Higher education institutions are navigating a sea of complex challenges: preparing for an enrollment cliff, declining levels of state and federal support, and re-envisioning how education looks in this new, post-pandemic world.
In addition, historically black colleges and universities are grappling with another dilemma: the shortening tenures of their presidents.
While turnover at the top is increasing for all institutions, the trend is most pronounced at HBCUs. According to a 2022 report, HBCUs are 2.5 times more likely to have presidents serve tenures below the American Council on Education (ACE) national average of 6.5 years. We also know that HBCUs face unique challenges that exacerbate the difficulty of presidencies, such as historical racial discrimination in terms of funding and public recognition.
Effects of turnover on HBCUs
Presidential turnovers that are not handled carefully can lead to the perception of institutional instability, a lack of vision continuity, and disrupted donor relationships.
We all have that donor that calls and asks, “What is going on over there?” They might perceive the institution as unstable and want to know why presidents “keep” leaving the institution. Leadership transitions disrupt donor relationships, especially for donors closely connected to the outgoing president and their vision. Lacking confidence that the leader will have some longevity erodes trust with donors, alums, and other community members. After all, they can’t trust that their investments in the institution will be impactful with shifting visions and strategies.
Donors aren’t the only ones affected. Staff and faculty may become discouraged when a new leader arrives and they have to change direction; after all, they just started gaining momentum in achieving the last president’s vision!
Tips for Maintaining Trust and Continuity with Donors
You may be asking, “In light of this increased turnover, what are some strategies for maintaining trust and continuity with donors, because clearly, we can’t stop the transitions from occurring!”
Well, here are three tips for maintaining trust and continuity with donors:
- Build campus-wide relationships with donors
- Reconnect donors to the mission through stewardship and engagement
- Communicate early and often with donors during leadership transitions
Build campus-wide relationships with donors
One of the common mistakes advancement offices make is not diversifying the relationships that donors have on campus. For top donors, if their primary relationships are with the president or a dean and that person leaves, it can disrupt their connections with the institution.
To limit the possibility of donors losing their connections, they must be introduced to multiple people on campus. Utilize the donors’ affinities, giving histories, and life stories to identify which board members and tenured faculty members would provide a quality experience for the donors. Prioritize faculty, staff, and board members who have longevity with the institution.
In a previous role, I worked with donors during the transition of a dean and multiple gift officers. The donors who had connections with faculty and long-term staff were more responsive and felt more secure in the direction of the school. Though the donors had experienced a couple of gift officers in a short time and the dean’s transition, they knew the school was still in good hands.
On the contrary, donors who only had rapport with the dean and one of the former gift officers were more critical of the transition and expressed more concerns with the school. Promote your gift officers to forge relationships within the campus community so that they can connect donors with others as appropriate.
Reconnect donors to the mission through stewardship and engagement
Next, institutions need robust stewardship and donor engagement programs that solidify and deepen the donors’ connections with the institutions. In addition to regular impact reports, facilitate opportunities for donors to engage with key philanthropic beneficiaries, such as students and faculty.
It can be as simple as having the beneficiaries occasionally call donors or them sharing a meal on campus. These may not seem like big tasks, but they have a major impact. Other engagement opportunities that can be scaled for large-scale donor impact include student research presentations, career fairs, etc.—lean in and be creative!
Some donors will appreciate being engaged in campus life and having the chance to experience how their philanthropy impacts the institution—especially during a leadership transition! It reminds them of why they are invested.
Communicate early and often with donors during leadership transitions
Lastly, communicate frequently with donors during leadership transitions! Get ahead of the public announcement to the best of your ability; when your top donors hear the news, you do not want them to be shocked.
Call your top donors to let them know the president plans to transition or retire, and update them through the course of the search. You may not be able to disclose all the details about the search activity, but you can share that it is progressing and when you expect to have a leader in place. Doing this will prevent your donors from feeling clueless about the institution.
Once the president is in place, create a list of donors they need to meet or call within their first few months on the job. For annual donors, create a communication plan focusing on digital updates throughout the process. Frame the communications about the transition as a continuation of your institution’s legacy. Assure donors that the institution will continue serving the most critical community members—students.
As soon as you know of the transition, pull together your annual giving, communications, and alumni/alumnae engagement teams to create a proactive strategy. Your goal should be to ensure that your donors do not feel left in the dark!
In closing, leadership transitions don’t have to erode trust with your donors; reframe them as opportunities to deepen those relationships!
Keep these key concepts in mind:
- Encourage campus partners to continue cultivating donors. The transition is not the time to pump the brakes!
- Reiterate the impact of philanthropy by creating opportunities for donors to engage with their beneficiaries; whether personal communication or an invitation to a large-scale academic event, engagement matters and will remind the donor why they support your institution!
- Maintain open and frequent communication with donors. Employ phone calls and digital updates to communicate with different segments of your donor and alum populations. Everyone may not be able to receive a phone call or visit, but everyone can receive periodic email or social media updates that communicate progress, confidence in the process, and stability.