Carla S. Willis
Senior Consultant
Lisa M. Rudgers
Co-founder and Partner, Peterson Rudgers Group

Recently we had the privilege of speaking together at Washburn & McGoldrick’s annual client conference in New York City. We covered a lot of ground regarding leadership vision (see Lisa’s PRG Blog post for more), and also focused our conversation on insights related to our collective experience in managing hot-button issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion, as well as other highly politicized issues such as “cancel culture,” Critical Race Theory, and affirmative action.

We were colleagues at the University of Michigan when the institution was defending its use of affirmative action in admissions at the United States Supreme Court. We saw first-hand how divisive a topic it was for our country, for the state of Michigan, and for our alumni and donors. Perhaps the most fundamental lesson we learned during that time was the importance of leaning into our core values and lifting up the essential purpose of the admissions process in every conversation: Rich diversity in the classroom and on campus makes the learning environment better for every student, and in fact we cannot achieve true educational excellence for all without meaningful diversity.

We learned that when the subject matter is complex and sensitive, and when people have a range of strongly held views, it helped to be clear about our purpose, and to be transparent and unapologetic about the fact that we would not depart from our deeply held values. At the same time, we were conscientious about offering space for disagreement and dialogue. We worked hard to engage stakeholders across the spectrum of viewpoints with the hope that, even when folks had a different perspective about the mechanisms we were using, they understood that we had a principled reason for our decisions and could respect that the University had a thoughtful and highly transparent approach to the work.

Our communications and fundraising teams worked very closely together to help front-line ambassadors handle challenging questions, diffuse “heat,” and convey facts and key messages in a way that fostered conversations that were as constructive as possible. Our goal was to keep the University’s relationships with its donors and alumni strong even through disagreement, and most of the time we think we achieved that result.

When we talked at the conference, we also expressed the hope that institutional skittishness about handling some of these challenging racial and political topics does not become a chilling effect in fundraising, especially for important DEI-related opportunities. In so many ways DEI is moving to the forefront of institutional priorities: A recent NASPA survey noted that almost 40 percent of institutions surveyed are funding new DEI initiatives, 28% are seeking new funding, and there is an increasing emphasis of understanding that enrollment of a diverse student body isn’t enough – student support and outcomes are critical, and student needs are growing.

All of this represents tremendous opportunity for DEI-related philanthropy from individual donors, foundations and corporations. Though not without controversy in some quarters, we hope we can keep dialogue with all our stakeholders open, steadfastly remain clear on our values, and find ever-growing ways to support diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice initiatives on our campuses.