Virtually every search for a new president of a small college emphasizes fundraising prowess. That has to be a vital concern for any board of trustees, particularly those at private colleges and universities. But how will the trustees know when they have found the right person? What qualities does an individual need in order to be a successful fundraiser? How will trustees know that their own expectations of the new president are realistic?
Years ago, during my first months as a college president, a senior colleague at another institution gave me some advice that molded my fundraising activities for the next quarter-century. He remarked: “Whatever qualities you bring to the job, you will be most effective in fundraising at the end of your presidency, not at the beginning.” Time proved him right.
Embedded in his remark was a crucial lesson for presidents and trustees alike: Trust is the essential precondition for major gifts. Major donors must have confidence both in the institution and in the individual requesting the gift, and it takes time to build such a relationship. A new president may well receive some early “welcome to the college” gifts, but those will be expressions of hope and good will. The game-changing donations are likely only after the donor has had time to take the measure of the president and to build confidence in the direction of the college under that person’s leadership.
So, trustees choosing a new president should focus on personal trustworthiness in judging the candidates. Would they themselves be inclined to make a major gift if that person came calling? With time and familiarity, might they do so?
Add to that their assessment of the individual’s vision and commitment. How well does the person understand the institution? Is the individual able to prioritize a few specific goals for the next decade? Does the candidate bring passion to the job? Is the person more interested in the institution or his/her personal career? In short, the more focused trustees are on commonsensical human questions, the more likely they are to bring the right person into the president’s office.