Campaign Aimed to Demonstrate Fisk University’s Fundraising Strength

Fisk University, plagued with questions about its financial stability and future, is in the throes of a ramped up fundraising effort aimed at convincing its increasingly skeptical higher education accrediting agency the institution is financially viable.

The university hired a new advancement officer this winter and, with financial help from the Kresge Foundation, subsequently hired three new staffers in its advancement office to work on solicitations. It has organized a number of niche organizations to make appeals to specific alumni groups, such as a small task force of health care professionals for Fisk.

Fisk is organizing small, low-key fundraising events being hosted by university supporters in Memphis, Houston, Chattanooga and Detroit. It is again appealing to alumni to give more and to help the university with their “corporate connections.”

As part of a rebranding strategy the university this spring renamed its annual giving campaign the “Fisk Fund.”

The expanded fundraising efforts are aimed at raising $8 million by June 30, the end of the school’s current fiscal year. That would help the ailing school close the year in the black and ostensibly send a signal to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) that Fisk is viable, say those familiar with the new fundraising effort.

SACS placed Fisk on one-year probation last December, citing heightened concern about the institution’s financial viability. SACS will decide next December whether the school has complied with a variety of standard criteria required of institutions seeking clean bills of health from the Atlanta-based agency.

“I don’t know if we’ll get to $8 million but we’ll get close to it,” says one Fisk official who provided insight into the university’s recent efforts who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Fisk has made no official public statements recently regarding the status of its stepped up effort, particularly how effective it has been in reaching the $8 million goal on such short notice. Several efforts have been made in recent years for smaller amounts and yielded mixed results.

“We [are] trying to build bridges to new relationships and rebuild fractured relationships,” says the Fisk official.

The enhanced fundraising effort comes as consultants for the university have reportedly completed a set of recommendations for the university’s board of trustees regarding a much talked about capital campaign. School officials have said for several years such an effort is in the works. The university made no statement earlier this month about whether the trustees received and acted on the plan at their May board meeting.

Fisk’s chances of reaching its June 30 goal face a series of hurdles.

People inside and out of the university are still trying to assess how potential donors are viewing the merits of short term giving to Fisk, in light of the announced retirement of embattled President Hazel O’Leary. O’Leary does not leave the university until December, although the search for a successor has already begun. It is being lead by board vice chairman Andrew Patterson, an Atlanta attorney.

“I don’t think we can look at traditional methodology for filling the position,” Patterson recently told The Tennessean of Nashville, Tenn.  “We are looking for someone who will take it outside the box.”

Fisk is also plagued by the lack of an established donor pipeline beyond alumni who are being increasingly pressed to support the school as revenue from tuition and fees steadily shrinks with the university’s declining enrollment and private donors with high capacity have focused elsewhere.

The university has had five advancement officers over the past decade. Each has had to work with a chronically small staff and outdated computer software for fundraising, say Fisk supporters familiar with the university’s fundraising efforts.

“Fisk has constant givers, just not enough,” said the Fisk official. “We need more.”