For some, school starts again, beginning a new chapter in one’s preparation for the future. For others—including us at Isaacson, Miller—it’s back to work with new assignments and recharged batteries. That sense of opportunity is doubly strong for those of us involved in Advancement searches. Why? Because many schools and colleges take stock of their strategy and circumstances during the relatively quiet months of summer, and by September, our phones are ringing.
In this feature, we tell the story of one such engagement recounting how Virginia Military Institute’s advancement agencies decided over the past few years to restructure its alumni engagement and development teams. For the VMI Alumni Agencies, and also for Isaacson, Miller’s Advancement Team, that was a one of a kind opportunity.
For the Virginia Military Institute, a highly successful fundraising campaign presented an opportunity to change its approach to alumni relations and development—and to provide more coordinated leadership and strategy across a wide range of institutional activities.
Founded in 1839 as the nation’s first state-supported military college, VMI today offers broad undergraduate programs, with majors in engineering, sciences, liberal arts, and social sciences. The Institute’s curricular and extracurricular offerings emphasize leadership and character development, and its website describes VMI’s leadership opportunities with one word: infinite.
Over VMI’s long history, three distinct outward-facing organizations aimed at supporting the Institute’s mission had evolved: the relationship-building VMI Alumni Association, the fundraising VMI Foundation, and the athletics-oriented Keydet Club. Those three entities shared a loose organizational umbrella—the VMI Alumni Agencies—but they operated more or less independently. The structure had clear advantages—for example, providing many opportunities for alumni volunteer leadership in areas of particular interest to them. On the other hand, it presented ongoing coordination challenges. In a given week or month, a prominent alumnus might receive calls from representatives of one, two, or all three of the Alumni Agencies, each of which had its own branding, messaging, and priorities. “Mission creep” and staff overlaps were ongoing concerns.
The launch of a major fundraising campaign in 2012—“An Uncommon Purpose: A Glorious Past, A Brilliant Future: The Campaign for VMI”—encouraged the heads of the Alumni Agencies to look for ways to increase coordination across their activities. The campaign included substantial benchmarking with other colleges and universities—a “look sideways”—that further contributed to a growing sense within the agencies that a more formal coordinating mechanism was needed.
A strong voice in that camp belonged to Hugh M. Fain III—a member of the Class of 1980, a past president of both the Alumni Association and the Foundation. “The success of the campaign,” Fain recalls, “underscored that we had to figure out best practices in institutional advancement to see how the Alumni Agencies should operate in coming decades.”
Again, there was a welcome degree of consensus across the three organizations. “We knew we needed someone with a set of skills that you might not ordinarily need in institutional advancement,” Fain says. “We needed a strong leader to be the first CEO of these combined agencies. That leader had to be a diplomat, respecting the traditions and skills of each of the constituent groups. And, of course, we needed a real pro in institutional advancement—not just fundraising, but alumni engagement, communications, and so on. So it was a tough bill to fill, for sure.”
Further complicating the calculation was a classic case of the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. Again, the campaign had been an unqualified success. Year to year, too, VMI enjoyed an annual giving rate of about a third or better—enviable for most schools, and spectacular for a public college. It also had one of the largest endowments per student of any public college. “That all adds up to a passionate and highly engaged alumni base,” Fain observes, “which of course cut both ways. If we were going to change the model, we were going to have to come up with a really good new model.”
Against that backdrop, in the summer of 2016, the search for a search firm began. The VMI Alumni Agencies had not worked with Isaacson, Miller (IM) before, so both sides had to figure out if it was a good fit. As it turned out, it was. Says Fain, “We were impressed that Isaacson, Miller had a designated Advancement team, and we were pleased with the amount of attention that the head of that team, Jack Gorman, paid to us. They were clearly the right group to go with.” For its part, IM hadn’t been hired by a military institution before, but concluded that the fundamentals of a search would still pertain, and that they could serve this new kind of client well.
That said, where would IM find the very particular sort of character that VMI was looking for?
Sometime in the late fall of 2016, the phone on Stephen Maconi’s desk rang. Maconi was a 1977 MIT graduate who had spent two decades as an aviator in the U.S. Navy. He then spent another decade and half working his way up through the ranks of the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation, culminating in a three-year stint as that foundation’s vice president for development. In 2013, he moved to the Severn School—an independent college-preparatory day school in Severna Park, Maryland—where he was serving as director of development.
“So my phone rings,” Maconi recalls, “and it was [IM’s] Becky Wei Piper. She described the VMI job, and asked me if I knew anybody who might be appropriate. It never once crossed my mind that I should apply. Not once. I assumed that VMI would absolutely want an alumnus to fill that inaugural job.” So when Piper sent Maconi the job description, he forwarded it on to VMI alumni he had known in the service and in civilian life. “I knew a whole bunch of VMI graduates,” he says. “I had flown with some in the Navy. A dear friend is a VMI grad. The father of my sister-in-law is a VMI grad. So I had connections.”
Then things took an unexpected turn. About a month later, Piper called back. Several of the people to whom Maconi had forwarded the job posting had told IM that Maconi himself was the right man for the job. “And it was at that point,” Maconi says, “that I began to think of it as a possible opportunity.”
Gradually, the feeling became mutual. “Isaacson, Miller did a fabulous job in bringing us a lot of highly qualified candidates,” Hugh Fain remembers. “Some were alumni, and others weren’t. But when we compared Steve’s qualifications to our must-haves, he rose to the top of the list.”
Both Fain and Maconi point to IM’s thoroughness in the search process. “We had access to a team of three professionals,” says Fain, “and their commitment to the assignment was over-the-top.” Maconi recalls being asked for nine references—and then getting follow-up phone calls from all nine. “Every single one of them,” he says, “told me how professional the reference process was. Maybe I shouldn’t say I was surprised, but honestly, I was.”
Maconi was offered and accepted the job early in 2017. So how is it working out?
“It’s been a home run,” Fain says, grinning. “To invoke a military metaphor, Steve’s spent his first year and a half walking the battlefield, assessing his available assets, figuring out strengths and weaknesses, and—very diplomatically—making changes where needed.”
Hearing this appraisal, Maconi laughs. “That’s Hugh being kind, as always. I call Year One the Year of the Low-Hanging Fruit. Everybody around me was rooting for Year One to be successful. In the next couple of years, though, we’ll be challenged to find the next level of efficiencies that will make us more effective. But I have great people around me, and we continue to have outstanding alumni support.
“I’m highly optimistic,” Maconi concludes. “And it’s an informed optimism.”