Big Ideas in Action: A Different Approach to Campaign Buildup

By Ellen Ryan

More enthusiasm, less fatigue. “Institution changing” and “world changing” goals are key to the new University of California, Davis, campaign. The silent phase, which began in 2016, is unusual: Campaign priorities are being set not by the chancellor but by hundreds of stakeholders.

Davis pointedly planned a transparent, national process “to engage donors and staff more than before and to hedge against fatigue, for greater buy-in and commitment,” says Shaun Keister, vice chancellor of development and alumni relations.

It started in fall 2015, when the chancellor and provost called on the campus community to submit transformational interdisciplinary “big ideas.” By spring 2016, nearly 200 had arrived. They ranged from creating a humanities/agriculture institute to studying tea to making the campus carbon-neutral by the next decade.

SmartFarm 2

A BIG IDEA IN ACTION: This tractor-drawn phenotyping machine, developed at UC Davis, measures three plants per second using advanced sensor technology.

Over six months, a 12-person campaign steering committee of deans, administrators, the provost, and the academic senate chair reviewed and scored the 196 submissions. They then narrowed them to 45. Foundation board members were the first to critique the 45 semifinalists’ big ideas.

“That is a group of major donors we don’t want to see fatigued,” Keister says. In October 2016, the semifinalists presented their big ideas at a daylong symposium before 450 donors, alumni, volunteers, faculty, and staff.

The steering committee also reviewed the ideas, invited student input, and asked development about fundability. Then development staff went on the road. In Chicago, a faculty champion laid out the concept of a national gun-violence prevention center. In Northern and Central California, champions described the impact of “smart farming” on developing sustainable food systems by using drones and sensory robots.

Donors know these ideas will lead to fundraising requests. That’s fine. For now, they’re helping to shape the campaign agenda.

With the public kickoff in two years, Davis is refining priorities and developing a framework. Already, the big-ideas process has generated a few major gifts.

“We’re hoping it’ll bring in donors we don’t even know yet,” Keister says. “Meanwhile, it’s energizing donors, staff and volunteers.”

Ellen Ryan is a former Currents writer/editor and a Maryland-based writer (@ERyanWriter).

This piece originally appeared in July/August 2018 Currents.

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pge_sidebar_imagesExplore other big fundraising ideas at CASE’s upcoming conferences. See the full slate of fundraising programs, including Planned Giving Essentials, Annual Giving Workshop, the Conference for Newcomers in Development.

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