8 Questions: Sara Fenlason

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

If you look closely at the alumni or fundraising information you receive from the Carlson School, you’ll likely see Sara Fenlason’s name on it. As the school’s director of institutional advancement, she leads a team of staff members and volunteers dedicated to a key strategic goal: ensuring a financial foundation for academic excellence. As part of this goal, the team is charged with developing and executing campaigns that leverage private philanthropy and programs that promote engagement among parents, alumni, and business and community leaders.

Raising money and  getting people involved is second nature to Fenlason, who brings nearly two decades of experience to her position at the Carlson School. Her interest in fundraising was ignited while attending Smith College in Northampton, Mass. As a student calling alumnae during a college fundraising campaign, she made two discoveries: She enjoyed talking with alumnae and she was good at raising money. In fact, she did such an effective job that the consulting firm conducting the campaign hired her after graduation.

Since then, Fenlason has worked as a fundraising consultant for public and private higher education institutions, led individual giving for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and served as executive director for Women Winning, a Minnesota political action committee dedicated to electing women at all levels of public office. A key reason why she joined the Carlson School is her belief that higher education can help women achieve parity at the top levels of government and business.

She sat down with us recently to discuss her plans for enhancing and expanding the school’s institutional advancement programs and initiatives.

How are trends in public higher education affecting the Carlson School?

Throughout the country, shortfalls in state budgets are translating into significant budget cuts for public colleges and universities. Since most of these schools must keep tuition increases to a minimum, they are looking to private sources of revenue such as corporate and individual philanthropy to make up a large part of the difference. While this model may seem new, school systems such as the University of California adopted it almost two decades ago. And private schools have always used it.

The University of Minnesota and the Carlson School are facing these state budget issues right now. To maintain the quality and competitiveness of our programs, our vision is to boost the percentage of our operating budget that comes from private funding sources.

Another key trend is the growing influence of social networking in forging connections within groups. We are actively exploring new social networking tools and applications to strengthen connections between alumni and the Carlson School. For example, we are investigating online interest groups for alumni ranging from past students of the Medical Industry Leadership Institute to runners in the Twin Cities.

Tell us about the Carlson School’s Institutional Advancement programs and staff.

I lead an energetic, enthusiastic team of staff members and volunteers that focuses on three areas: alumni relations, individual giving, and corporate relations. While each area has distinctive audiences, programs, and goals, building relationships lies at the heart of all three. My team’s overarching mission is to engage alumni, benefactors, and businesses with the Carlson School community.

During my time here, I have been amazed by how much our alumni want to be involved with the Carlson School. They are truly proud of their alma mater. I also have enjoyed being back on campus. I am in awe of the energy and intelligence of our students.

What changes have you made since joining the Carlson School two years ago?

We started by benchmarking where the Carlson School stood versus other business schools and universities in terms of its alumni, giving, and corporate outreach programs. Next, while keeping in mind the vision of updating our revenue model and strengthening our relationships, we created plans and programs to enhance and expand the school’s engagement with alumni, benefactors, and businesses. We hope that everyone involved will benefit from these more active relationships and that the Carlson School can raise the percentage of its budget derived from private endowments and gifts.

What new alumni programs are planned for 2009 and 2010?

We want to continue growing the impact and reach of our reunion program. We have had fun, successful annual reunions for the past three years and we hope to involve even more alumni in the future. We also are developing regional alumni clubs in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. Over time, we would like to expand them to other cities that have many Carlson School alumni. Finally, we are strengthening our corporate clubs in the Twin Cities area. Right now, we have clubs at 3M, Cargill, Ecolab, GE Fleet Services, General Mills, Medtronic, Target, and RBC Dain Rauscher. Alumni ambassadors at each company serve as contacts for Carlson School alumni and current students and help build the alumni network within each organization.

And, speaking of business relationships, we are also stepping up our corporate relations efforts. The Twin Cities area has a thriving business community and we want to continue developing our corporate connections. There’s no question that corporate giving is an important revenue source for the Carlson School. However, these vital business relationships also benefit alumni and students by ensuring access to employment and networking opportunities. Business and community leaders also play key roles on the Carlson School’s advisory boards and provide critical feedback on issues and opportunities facing the school and its students.

What new initiatives are planned in the giving area?

We plan to enhance and expand some of our existing programs such as the senior gift program, the parents’ fund, the annual fund, and our estate/planned giving initiatives. The annual fund is especially important because it allows us to address urgent needs and take advantage of unique opportunities as they arise; it provides us with the flexibility to support innovative programs while sustaining our day-to-day operations. A priority this year is increasing our alumni participation rate. And we have started a special program, The Dean’s Circle, to recognize donors of $1,000 or more to the annual fund. These generous benefactors will be invited to special programs throughout the year and recognized in unique ways.

What are some key reasons why alumni should give back to the Carlson School?

Your gift has a big impact. Your donation helps the Carlson School retain talented faculty members, fund cutting-edge research, attract promising students, improve facilities, and sustain the operations of our innovative centers, institutes, and enterprises.

Giving back to your alma mater can be much more than writing out a check each year. More than 2,000 alumni and friends give the gift of their time by serving as volunteers in a wide array of programs. You can network with students and alumni, and encourage your employer to provide internships and employment opportunities. Or you can serve as a guest speaker or mentor; participate on a panel, case competition, or advisory board; or be a client for one of the Enterprise programs.

I want all alumni to know that we recognize your ability to give financially varies greatly throughout your life, with most people contributing more as they advance in their careers. However, we know that many other factors affect that, such as paying for your children’s college tuition or weddings, losing your job, or making life transitions like retirement or opening a business. We hope you’ll stay in touch in other ways during these times.

While there are lots of barriers to giving, there are many benefits to contributing. The value of one’s college degree is always changing. The more you give back to your alma mater and invest in it, the more the value of your investment increases. The good news is that the reputation and credibility of the Carlson School has steadily increased over the last couple of decades. By continuing to give back to your alma mater—whether through time, talent, or treasure—you help keep this momentum going.

How is the current economic environment impacting alumni and giving programs?

The economy is negatively impacting investments, jobs, and philanthropy. While we realize that many alumni may be considering reducing or eliminating their annual gifts this year, we also believe that this may be an opportune time for some to start giving, continue giving, or even give more.

This is one time when I would encourage alumni to think about what you can get back from the Carlson School as well as what you can give. If you want to make new business connections, Carlson School alumni represent a powerful corporate network that you can easily access via our website and alumni events. For example, our secure online directory allows you to find former classmates, network within your industry, or find other alumni in your area. And the Alumni Career Network enables Carlson School alumni and current students to build their professional networks and serve as career-related resources for one another. You can also join the Carlson School group on LinkedIn.

If you are job hunting, consider using the resources and services of our business career centers. Both are accessible via the school website. And if you want to upgrade or expand your skills, take a look at our Executive Education and graduate programs. There are also special programs for alumni who would like to return to class.

What would you like to say to alumni who haven’t stayed in touch?

There’s never been a better time for you to get involved with and support the Carlson School. We want you to come back and reconnect with your fellow classmates. Why not attend this year’s Carlson School reunion? Mark your calendar for game day on Saturday, October 10, in the new TCF Bank Stadium. Take a look at the school website and see what’s going on. You can check out the school’s alumni events and resources at carlsonschool.umn.edu/alumni. And be sure to surf our pages on Facebook and LinkedIn. We want to hear from you. If you would like to tell me about your thoughts and ideas, you can send them to csomalum@umn.edu.