The 3 Things You Need to Launch a Successful Pre-Exit Program

No, not pears.

No, not pears.

Is 2019 the year you launch your institution’s pre-exit philanthropy program? 

Read More → What is Pre-Exit Philanthropy?

Maybe it’s been kicking around in the development office for a while, but it’s not clear who needs to approve it, so it remains “a good idea.”

Maybe you’re personally excited by it, but there’s no institutional mandate or sense of urgency, so every time your energy (and bandwidth) surges to move forward, you spend half of that enthusiasm on revisiting your work to date.

Maybe you’ve convened a committee or task force to explore it — suddenly you’ve layered on the additional challenge of getting on everyone’s calendars, marshaling their attention, and navigating organizational dynamics. Progress becomes glacial. 

Meanwhile, some schools manage to push forward. What’s the secret? Why is such a simple program difficult to launch under certain conditions, and what elements do you really need to get this thing off the ground? 

In studying roughly 4 dozen programs in various stages of development, here are the three things I’ve found to be critical to successfully launching a founders pledge. 

You need a single individual to conduct the orchestra

I call this figure the Chief Architect. This person is internally motivated by the project. Pre-exit philanthropy programs mix alumni relations and development work in ways not always common to Higher Ed environments. This means that building a program requires some ingenuity and peer education — and it means that barriers, ambiguity, and a nonlinear critical path are natural. So you need somebody driven to cut through all that in order to see it through to launch. 

They’ve got to know how startups work. You don’t need an expert cap table wrangler, or a digital brand master, but they must know the basics of how startups are born, financed, grow and exit (or don’t). Sometimes someone picks up this info along the way, and the knowledge in turn drives the internal motivation referenced above — they instinctively grasp the potential of pre-exit philanthropy. Or, as in the case of one chief architect I know, it might capture someone’s imagination and inspire them to go out and buy every book on startups they can. Either way, they must know, or be driven to learn deeply, about entrepreneurship. 

Finally, a chief architect must to extend his or her work into other domains a little — they can’t stop at the borders of their specific role at the school. Inquisitive, interested in how systems work — they use these superpowers to internalize the map of entrepreneurial assets at your institution.

Notably, these qualities have nothing to do with titles, seniority, or functional area. A few years of experience do help practitioners recognize opportunities and get things moving. Above all, though, curiosity, tenacity and a gentle disregard for traditional Advancement boundaries might be the best predictors of success in this role. 

You need a champion.

It may present as risky to create a program like this, so having the nod — explicit or tacit — from a position of authority enables forward movement. 

Why? Pre-exit philanthropy programs blur the lines between development, alumni relations, and the academic or co-curricular life of the institution. It can feel like a square peg in a round hole without clear ownership. Is it development’s responsibility? Alumni Relations’? Can we afford to do this while we need to focus on [insert key objective here]?

With thin resources, relentless fundraiser turnover, and budget imperatives that rely on near-term results, many would-be Chief Architects face an uphill battle convincing their leaders this is needed NOW. 

But every moment we defer action, every point at which we allow ambiguity to paralyze us, another alumni entrepreneur drops out of the philanthropic pipeline. Entrepreneurs drive philanthropy, and universities cannot afford to wait when it comes to engaging this segment. 

The more highly placed the Executive Sponsor is, the better, but it need not be at the very top. An executive sponsor offers the chief architect some breathing room to explore, test, think, and execute.

Sometimes the sponsor and the architect are the same person. In these cases, growth can be accelerated to just a few months of planning and development.

You need to build -ONE- program.

Institutions fare better when programs embrace alumni, leverage resources, and provide giving opportunities from across all areas of campus. Not just the business school. Not just the entrepreneurship center. 

A program certainly may begin in one of these places, but it can’t stay there. If it remains a walled garden — limiting the flow of information, engagement opportunities, and potential philanthropy outlets, it will stall.

A key value offered by pre-exit philanthropy is in the connections sparked between members and areas of the university ecosystem. Growth enables those connections, and more connections = better chances for philanthropic wins. So it needs to appeal broadly to alums.

By the same token, fundraisers are the primary vectors of that growth. Involving gift officers across campus, and allowing them to find value in using this tool—whether for their metrics, or for their needs in qualifying and cultivating alumni—strengthens the program and helps ensure its success.

Building one unified program may pose the biggest challenge, depending on culture, size, and other organizational dynamics. As fundraisers, we spend so much time sifting, sorting, and weighing. This is one area in which segmentation should be used only after we have critical mass.

Build a strong foundation with each area

Missing any one of these things—the Chief Architect, the Executive Sponsor, or the unified program—drags heavily on pre-exit philanthropy. How do these factors manifest themselves at your university? Have you identified a Chief Architect? If you’ve taken on that role, can you team up with an Executive Sponsor? How will you work together to build a program that involves broad groups of alumni and fundraisers alike?

This post was written in direct response to a reader question. If you have a specific question you need answered, get in touch or subscribe.

Every moment we defer action, every point at which we allow ambiguity to paralyze us, another alumni entrepreneur drops out of the philanthropic pipeline.