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Interview with Mark Walsh & Stephen Dare: Exploring Interrelationships (Trustees+President+CAO)

Mark Walsh, Chairman of the Board of Trustees; Stephen Dare, Vice President for College Relations, Union College, Schenectady, NY

Excerpt from recorded interview with Mr. Walsh and Mr. Dare


WG: In your view, what are the ideal characteristics of an effective Board Chair, Board Advancement Chair and Chief Advancement Officer with regard to developing a strong, mutually respectful relationship with a president? Mark Walsh: Well, I’ll start. Technically I am no longer chair of what we call college relations. I just handed that off to my predecessor as chair of the board. He is now head of college relations and is going to do a great job. But prior to me becoming chair of the board, I was head of college relations and worked with Steve Dare closely.

So, I’ll try and put both hats on real rapidly and get to the point of the next set of your questions. In my opinion, although it’s often a dirty word for many young professionals these days, I’m in the sales business. And the business – and the product I’m selling is to unengaged alumni, the experience of reengaging with the school that mattered to their background and present, re-learning what’s going on, and getting excited about the future. For engaged alumni, to keeping them happy, satisfied, excited, and bluntly, in anticipation of what’s next at the school. And then I think there’s sort of an other bucket. And the other bucket – and I’m – don’t mean other in a dismissive way, but it’s both the current undergraduates or often very recent graduates, staff, faculty, administration, and friends of the school. So, they stay engaged in a supportive way.

And the final point I’ll make is that I think when I say sales, people often assume that means only revenue or only dollars and cents. And I think what I’ve found, and I think some of my colleagues, and certainly working with Steve, is that the essence of having a, quote, sales, unquote, relationship with these constituencies I mentioned, is often in fact not monetary. It is time. It is advice and feedback. It is internships. All the things we’re seeing now that are non-monetary in nature, but can be extraordinarily important to the college’s success or the school’s success.

So, I would argue going forward, people in my former role as chief advancement officer, so to speak, and the board and chair, working withthe Steve Dares of the world, my partner in arms here, have to make sure that the menu we offer people of things to, quote, buy, unquote, is not just monetary, and has a flexible, a forward-thinking sort of menu. So that people can say, well, I can’t give $1000 or whatever the number is this year; but I do have an internship at my brother’s factory that’s expanding. And I think that sense of value is going to have to be made more and more clear by the advancement function of any school.

WG: As a president, what are your expectations, in general, of a CAO? How did you arrive at these expectations? Are these expectations formally discussed and agreed upon? Or was/is this an evolving process resulting from the dynamic nature of your work together? Mark Walsh: Well, the element of my interaction with Steve Dare that’s been most productive. It’s been great working with him. But I think what Steve brought to the party here at Union College, which we had strayed away from a little bit, is literally the blocking and tackling. And that is often looked down dismissively, down the nose of those folks chasing the elephants – you know, the larger – or the whales, so to speak.

And I think that what Union and schools like Union—those in the top tier of whatever rankings you want to look at, as far as liberal arts colleges, in our case with science and technology—but if you look at that zone, blocking and tackling is absolutely key. We all know the pyramid and the huge gifts at the top set the tone. But the middle tiers of that pyramid, and frankly the bottom of that pyramid—if you lose that, then the whole pyramid kind of, you know, drops down about 50 feet and we start again.

So, this idea of maintaining a relationship with engaged alumni, whose gifts are modest but continuous, and then blocking and tackling, trying to initiate a relationship with a disengaged alumnus or alumni, or whatever, that just gets the story started and gets a visit, so they have a face to the name. We had – again, just a couple quick points. We had strayed away from that, and I think that Dare and his team – Steve Dare and his team have gotten us back to a real rigorous look at lists and contacts, and all the detail.

And then if you – the icing on the cake, I think, with Steve Dare is that he and I have figured out that the ultimate message management tool we have is our president. And other key message managers. And we’re lucky to have, in my opinion, one of the most extraordinary person – people in higher ed to give that message, which is our president Stephen Ainlay. So, what Steve Dare and I figured out is to basically set up appointments and get out of the way.

I think that in Steve Dare’s case, he is an expert at all the elements of his job and making sure that the right message is delivered by the right person in the right room at the right time. And that can be a phone call. It can be a face to face. It can be in a brochure. But, staying out of the way of our best messenger, who is our president.

Steve Dare, Vice President for College Relations, Union College

WG:. Steve, from your perspective, what – what might you to add to that? Steve Dare: I would just add a couple of things. Shared goals, and then trust—that the two of us really are interested in making long-term – investing our time for the long term at Union. And I think that gets to what Mark is saying. However we can get people back in the boat is the best. So, we have really shared goals and we have mutual trust in what we want to do. He knows I’m not going to go off the reservation. I’m going to check with him, and of course the president, in – as we do things. And in an orderly way move things along so that everybody’s included.

I think the other thing is follow-up he asked me to do something; I do what I say I’m going to do and try to follow up with him. And having him in the position of the advancement committee for three years for me, it’s fantastic, in that he’s done a deep dive into everything about the operation here, from the marketing and communications and the development.

So, I think when you put all that together, we’re in an extraordinarily great position, and I appreciate everything that he does for us, day in and day out He’s going to go from D.C. to Cape Cod for me on August 1st in the middle of the summer and say a few words to the group there. He’s willing to go and do things because he understands, how important these things are.

WG: Mark, what are your expectations of Steve in his role, and Steve—your expectations of Mark—and how did you come to those expectations?

Mark Walsh: So, the metrics and yardsticks that someone in my role and as president would lay out, are relatively simple, then they get complex. The simple one is, chart the graph up and to the right. The annual fund, both restricted and unrestricted, at Union was stunted and low—artificially low versus our peers. So, job “A” for Steve Dare was to change that number up and to the right, and to build the team, budget – allocate budget, and get that number up and to the right. In essence, bluntly, from the corporate perspective, to hit his numbers, as they say for sales people. Which he’s done magnificently. And I think everything else after that has been gravy.

The second thing that we asked of Steve was to streamline message, and streamline messenger, and streamline pipeline. So, the alumni magazine, the brochures we pump out, the website and how we describe things on the website—make sure we were saving money and using all the affordable tools and tactics that are now available, from social networks on down to, you know, brochures and mailings.

We were a classic example of folks running around and doing their own thing. And that’s okay; but Steve’s job – assignment “A” was to streamline, organize, budget, and prioritize message management, pipeline, and all that. He’s done a dynamite job on that.

And then I think the third thing, is find alumni or interested parties of deep means through discovery and tools and tactics and software, and initiate conversations with them, with people that have told us to go pound sand; don’t ever talk to them again. And open doors that were slammed and then nailed shut. And asked Steve to take a hammer and pry the nails off, and then grease the door locks and try and get in. So, that’s kind of the – that’s the aspirational – and again, I think he gets great grades for that, getting me and our president and others in front of those people.

Steve Dare: Going back to the fact that Mark, was running the committee before I got here, to have somebody that, especially in Mark’s professional line of work, in terms of media and marketing technology, to have him be the external voice, in an additional and different way than President Ainlay. Mark can come in as the force with full knowledge of what we’re trying to do behind the scenes, and really be able to engage all these people. We just had an event in New York City where we had Union entrepreneurs. We had over 100 of them. All kinds of businesses. And Mark happens to be in the great class of 1976, the pivot point for all decades before and after. It’s a great, great class. He had people call him and say, hey, I haven’t been out in a while and I’d like to come out.

So, being out there – and, as Mark said, we really want to try to reconnect with a lot of people. Having him out there in this position—it’s a perfect complement to what we do behind the scenes, Stephen Ainlay does representing the organization, and then what Mark does out representing our most important constituency, the alumni. And Mark is also a parent. He’s got it all covered. But anyway, it really works nicely, I think.

WG: In terms of collaborating with the CAO, what kind of suggestions would you offer regarding that relationship with the advancement chair and other members of the board?

Mark Walsh: Well it’s the old 360. And this is kind of classic corporate advice I would give. I think I would give this to any divisional leader in a corporation where they have a CEO boss. So, pay attention below you, which I think Steve’s done. Build relationships with your key lieutenants, because in academia or, I would argue, in any environment; but I think in academia it’s even exaggerated. The politics get exaggerated. What you don’t want is people backbiting, because it does get around, and it really, really weakens your effectiveness and your power base. So, I would aim down first and make sure you have people’s confidence that what you’re doing and you’re going to put them in the right spot to succeed. So, that would be job “A.”

And then job “B” in the 360 is straight up to your boss, or whoever you perceive your boss to be—and of course there are always hidden bosses, right? And make sure that they know…

Finally in the 360, left and right. So, look externally outside, in this case, the school of Union. Who’s your friend? Who’s going to help out? Be it trustees or other alumni – local alumni. And then to the right, look to, the other institutions besides alumni. Town-gown relationships, supportive business people; and just do that 360. I think if you start from the bottom with your team, then look top, and then look left and right, I would argue that if you do that sequentially, you’re going to have a great start. And great starts usually mean great careers.

Steve Dare: I’d say, sit back and have some fun. You have a tremendous opportunity here. Do your best work, and work with the people. This is the best board I’ve ever worked with in my life, from the moment I walked in.

WG: Mark, what is it that keeps you up at night, thinking about your board?

Mark Walsh: Well, this is an oxymoronic answer, because it’s – I’m going to say two things that are actually in direct conflict with each other. The first thing is that the board will move too fast, and the second thing that keeps me up is, it will move too slow. And I think that if you move too fast, the board is dominated by folks from the business community who think that we can fix everything if we move rapidly; and in fact, that jigsaw puzzle doesn’t fit, because business behavior does not jibe with pedagogy and academics and the academy. So, that’s sort of one.

And then again, the oxymoronic – the other side of the fence is that we’ll move too slowly, and one day we’ll wake up at Union College and the, for-profitization, University of Phoenix-ization, the online-ization of education, both K through 12 and higher ed, will have caught us by surprise. We have a cost structure that’s too high, a declining student body, folks are challenging our annual tuition rate, that’s market rate but over $50,000 a year, and we’re – all of a sudden, we’re stuck, with a lot of our peers, in a bad business model.

So, to me, the biggest challenge, I would argue, for the trustees, is walking that line between too fast and too slow. Like the kids’ story with the three bears—Goldilocks—it’s got to be just right. And what keeps me up at night is, what is just right? I don’t know, but we’re trying to find out.

WG: What are your – in terms of working with your board now, what challenges do you have with them in terms of their engagement in raising money for Union College, and do you have tips you want to share?

Mark Walsh: We have a challenge. I’ll be blunt. Our board is lumpy. And what I mean by that is that we have some unbelievably supportive members of our board, and these are folks with high capacity who really do give till it hurts—“A.” “B,” what they do that’s most impressive to me, is that they follow direction. So, Steve Dare said what matters most is the annual fund, particularly unrestricted annual fund. As I call it, it’s the mother’s milk of college operations. It’s unrestricted annual fund dollars. And we’ve had – and I count myself in there. I think we have a bunch of folks who believe that and act accordingly, and their dollars really matter, and our annual fund unrestricted has gone way up, 100% over a number of – over three or four years.

Especially when you think of 08, ’09, right? So, we’ve done a lot of things right. Now, when I say lumpy, we also have some folks who think that their time and expertise takes the place of their treasure. And we have had – both Steve and I together and alone, and others, have had frank conversations with these individuals. And I’ve got to tell you, in a couple of cases, for people that are incredibly smart and successful, they just don’t seem to get it.

So, we’re in the process of making sure that every board member understands in – with crystal clarity, that they have three things to give—time, treasure, and talent—and all three are important. So, without one, you really have failed the other two. And I think every fresh board invitation we have coming forward – because I’m on the nominations committee, and Steve Dare briefs us every time we meet, is, we look at somebody, and is that man or woman going to bring time, treasure, and talent? And if the answer is no treasure—well, then, they’d better have an unbelievable amount of time and talent, to measure up. So, that, to me, is an issue that we at Union have to address. I don’t think we’re alone.

The final other point I’ll make is – to your overall question, how do they help raise money, is every single one of them has people in their class or that they knew when they were there, that is a hidden gem. Software can only discover so much capacity and research. So, we’re always looking for the fresh name of somebody that we can reengage and just – and by the way, I’m an example. I was completely disengaged with Union College until about 12 years ago, when I met with the president. I’m talking, I had given virtually nothing. And now I’m completely strapped to the missile here. And I think there are me’s out there. And I think we’re – we have to make sure…Every trustee knows, come on. Just give me some leads. Make an introduction. Because there are future versions of me or other people like me out there. So, engagement of – people’s names and also engagement of donation.

Steve Dare: I think what Mark said is exactly where I am. Because the operation here can – we can do whatever we need to do, and people are very good about changing their roles, or adapting, or doing whatever they need to do.

You have to walk that fine line between being – having the fiduciary role; yet understanding how the academy works. And we’ve got a president who’s really, working very hard. How do we do all our due diligence and still move the place along, in a way that’s swift enough to not just stay ahead of the curve, but to really beat some of our competition? To me, that’s the end game.

So, I was very pleased by this recent retreat, and Mark’s leadership and the leadership of some other trustees who were running some of the planning. I think we’re on a path this year to renew our plan and, you know, be in a good place. Much work to do. Probably a few heated conversations here and there. But I think all in a very good spirit.

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