There is a different way the University of Hawaii Foundation — or any nonprofit, for that matter — must approach fundraising at a time of great uncertainty, such as the present.
Tim Dolan, the foundation’s CEO and the university’s vice president of advancement, believes the right approach to donors starts with a show of gratitude.
Dolan, 53, returned to UH a year ago, after a decade with a similar position for the University of Sydney. He remembers what it was like there during the financial crisis. He also remembers the UH situation in the aftermath of 9/11; at that time he headed development for the John A. Burns School of Medicine and UH Cancer Center.
“In both of those cases, what the sector ended up doing was contacting stakeholders, not with a handout and saying, ‘Hey, can you give us support during these difficult times?’ — as explicitly as that — but basically to circle back with our friends and our donors and to use it as an opportunity to say thank you,” Dolan said.
“Thanks” opens a conversation about the needs of the students, he added; UH donors are loyal and engaged in helping out.
In between those posts, Dolan, raised in San Diego, was leading fundraising efforts for the humanities division at UCLA, his own alma mater where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. His wife is Brazilian, and their two college-age children each carry three passports: one Brazilian, one Australian and one American.
The family was happy to return to Hawaii, even with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic complicating the fundraising challenge (fundraisers of 400-plus are out, for example). The crisis has illluminated the need to economize.
“If you’re giving to cancer research, you don’t want to entertain the notion that 20% of your gift gets locked up in administration and overhead,” Dolan said. “So this crisis is forcing us to ask tough questions around efficiency in our sector. And I think that’s a good thing.”
Question: It’s been a year since your arrival. How has your understanding of, and approach to this job changed, if it has?
Answer: It’s been a year of great growth and learning. Fortunately, given my earlier experiences at UH and UH Foundation, I have been able to reconnect with old friends and colleagues and accelerate some helpful conversations.
My approach to the job hasn’t changed. I’m here to support UH and garner the critical private support our university needs. There is so much potential, and the role UH plays in our state’s economy and future is much greater, I would argue, than most other public institutions.
We are the state’s only public higher education system and being statewide with 10 campuses, serving such diverse communities, only serves to deepen my commitment to our work here. …
My goal is to make the UH Foundation’s advancement shop the very best it can be. We are on the cusp of implementing new workflows and creative ways of engaging with our stakeholders. …
UH has the edge in many research spaces, including emerging and infectious diseases, cancer research and sustainability. I’m honored to be here, and in a position where I can do my part in supporting our Foundation and UH partners reach ever higher ground.
Q: What makes this position’s challenges distinct from those at a large institution, such as UCLA?
A: Although we might have fewer donors than institutions like UCLA, we make up for it with uncommonly high levels of institutional loyalty.
The people of Hawaii know instinctively the importance a vibrant university system makes in building a healthy local economy. Even the local residents who never attended UH clearly want us to succeed, and that has proven to be a great blessing for our university.
Q: Can you give a quick breakdown of the sources of revenue for the foundation?
A: The full breakdown of our financials is online (www.uhfoundation.org/annualreport).
We have multiple funding sources, but in the end we run a very lean ship in terms of responsibly managing our expenditures. We are supported in part by donors, by the university itself, and by modest administrative fees which are benchmarked at or below most of our university peers.
Nobody wants to give their hard-earned money to institutions with exaggerated overhead, and that is why the UH Foundation is committed to a practice of fiscal transparency in all that we do.
Q: How concerned are you about how the financial challenges ahead will affect state budget support for the university? How will the foundation’s strategy change, if at all?
A: I hope this doesn’t sound immodest, but I think excellent universities like UH are uniquely positioned to meet head-on challenges like COVID-19. For instance, in laboratories across the UH system we have some of the best scientists in the world working on a vaccine and researching better diagnostic tools for tracking the coronavirus.
We have economists and statisticians working on state-of-the-art financial modeling, and social workers and nurses who are heroically helping on the front lines.
I think most of our legislators recognize that. They understand that further cutting the university’s budget, especially at a critical time like this, would be counter-productive to the health and well-being of our state. …
Our supporters, too, play an essential role as we increasingly tap into private support to solve some of society’s most vexing problems. There is certainly an opportunity for UH to grow in areas of research that are relevant to our community.
As this happens on the campus level, in the fundraising arena we will have many more major gift opportunities. When you really get to see the impact of university advancement, is when entrepreneurial donors make large, early investments in interdisciplinary, big-picture investments, so UH needs to think big and leverage its expertise in increasingly collaborative ways.
And the positive cycle continues. More funding, more research and students doing meaningful work.
Q: What is UHF doing to support UH students during the COVID crisis?
A: Given the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, our UHF team quickly realized that we needed to mount a campaign to support students facing urgent financial need, and to fund research in emerging and infectious diseases including COVID-19.
The initiative was developed in collaboration with the University of Hawaii’s Office of Student Affairs and JABSOM’s Department of Tropical Medicine, Microbiology, and Pharmacology.
We established two new funds: the Urgent Student Relief Fund and the COVID-19 and Infectious and Emerging Diseases Research Fund and launched a multiplatform campaign on March 23 (www.uhfoundation.org/covid-19).
On March 31 the UH Online Portal for student applications went live.
Thanks to community and foundation support we have raised almost $800,000 to support this initiative.
Q: Where do you see the greatest potential for improvement in foundation fundraising? Does the current economic climate suggest any different approaches?
A: People are key in this business: people, relationships, trust and vision. Our fundraising team has great potential and right now we are focusing on staying in touch with our donors and sharing with them our gratitude and appreciation.
Our alumni and fundraising teams are keenly aware of the need for people in our community to connect with us right now.
So we are prioritizing reaching out to the many stakeholders who have been so steadfast in their generosity to UH.
There is an incredible sense of loyalty and pride in UH that comes through in conversations with some of our donors and alumni.
As we look beyond COVID-19, I see great potential for UH and private investment in our future. We have an opportunity to address the questions most relevant to Hawaii — including in a post-tourism economy, how UH can help shape the discussion and workforce that will drive us into the next century.