” which AGB wrote about in a book for foundations.1 Over the past three decades, however, state support has steadily declined as a proportion of revenue. To close the gap, institutions increased tuition and turned to philanthropy as a critical source of support for student financial aid, faculty, programs, and mission-critical capital projects. In response to these changes, the roles played by affiliated foundations and their boards also evolved.

One of the most positive game changers King points to is WSU Foundation’s recent “Shock the World” campaign. “We are the Wichita State Shockers,” she points out. “So, a play on that name was our campaign theme. Our [fundraising] consultants had said, ‘You know, you’re a small urban university with 17,000 students and 109,000 alumni, and you really do not have the wealth base. The most you can do is $175 million.’ And our team and our board responded by saying, ‘We can do better than that.’ So, we set a very aggressive goal of $250 million in seven years, and we raised $308 million in less than seven years.”

Technology prompted immense change during King’s career. Consider 1991: There was no email. There were no cell phones. Fundraisers couldn’t text. King notes: “And one of the biggies for those of us in development—we didn’t have Google Maps. We were driving around with our little printed maps to help us get to our donor visits. Certainly, one of the big changes,” King adds, “has been data analytics and how much it drives all the work that we do. We are just putting a baby toe into the water of AI. It is a conversation we’ve begun to have but we have not developed policies around it. We’re being very cautious about it.”

The increased mobility and turnover rate of development professionals has been a serious challenge for many advancement programs. “There was a day in philanthropy and development work, when people stayed at the same institution,” she says, “and, the way we worked was very different. We have been very fortunate to have a lot of longevity. I just had a vice president retire after 27 years. My VP for development is in his 16th year. Our VP for alumni worked with us seven years ago, and now she’s back with us.”

King credits her success with retaining top employees to her team’s heavy focus on core values: excellence, service, integrity, and collaboration. She works to ensure that the foundation is a place where people want to work and to stay.

“We try to offer a good package,” she says. “One of the things that we’ve added in the last few years is 16 hours of volunteer work time on top of generous vacation, sick leave, and discretionary day packages. If they want to spend a half a day in Habitat for Humanity, it’s on us. That’s one of the benefits we are constantly assessing. We also stress professional development and getting people out the door to go mix and mingle with colleagues. Those are just a few of the hints. I wish I had the answer to what would work for everybody. We’re still learning. And when people need to be home for whatever reasons and work from home, we understand that’s important for our culture. And we focus on communications. One of the things that my staff teases me about, but I talk about all the time, is to focus on what’s important and not just what’s urgent.”

Reflecting on what she would tell those who want to enter alumni or development work, she says they should “just get started.” Noting that “there’s just no substitute for hard work. Work hard and make sure that you are a consummate team player, because the team players always get farther ahead. Those that are building their own resume are trying to work in a vacuum. And then everything you do, do with the highest of integrity. Don’t cut corners. Make your word your bond. Always be somebody who can be relied upon. If you say you’ll have something done by a certain point, have it done by then.” Finally, she emphasizes, “You don’t fudge numbers. Whether you’re dealing with the donor, with your boss, or with your colleague, you’re always a person of high integrity. That’s probably the most important advice I have.”

For those interested in moving into a foundation CEO role, King counsels them to participate in and learn everything possible about the CEO role and the work of the board. She recommends sitting in on investment committee meetings, if possible, and on budget planning committee meetings as a way to master the concepts that drive the work. She also recommends seeking out classes and going to AGB meetings to learn from others.

“Learn, learn, learn,” she says, “and find a mentor too. That’s always a good way to go about performing and learning. But just continually strive for excellence and strive to learn and adapt. Always adapt,” King stresses. “You have to be flexible. You have to learn. I tell new people all the time who may be struggling with a boss, the bottom line is you have to adapt to them. They don’t have to adapt to you. Maybe they should, but they don’t have to. So, you have to learn what’s most important.”

Fostering a Culture of Philanthropy

King credits some of the success of WSUAE to its Midwestern work ethic, but she also shares that the culture of philanthropy at WSU is the result of clear intention and an attention to the many touch points donors have on campus.

“Sometimes a new president will think you can just immediately convert everyone to seven-, eight-, and nine-figure gifts,” King says, “but you need to establish time for that trust to build. It doesn’t always have to take long if someone else has previously established the trust, but overall it is a marathon.”

“I would also emphasize that presidents need to engage the foundation CEO or VP for advancement at the very start of the process. I worked with one president who would move very far along with an idea, then reach out and say, ‘Okay, now we need money.’ That doesn’t work. If the advancement leader is brought in on the front end, we can sometimes bring in donors on the front end too, so donors feel they are part of that process. Then, once the whole concept has been developed you have their buy-in and don’t have to hope for a miracle.”

“I would also encourage a president to push hard on the provost or VP for academic affairs to hold deans accountable for fundraising, because a good fundraising dean can be phenomenal in changing the culture of his or her college.”

WSU engages a large group of volunteers to create a broad-based culture of philanthropy. To leverage the power of volunteers, they have advisory boards for almost every college. They have a 105-member National Advisory Council and from within that, a 19-member voting board of directors that has the fiduciary and legal responsibility for the foundation.

Twice a year, the full National Advisory Council is invited to campus. The university and foundation leaders provide reports and updates but also break them into small groups to tap their thinking and perspectives. Most of them serve on a college advisory board so those meetings are conducted when the Council is on campus.

In addition, they always receive news about the university before it goes to the public. Council members are also invited once a year to a small, intimate event with the president and foundation CEO. In this way, university leadership can observe how volunteers are engaged and if they would make good board members, allowing the council to serve as a pipeline of prospective board members.

Looking Ahead

Like many institutions, WSU serves an increasingly diverse student population. As an example, underrepresented minorities accounted for 22.9 percent of the student body in 2020. Today that figure has grown to 29 percent. This is informing philanthropy at the university. Recent seven-figure current use gifts have been focused on creating equitable pathways for underserved students and they reflect the ways some donors are shaping their philanthropy to help scholarship recipients succeed, support visiting professors, and promote inclusive recruitment resources.

Reflecting on her extraordinary career at WSU, King focuses on the long-term relationships she’s built with donors, in some cases over multiple generations, and the knowledge that the work that she and her team do each and every day is transforming lives. She concludes: “Most of the students that are on our campus have never heard my name. They don’t have any idea the buildings they walked into that morning or the scholarships they received were paid for by donor funds that we helped raise. It is the most rewarding career to know that we are in the business of helping people. That is our mission, and that education transforms lives, and we are part of that mission. So, I am blessed beyond measure.”

Carol Schuler is editor-in-chief of Trusteeship magazine.

1. Richard D. Legon, ed., Margin of Excellence: The New Work of Higher Education Foundations (Washington, D.C.: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, 2005).