Monthly Archives: September 2016

Lessons about stewardship

stewardshipI have to confess that stewardship is not my favorite leadership competencies to write about. I’m much more comfortable with areas like effective communication, talent development, and self-awareness. So this month has been good for me. Here are a few things I learned about stewardship:

  • Stewardship is about using our resources to support our core goals. Activities that take up time, energy, and money without furthering those goals should be reconsidered.
  • Colleges and Universities within the Minnesota State system have strong ties to place. Supporting local engagement and considering how our goals support our communities is a form of stewardship. When planning service learning, the benefits to community may be more important long-term than focusing only on the benefits for students.
  • Being effective stewards means learning how to use data more effectively.
  • Proactive stewardship that fosters long-term sustainability requires asking the hard questions.
  • And, of course, stewardship is about communication – with donors, with community members, with students, and with our colleagues.

If you’ve been on the journey with us this month, what are the highlights or new ideas that stood out for you?

Dee Anne Bonebright


A balancing act!

balanceStewardship and fundraising is a delicate balancing act for leaders in higher education. And it is easy to crash!

A 2014 doctoral thesis from Penn State provides details on what drives donors to contribute to higher educational institutions and how leaders can utilize stewardship to build donor relationships and generate additional resources for their colleges and universities. You can download the thesis here if you are interested.

The author shares a 2011 story of a large donor who felt ignored and halted his $7 million dollar donation. The donor actually asked for money back and for his name to be removed from a building that was already completed. That is a big crash!

The researcher found that donors in higher education have a unique connection with the school, potentially as an alum or due to a family or community connection, and this influences the type of interactions they expect when they donate. While much of the responsibility for donor relations resides with the development area, leaders can make a significant difference.

The top strategy for nurturing donor relationships focuses on treating them with respect. Leaders can support this by actively:

  • thanking donors
  • communicating with donors even when not soliciting money
  • looking for opportunities to give donors private attention or private time

Building relationships with your development area, offering leadership support, and spending time with donors will help leaders be better at overall stewardship in higher education – and avoid any painful crashes!

Todd Thorsgaard

Stewardship and communication

dashboardOne of the activities listed under our Minnesota State competency of good stewardship is this:  Communicates decisions regarding resources in an effective manner to stakeholders.

As  I was thinking about the topic, it raised another question for me – it’s important to communicate decisions, but when and how should stakeholders be involved in the decision making process? A little time on Google resulted in the following observations.

According to the University of Minnesota’s site on civic engagement, involving others in decision making can yield benefits. It can result in better decisions by providing access to more information, more perspectives, and greater mutual understanding. In addition, outside viewpoints can point to deeper understanding of problems that may need to be solved in the future.

A national consulting firm pointed out that involving employees in decision making can help them feel part of the team, improve their own day-to-day decision making, and help them feel more accountable for the decision. In addition, employees who are involved in decisions tend to be more focused on the future and less likely to get stuck in negativity and blame.

That sounds good, but when it comes to financial decision making, some managers are reluctant to involve employees. This article from Sage Communications pointed out both sides of the issue. Practicing “open book” management can increase transparency and a sense of community, as well as generating new ideas. On the other hand, some staff members may experience information overload or may need training and background in order to make suggestions that can be implemented in the organization’s context.

Recently we have seen examples of inclusive decision making related to our long-term financial sustainability. Associate Vice Chancellor Phil Davis and Chancellor Rosenstone have both reached out to the Minnesota State community asking for feedback and providing opportunities for us all to have input into the decision making process.

What advice do you have about communicating financial decisions?

Dee Anne Bonebright


Stewardship and tragedy

scsu-rallyOne leadership competency that is always important is the ability to respond in the moment. I am going to take a quick detour from stewardship and share a powerful set of stories and images from the past week. This photo by @NickLenz captures what it means to be a leader in higher education. Students, faculty, staff, administrators and interim president Ashish Vaiyda all joined together for a rally this week in response to the stabbing incident in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

I have been proud to read the stories of how one of our schools has demonstrated true compassion in response to a tragedy and unwavering support of students and community members who are threatened because of their ethnic background. They all stepped up in a public arena and led a rally for unity. Afterwards they also hosted small group discussions.

I will let their words and pictures speak for themselves.

#StCloudUnited twitter feed

MPR News story

Bring Me the News story

St. Cloud Times story

Stillwater Patch story

KNSI radio story

Have a peaceful weekend.

Todd Thorsgaard

Stewardship means change!

houston“Houston, we have a problem….” is how Jane Wellman, higher education finance expert, describes the reality most public higher education institutions are facing today in an Inside Higher Education report. Minnesota State Chancellor Steven Rosenstone, at his final board of trustee retreat, reinforced our need to take action to respond to the “tectonic” changes our system is facing if we are to be stewards of the resources we receive from the public and our students and their families.

Stewardship, or long-term sustainability, in higher education requires more than carefully watching how we spend our money. Former interim president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Avelino Mills-Novoa, implores us to change from training our students how to fit into our colleges and universities to actually changing our colleges and universities so they fit our students!

This type of stewardship demands that we challenge ourselves and our teams to tackle issues that we have not been willing to address in the past. At a previous organization where I worked at we used the term “sacred cows” to open up dialogue with all employees. What existing practices, policies, procedures, work habits, leadership styles, infrastructure, labor agreements, ideas, or traditions need to be examined and potentially given up or radically changed to allow us to serve our students and communities as they deserve to be served?

A cross-functional workgroup representing stakeholders from our campuses and the system recently identified five potential recommendations to ensure our financial sustainability. It included students, union representatives, campus leaders, and outside experts. As you read through the report you will see that a number of sacred cows are identified. As leaders in higher education, setting the stage for your teams to examine and discuss these recommendations is an example of stewardship.

  1. Act as an enterprise
  2. Consolidate the delivery of core functions
  3. Build partnerships that prepare students for a successful college or university experience
  4. Adopt more creative and flexible labor practices
  5. Re-calibrate physical plant and space capacity

What are your reactions to the report? Are there other sacred cows for us to challenge and change?

Todd Thorsgaard

Higher education and the public good

dollarsHave public institutions of higher education been good stewards of the taxpayer funding given to them? I assume that most of our readers will answer with a resounding “yes.” Or maybe not.  Recently there has been debate about this question.

I’ve been working in public higher education for a long time. When I started we were viewed as a public good creating multiple benefits for the state of Minnesota. Somewhere along the way that has changed and we now seem to be viewed as a drain on public coffers. How did that come about?

starving-the-beastAn upcoming film is set to tackle this issue. Calling it one of the nation’s most important and least understood fights, Starving the Beast seeks to present the viewpoints of both critics and proponents of public funding for higher education. According to a review in The Atlantic, the film could help leaders in higher education gain a broader context for understanding complex issues around funding and outcomes.

As with most issues, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. I don’t believe higher education is spending wildly on random projects, with faculty that are protected by tenure and therefore doesn’t need to pay attention to the rest of the world. On the other hand, we have a lot of work to do. The recent report by the Minnesota State workforce on financial sustainability highlighted some key concerns.

Maybe part of stewardship is in the perception – it’s not only what we do but how we are seen to be doing it. What do you think?

Dee Anne Bonebright

Data and decision making

chartAs education leaders we hear a lot about data-based decision making. We’re told that stewardship and prudent decision making are based on objective criteria. However, a recent report from Educause found that, while higher education institutions are collecting more data than ever, the data tends to be used to satisfy reporting requirements rather than to address strategic issues – if it gets used at all.

What is getting in the way?  Two big concerns were the cost of gathering and analyzing data, and mistrust of the quality and/or potential use for data. They also found that some administrators aren’t sure what to do with the data and haven’t built systemwide infrastructures to support it.

Here are some tips from the report to help you get started:

  1. Take a strategic look at the questions you want to address. Focus on those questions rather than data that might be readily available.
  2. Invest in people, not tools. Data analytics is a process and you’ll need to hire or train people with the knowledge to implement it.
  3. Build systemwide partnerships among IT, IR, and leadership.
  4. Create infrastructure to support and communicate about the process.

Finally, the report recommended that we should not wait for the perfect culture or the perfect data. Develop initiatives based on the best data you have – you’ll learn and improve as you go along.

Dee Anne Bonebright


Who is serving who?


“Communities are not places to make mistakes.”

Randy Stoeker challenges higher education leaders to rethink service learning and stewardship in his new book, Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement (Temple University Press).  Community engagement is a responsibility we have as good stewards, but Stoeker believes that we may be misguided in our efforts to serve our communities with traditional service learning programs. This article summarizes his main points.

As Dee Anne wrote on Monday, higher education has a unique opportunity to address critical issues that our communities face. Economic inequity, disparities in educational and occupational opportunities, racial injustice, violence, homelessness, mental illness, an aging population – the list goes on and our students can make a difference if we focus on outcomes.

Stoeker proposes a radical idea: that when we ask students to participate in service learning we focus less on our students and more on the community! What does the community want? What will make a difference for the people in the community? These questions can be more important than asking what our students will learn. This definition of stewardship highlights our overall opportunity and accountability for making a real difference in the world – not just in the classroom.

Take a moment to read the summary of Stoeker’s book and share your thoughts on stewardship and service learning.

Todd Thorsgaard


Being Stewards of Place

stewardshipI learned a new term when researching topics for this month – Stewardship of Place. As explained by the Association of American State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), it’s the idea that we have a responsibility to  collaborate with community stakeholders in the places we are located to maximize shared opportunities and  jointly address critical issues.

State colleges and universities are closely linked to their communities. Issues such as economic development, education reform, and environmental protection are often addressed through local and regional partnerships.  AASCU says that this type of public engagement:

  • Has meaning and value for an institution’s neighbors
  • Is interactive, with institutions serving as both learners and teachers
  • Is mutually beneficial
  • Is integrated into all levels of the institution

The AASCU report describes a range of methods for implementing this kind of community engagement. The key point is that it needs to be an integral part of the organization – and recognized as part of its core values.

As campus leaders, many of us have the opportunity to participate in strategy conversations at the institutional, departmental, and unit level. What kinds of community engagement are important in those conversations? How can we support our colleges and universities in being stewards of place?

Dee Anne Bonebright

AASCU (Assn. of American State Colleges and Universities) – Stepping Forward as Stewards of Place

Public Purpose – Stewardship in an Era of Constraint


A New Perspective on Stewardship

magnifying-glassAs we consider our Minnesota State leadership competencies and focus on stewardship, I find myself wondering how it applies to me as a leader. While I try to be responsible with the resources assigned to me, I don’t meet with donors or make financial decisions. So how can I demonstrate stewardship in my day-to-day leadership?

Rose Pascarell is the  VP for Student Life at George Mason University. She wrote an article challenging her readers to consider how student affairs might look if stewardship was the guiding principal. How might that change the services we provide to students and the outcomes they experience?

Pascarell said that stewardship means examining how we use our financial resources to support our core goals. To do this, we need to seek new perspectives and multiple viewpoints.

“I challenge us all to consider whether we truly serve our students to the best of our ability when we build organizations that are complex, internally competitive, and focus on our own professional growth and professional curiosity without honest reflection on resources necessary to build our ideal student affairs environment.”

I can take “student affairs” out of the challenge above and insert my own area of human resources.Thinking about the goals of my work unit, I can ask whether my actions support Minnesota State in attracting, retaining, and developing employees to meet current and future educational needs. If I can’t make a direct connection, then being a good steward means taking a look at that activity and thinking of ways to stop doing it, or to do it more effectively.

How might your work be different if  stewardship was the guiding principle?

Dee Anne Bonebright