Another one gone. In my nearly seven years at this public university, I’ve seen my share of advancement colleagues come and go, and this week’s bell weather of a cookies and soda farewell was no different than the six or so others I’ve witnessed. It’s more bitter than sweet. But the average tenure for development professionals is about 24 months. And at a public institution from my observation it seems to be even less. Less than a year in this case.
It’s always confounded me, that in a business that has at its heart relationship building, the door revolves so frequently. But fundraising relationship building is different than sales relationships. Getting someone to purchase a new Toyota or house gutters or organic chicken is just not on par with the daunting task and privilege of development work.
We want people to do something too. But our profession gives us the sacred task of cultivating relationships that lead to the ultimate — helping a person(s) leave a legacy.
The fruit of our work might be a circle closed as a person seeks to reciprocate for what he or she received. Or it might be our role in marrying a donor’s great passion for something, with the resources of a visionary and competent institution. And that union has more than a fighting chance to achieve an ultimate goal: end poverty, cure cancer — lift a city’s vision through public art — or extend educational opportunity to the disadvantaged.
Staying resolved while working to garner resources for a public institution takes professional acumen, persistence, and much soul. Our goals pale in comparison to private institutions. The public thinks that the government is our parent and will put the dinner on the table for us.
If you’ve been watching the budgets of public colleges and universities, you won’t be surprised that we’ve gone vegetarian, and it is a rare night when we get dessert. The mission of a public institution, so focused on building strong communities, local and beyond, graduates a legion of “greats,” but many of them are the leaders of public enterprises like law enforcement, public education, politics, health care.
Yes, we have our friends in business and entertainment, but not in the same amount as at most private institutions. Furthermore, we haven’t been around that long. As we near the big deal of a 50th anniversary, this milestone might elicit a chuckle from of fellow university on the Red Line.
But the biggest obstacle is a nearly nil philanthropic culture that recognizes that private investment in the public trust of public institutions lifts everyone’s boat, and every citizen’s life.
It is tough raising funds sometimes. The challenges lead colleagues to go where it is easier. There are so many grand and established institutions, hospitals, colleges, national charities. For them the generosity hole was excavated long ago, and thanks to gravity, philanthropic gifts fill the hole again and again, often by habit. It is easier to raise money for these places. You don’t have to make the case. It was made long ago. And wealth breeds more and more generations of support.
Shoulder to the wheel. Day in, Day out. We are pioneering a novel enterprise. It is the powerful opportunity that investing in public higher education affords. “UMass, that’s the government’s bailiwick.” When you ask for a gift and they say no. Shoulder to the wheel. Remember the family who embraced their daughter after she received her scholarship.
“I’ve already given my gift to x, y, z or fancy shmanzy w.” Envision the faculty member who is equally passionate about English literature as she is about the process of learning the English language. Shoulder to the wheel. The English professor who took her Vietnamese immigrant student to Walden Pond so that she could understand poetry.
“Why should I give to a public institution?” Well . . .Shoulder to the wheel. Because . . . Can you really put in words the tidal wave of social possibility that dominates our commencement lawn, hour after hour, year after year? It’s more than witnessing over half of the graduates who stand to be recognized as the first in their family to receive a college degree.
It is the triumph of a noble experiment born 150 years ago with the birth of this nation’s public universities, and our own UMass brethren in Amherst.
An experiment that was founded on the belief that education is for all. An experiment, that can only continue to flourish with the philanthropic investment of all who cares about social progress in our commonwealth.
To learn more about how your generosity can strengthen Boston’s public university, visit www.giving.umb.edu.
Nan Cormier is director of advancement communications