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Industry engagement leaders share keys to expanding partnerships into philanthropy

Excerpted from the August 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

In university-industry partnerships, philanthropy has the potential to be among the most lucrative avenues of collaboration — but how do you get there? If you have a partner that is already engaged, say, in research, or talent acquisition, who makes the first move?

The answer is not a universal one, nor is it always simple. In fact, corporate engagement professionals may even disagree on what makes a good candidate. For example, when Nathan Utz, vice president for industry partnerships at Purdue University, was posed the question, “Is every industry partner a potential philanthropic partner?” he replied firmly, “We certainly hope so.”

The initial engagement, he notes, “can really start wherever.” Research, he says, is certainly an obvious and major starting point. “Another area is professional development for their employees,” Utz suggests. “Another would be whether they want to explore our IP that may be sitting on the shelf but could further enable their products or technologies. Still another would be co-branding; they pay money to Purdue to have their brand at football or basketball games. But most start either with talent or research.”

But Kent Glasscock, president of the Kansas State University Institute for Commercialization, has a mixed reaction to that assertion. “It’s becoming much, much rarer” to see the transition from research to philanthropy, he says. However, he adds, “there was [in the last several months] in the College of Veterinary Medicine a terrific auditorium that was sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health — a significant philanthropic donation. But that company has had a long-standing relationship with the department of veterinary medicine, both in terms research and talent acquisition. They also have a remarkably outstanding dean.”

Leah Aschmann, director of corporate relations at Rice University, takes a more global approach. “I think every partner is as unique as every individual potential donor; the potential is there, so why not?” she poses. She acknowledges that companies already engaged in different ways on campus — with students, in research, in volunteering for advisory boards — and which have representatives in different areas of campus “already see the value the university brings; they are the ideal partners.”

Keith Marmer, chief innovation & economic engagement officer for the University of Utah’s PIVOT Center, demurs slightly. “In theory, you could say every individual partner is [a potential giver], but in practicality that’s not true,” he states. “Not only are some companies just not focused on philanthropy — they probably do not understand it — but also, similarly, some innovation managers are probably not the best suited for thinking about philanthropy out of the gate.”

Glasscock believes expansion into philanthropy favors those partners that have a multi- dimensional, strategic relationship with the university — who see the benefit from a long-lasting relationship. “In our view, the days of just going and asking companies for philanthropic donations are essentially over,” he asserts. “Companies can give their philanthropic gifts in any fashion they see fit and to whomever they want to donate — and those donations tend to go to universities and other endeavors of interest to key leaders, or historical ties of the company to their potential donees. We believe — and our experience has been — that meaningful, significant university/corporate private sector relationships tend to build a foundation upon which philanthropic giving can occur — and even thrive.”

Why they give

Beyond having the “characteristics” of a potential donor, what other factors should be considered when contemplating the possibility that an industry partner might wish to grow the relationship in that direction? In other, words, beyond a strong foundational partnership, why would a company wish to make a philanthropic donation?

“Globally, companies interact with institutions of higher learning for any one of six to eight reasons,” says Utz. “Philanthropy is one of those, but it is typically tied directly to talent.”

Why is that? “Companies typically don’t just give away dollars; they’re for-profit,” he notes. “When considering spending in any buckets, there’s still the value proposition and typically for companies it has to do with the talent pipeline and putting that brand in front of our students.”

Companies, he continues, either are or want to be hiring more students, or they want to solidify their partnership with the university “in perpetuity.”

Glasscock agrees. “Many companies are very focused on talent acquisition; what happens is that their philanthropy many times is focused on students, student engagement, scholarships, and brand awareness.”

“Some of this may be the right person; an individual college within the university may have somebody [with strong connections to the company],” adds Marmer.

Getting the ball rolling

Even if a corporate partner is a “likely target” for a philanthropical gift, how do you address all the variables — such as timing, and value propositions?

“In my experience, it happens a couple of ways,” says Marmer. “Sometimes it’s what the company is seeking to do; it might be easier to bring them in and provide something philanthropic, as opposed to sponsored research. Maybe it’s something they had not thought of, but we bring in one of our colleagues from Advancement and put a broader deal together. In others, faculty might have a partner who may or may not have funded their lab. If they’re trying to solve a problem, the answer may not be research output; ‘Have you considered doing this through philanthropic means?’” The same might be true, he adds, when seeking to train graduate students; the program may be funded through philanthropy.

In terms of timing, says Marmer, “you really do not want to wait on the company. From a university perspective, if we perceive an opportunity, that’s the time to get our advancement team engaged and make that connection.”

It’s sometimes easier, he continues, to deal with big publicly traded companies, because oftentimes they have a dedicated philanthropic arm, which makes the engagement path a little clearer. “For some companies, when they do not bring it up, it’s a matter of having a good relationship, where you may perceive an opportunity and have a close enough relationship to open the discussion,” he says. “You don’t necessarily say, ‘How about throwing $50,000 at this idea,’ but you might say, ‘Have you or your company ever done philanthropic work — and in what areas — because we’d love aligning with you around some things or talk about opportunities we could intro to you, and get our colleagues engaged with you.’”

Utz also notes several different potential paths. “Maybe we have an opportunity that exists where we would consider a funding priority we need — a new building, a new program, a new professorship, or scholarship needs for students,” he suggests. “A lot of them start with us having the financial need and the priority to get funded. What we do then is take that priority and try to determine which companies see the value in partnering with us around that priority.” The challenge, he says, is alignment. “In the world of corporate relationships, the university priority should never be put first,” he insists. “For us it’s just trying to find a good reason for that alignment.”

Say, for example, Purdue is trying to raise funds for a new engineering building.

“We know that a philanthropic opportunity would be of significant interest to companies hiring a lot of engineers from us, and who want to do more to solidify their branding on campus,” he shares. “What comes with a philanthropic gift of significant size is named space in a building or [the entire] building. If you have a building with a corporate logo on it, and 50,000 students walk by it every day, that’s pretty good branding.”

Glasscock agrees. “Every single time students go into it they know they’re going into the Boehringer Ingelheim auditorium,” he says. “Companies are very sophisticated in these areas of talent acquisition and research, and they know public universities are a resource for a broad array of talent they can access. For example, Boehringer Ingelheim is interested in veterinary medicine students, but they also have corporate needs, so they go across campus — to the colleges of business, agriculture, arts & sciences, and so on.”

Another possibility, Utz adds, is that the company comes to his office and says they want to engage more and hire more students. “If they tell us they want to know how they can get their brand in front the students, then the door is wide open,” he says. “We tell them the easiest way to do that is to support certain areas of the campus philanthropically.”

Timing the ask

Timing is everything, as the old saying goes, and it certainly applies when making a pitch for a donation. When is the right time? “When you have a good foundational relationship and the President or Provost are visiting the area where the company has its headquarters, those are great opportunities to really elevate those discussions,” says Aschmann. “Philanthropic asks have to come from that — the goals and vision of the company, and how they overlap with Rice’s. You’ve got to take advantage of opportunities when they happen — and you have to be ready for them.”

Being ready, she continues, means having your homework done for when the opportunity arises. “If there’s a company that’s really focused on expanding relationships with you, be in tune with what they’ve stated as their mission and goals and have some ideas about how you might partner further,” she advises. “Have background materials on what the relationship looks like — what you’ve done in the past — so if you’re talking on the VIP level you can pull out that information and have a conversation. A lot of that stuff we keep in our heads, but we try to be more deliberate by having it on paper and having the materials ready. We don’t count visits, or the number of touchpoints, but rather the internal strength within these relationships.”

The ability to begin a meaningful conversation about philanthropic giving “all comes down to relationships,” says Aschmann. “If you know them well and you can call a university relations person or recruiter, you can say, ‘We have this idea at Rice, and we want to get your thoughts on it.’ But don’t lead with the ask; have a mindshare here. I’ve had relationships with some companies where I could say, ‘Hey, we’re looking at this; I know you’re not the decision maker, but do you think this is something you might entertain? If so, how do we go about that?’ The truth is the person I interface with at the company is often not in position to make these big decisions.”

No office is an island

It’s rare, say U-I observers, that a successful ask only involves a single unit of the university — even an office of corporate and foundation relations. “One [pathway] is within the internal structure in the university — someone with the company relationship,” Aschmann notes. “Internally, in order for us be prepared to have a conversation like that it has to be coordinated — to be on the same page [with other departments] on this holistic vision.”

If it’s the Center for Career Development, she continues, they hopefully suggest exploring a more holistic partnership with Rice. “If [the company] has a license, [licensing staff should] reach out and not let it stop there,” she says. “A huge part of my job is working with campus partners to make sure there’s a shared vision and unified language. That has to be in place, because there’s no way I can know all the conversations with this organization. Even if I’m handling it directly, all along the way there are so many people involved in corporate relations that I try to keep everyone informed.”

Alumni represent another group of stakeholders that can be important partners in securing philanthropic gifts, says Aschmann. “As champions of the university within the company, they are great ones to have conversations with,” she comments. “We know they’re recruiting our students, and we know they sit on the advisory board, and that they understand what the company’s broader interests might be outside the research realm. We’re working with a company now that does sponsored research in AI and data science. We’re talking to a highly placed alumnus about their desire to diversify the talent pipeline. In hearing that, we’ve been able to put a proposal together for their funding a program that could help them to achieve that goal.”

But it’s typically a process with a good deal of lead time, with plenty of earlier conversations. “We just kept listening to them,” says Aschmann. “This often takes a year or more.”

It’s also important, she adds, to be aware of the company’s interest in ROI. “You have to be strategic — really focused on their goals and how to help them achieve those goals,” she says.

“One of the things we try to do is be a touchpoint by which companies can touch other parts of KSU outside their prime domain area,” adds Glasscock. “Then our career services group fully engages.”

To illustrate, he describes a recent a corporate visit from a major company. “At the table were the talent acquisition lead from the company, KSU career services, research, and facilities, so we had all the right people at the table,” he says. “It’s that sort of broad-based, complex relationship that tends to build trust over time and create a strong philanthropic prospect.”

An even more concrete example involves a gift from Abraxis, Inc. “Several years ago we created a partnership with Abaxis focused around a national lab for companion animals,” he recalls. “During that relationship they did over a million dollars in philanthropy to KSU. We had a relationship that was meaningful, and we helped them create a new endeavor that increased their value proposition and helped benefit KSU as well.”

However, he adds, “the way it works here, we didn’t approach the company, but we worked closely with the KSU Foundation, our endowment foundation. They have a corporate engagement team I work very closely with. They know everything we do, and in this case, they became very familiar with Abaxis. So, the foundation then engaged and did their job — which is philanthropy.”

Folks from our team who do corporate engagement work with folks from corporate foundation relations or college offices have started to get together on a regular basis,” says Marmer. “It’s not that we should be the owners of philanthropy, but we should put our university hats on continually, and think not just about what our offices do, but how to use these relationships across campus and make introductions to our colleagues so they can start relationships.”

“The reason the Office of Industry Partnerships was created is because the Office of Corporate Relations sat in different colleges and units. Anyone could call and talk to anyone at a company at any time — which was not strategically significant,” says Utz.

“We are technically the corporate relations function for the university; there is a separate foundation relations team. Under our purview are corporations and corporate foundations. So, when the mission of a foundation is driving third world literacy programs and if the university has programs that can help these foundations meet their mission, that’s a good philanthropic opportunity as well. We keep track of which companies we talk to, which have foundations, and we try to develop relationships with people at those companies whose positions are either completely philanthropic or not totally philanthropic but report to the ‘Mother Ship’ — and still help fulfill its mission through philanthropy.”

Keys to success

What are the leading best practices in moving existing partners into the philanthropy realm? “There are two,” says Utz. “One, you need to really make the value proposition case for the gift. Second, and the most important part, is the stewardship aspect. You have to show the company the value, the impact of their investment, and thank them for it. You have to show them you spent their money well, that it has the impact and branding to get into the areas they want. It’s the best cultivation for future gifts.”

“If a company is already engaged, they probably recognize the value propositions,” says Aschmann, “But you do have to explicitly show how the gift aligns with what the company wants to do. It’s a kind of relevance statement; why should this this company be interested in this gift?”

“Respect the ‘target,’ but introduce the subject both on the company and university side — and get the right people around the table,” offers Marmer.

His other best practice? “Including my colleagues as early as possible, and thinking of them,” he says. “The fact that they know we have their world on our mind when engaging with industry and want to make those introductions goes a long way as well.”

As an example, he recalls a partnership that began as an industry sponsored research agreement. “They had technical development and student recruitment as their two areas of interest,” he shares. “The technical development piece was being negotiated and explored, and then quite a way into the process the philanthropy piece came out as an opportunity our team raised.”

On the technical development side, he explains, “they wanted to bring some people working on it into their company at some point. That sort of transcended into, ‘How do we create that pipeline for talent?’ At some point the philanthropy piece came up, and it got moved into a parallel process; we negotiated it at the same time we negotiated a license to existing research.”

At the appropriate point, he continues, Advancement was brought into the picture. “They handled the philanthropy piece,” Marmer emphasizes. “When I saw the summary of the deal, the first funds were on that side; you’ve got to do the deal the way the deal needs to be done.”

Contact Aschmann at 713-348-4361 or leah.aschmann@rice.edu; Glasscock at 785-532-3900 or kentglas@k-state.edu; Marmer at Keith.marmer@utah.edu; and Utz at 765- 588-5252 or nkutz@purdueforlife.org.