In January of 2015, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) retained Isaacson, Miller (IM) to recruit a vice president for advancement. The result might be called a case study in the way highly engaged partnerships lead to phenomenal recruits. Through a strong partnership with Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, and Chief Executive Officer of the Virginia Tech Foundation John Dooley, who served as chair of the search committee, IM Vice President Jack Gorman and his team identified the best talent for the search. The slate of candidates included Blacksburg native and Virginia Tech alumnus Charlie Phlegar, who at the time was chief fundraiser for Cornell University. In a huge recruit for Virginia Tech, Dr. Sands hired Mr. Phlegar, who began his tenure on July 1.
Mr. Phlegar recently spoke with IM about his work at Virginia Tech and the strong partnerships and personal connections that enabled him to "come home" to this first-of-its-kind position at the University.
Tell us about the genesis of your interest in fundraising. How did that germinate, and how did it grow?
As a grad student at Virginia Tech, I was fortunate to have a mentor in Charlie Forbes, who at the time was vice president for development. My stint as a grad student was also concurrent with Virginia Tech's first capital campaign, and I was working for the alumni association. So that was my exposure to this field. The work interested me, but it was really Charlie's guidance that launched me on this path. He recommended that I pursue a career in fundraising, but that I leave Virginia Tech to do that. He felt that as a Blacksburg native, I needed the opportunity to get away and expand my perspective. That turned out to be fantastic advice.
Several positions later, I found myself seeking the advice of another mentor-Bob Lindgren, who was the vice president for alumni affairs and development at Johns Hopkins University. At that point, I was trying to get exposure to a higher level program: more staff, a more comprehensive program, a program that was raising multiples of what I was raising in the position I was in at the time, and at an AAU quality institution. Well, that was Johns Hopkins. So I went there as associate vice president. After that, I ended up at Cornell University. I'd wanted to get back to an institution that had a land grant mission, because that's always been my passion. Institutions with land grant missions are able to serve society in multiple ways. They offer cross-discipline approaches and tend to get a more diverse student body. So Cornell felt like a fit.
Can you talk about some programs you've led that you've felt have been particularly successful?
All the programs have been very successful at different levels, though I'd call Cornell the most successful in that we completed a $6.2 billion campaign and were able to accomplish the Cornell Tech Project on Roosevelt Island. This was a project that touched a lot of different aspects of higher education and had a huge impact on the institution. And philanthropy played a critical role. Without it, that project would have been almost impossible to execute.
One other important piece of Cornell's program-which has really become a model program here in the US-was our work with the alumni programs. We were able to measure people's engagement at various levels and then integrate that engagement into the fundraising program. We learned how to use Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn in a much more integrated and strategic way. And that paid off.
And now you're in a new position-the first of its kind-at Virginia Tech. What was the thinking behind the development of your role?
"Vice President for Advancement" is a new position created by Tim Sands, the president of Virginia Tech. He felt that someone needed to oversee alumni engagement fundraising, as well as marketing, communications, and university relations-that all that work needed to be under one umbrella. The benefit of this "marriage" is that it allows the university to integrate more closely and align all those key aspects of philanthropy. A lot of universities are moving to this model. Done right, it can be very effective.
What was it about this opportunity, the opportunity to go home again, that attracted you?
It was at this crossroads in my professional career that I looked to another person I trusted, just as I had with Charlie and Bob. I had a trust factor in Jack Gorman-that helped. We've known each other for 15 years. He felt I should take the time to meet Tim Sands, the president, and to get to know what he was trying to accomplish. Jack also had a lot of confidence in John Dooley, who heads up the Virginia Tech Foundation and chaired the search committee for this position. By talking with the three of them, I could see that they were serious about trying to make something significant happen and that my background and experience would be uniquely situated to meet the need. I was just finishing up the campaign at Cornell and the Virginia Tech position lined up to bring me full circle: home, for the conclusion of my career.
Of course, there was still some initial shock. I left an institution in Cornell that I loved, with a program that was quite mature. At Virginia Tech, I'm involved in a program that needs to grow and build. But as I began to adjust, it became clear that this is a program with a lot of depth and huge upside potential. The institution is poised to take a forward leap. It's very flexible and nimble and that is very, very exciting.
You've been in the job now about six months. What have you been able to accomplish?
I've been able to recruit five senior members of my leadership team and couple that with some strong leadership that was already in place. We're also laying the groundwork for a major capital campaign.
Because Virginia Tech is a similar institution to Cornell-both have land grant missions and are structurally alike-I'm able to draw on my previous experience to help grow and develop Virginia Tech's program. And I know what that can do for a university.
Philanthropy really enables the vision of an institution's leadership. Philanthropy is the margin that elevates an institution at all levels and allows universities to do things that they couldn't do without private support. Tim Sands' vision will be realized because of the impact of philanthropy. This vision reaches across all aspects of the university. With the support of philanthropy, Virginia Tech will be able to build new buildings, hire faculty at a level we couldn't otherwise, elevate student programming, ensure that a Virginia Tech education is interactive and entrepreneurial, and guarantee funds that allow the types of students that should be at Virginia Tech to attend the university, regardless of their financial ability to do so.
How has your definition of philanthropy, or a successful philanthropic endeavor, evolved over time?
A good word might be "cooperation." We've become better at lining up donor priorities with university priorities and making sure that that engagement accomplishes what both parties want to accomplish. We've become better at educating both donors and faculty/administrators that philanthropy only really "works" when it benefits both parties.
I've also gotten a lot better at developing and leading programs that engage people from the beginning of their interest in philanthropy to the end. From the time they come to the University and then through the life of their philanthropic engagement with the University. We're also engaging people where they want to be engaged. It's important that we in higher education make that engagement a positive thing. Then we're smarter about competition for people's philanthropic dollars.
When you look at your career now, what are your thoughts?
I'm very fortunate to have had an interesting career, and to have had the right mentors and relationships at the right moments. And I'm also fortunate to be able to return to an institution that I care a lot about; I'm optimistic that I can have a positive impact on it. I'm just very grateful for this opportunity, and I'm grateful for Jack, too-that he thought of me and helped make this happen.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.