‘Oh! Schmoozing!’

The Journal learns about the arts of raising money and building relationships to keep Queen’s in the black and improve its image

Vice-Principal (Advancement) David Mitchell reviews the day’s messages with his assistant.
Vice-Principal (Advancement) David Mitchell reviews the day’s messages with his assistant.
Photo: 
Mitchell meets with Principal Karen Hitchcock once a week to discuss his work with the Advancement office.
Mitchell meets with Principal Karen Hitchcock once a week to discuss his work with the Advancement office.
Photo: 

With 120,000 Queen’s alumni spread across 150 countries worldwide, keeping in touch can be tough. But for Vice-Principal (Advancement) David Mitchell, keeping in touch is a lifestyle.

On Tuesday, I spent the day with Mitchell to get a look behind the scenes of the Queen’s advancement team, which is devoted to connecting with alumni, donors and corporations to raise funds for the University.

Our day began early—and I don’t mean 8:30 a.m.-class early. I only saw four people walk to the Old Medical Building, where I found Mitchell helping unload a tray of muffins for sustenance during a budget meeting.

Inside, when everyone’s settled and finished making jokes about seeing a student awake at 7 a.m., Mitchell began the meeting.

“This is an important stage in our budget process,” he said.

Mitchell’s meeting was with five other members of his advancement team to talk about the budget for an upcoming advancement campaign.

The team discussed salaries in the department, their campaign’s launch and the potential for putting more people in the field.

There are about 125 people in the advancement office, Mitchell said. All but four employees work from Kingston. Three work permanently in the Toronto office and one employee in Calgary handles the entire west coast.

Mitchell stressed the importance of relationships in advancement—it’s not all about fundraising, he said. It’s important to meet with people face-to-face.

The budget meeting continued for three hours, but I ducked out to head to an 8:30 a.m. class.

I met Mitchell back at his office in Summerhill, the oldest building on campus.

Four oversized windows face the grassy hill that extends south to Stuart St. and large paintings adorn the walls. Two leather couches face each other in front of a fireplace, and a flat-screen TV is positioned in the corner opposite Mitchell’s large wooden desk. Bookshelves hold dictionaries, novels and copies of Mitchell’s own books on Canadian history and political biographies.

Mitchell was a member of the legislature in British Columbia from 1991 to 1996. He also worked as a columnist for the Vancouver Sun from 1997 to 1999.

He was appointed to his position at Queen’s in July and has been here since September. For five years prior to that, Mitchell worked at the University of Ottawa, where he was vice-president (external relations)—a position he also held for five years at Simon Fraser University, his own alma mater. At the University of Ottawa, Mitchell brought in $226 million for the school—the most successful fundraising campaign they’ve had to date.

As vice-principal (advancement), Mitchell makes $279,147.14 per year. But what exactly does he do?

“My family asks me this often,” he said. “I try to be mysterious about it.”

He said the word “advancement” isn’t synonymous with fundraising. Some other universities call the position external relations or alumni relations.

“It means advancing Queen’s and its mission—internally certainly, but also externally.”

He said fundraising’s a consequence of advancement activities. It’s about generating revenue, but the quality of relationships and the ability to maintain those relationships is also important.

Mitchell’s setting up a United States Advisory Council with a small number of alumni who’ve had success in law, business and medicine in the U.S. He said he counts on alumni to give him advice on how to fulfill the elements of Hitchcock’s strategic plan, “Engaging the World.” Mitchell said he likes the strategic plan because it’s ‘very bold.’

Mitchell said Queen’s is unique in its high alumni engagement. Many are multi-generational, he said, and the most common complaint he hears from alumni comes from those whose children or grandchildren aren’t accepted to the University.

“I joke and say, ‘Don’t worry, neither you nor I would get in today, either.’”

Mitchell meets with people in his department once a week. At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, he met with Judith Brown, executive director of alumni relations and annual giving.

They discuss items from stationary options to the University’s relationship with Alfred Bader, the alumnus who donated Herstmonceux Castle.

One thing that comes up again and again is the importance of building relationships with alumni—something Mitchell said comes before getting money.

Brown reminds him about the “Networking 101” workshop he’s supposed to do with her department.

“Oh! Schmoozing!” Mitchell replied, smiling.

Mitchell said he spends at least half of his time on the road. Last week alone, he was in San Francisco, Edmonton, Victoria and Vancouver. A map of the geographic spread of alumni shows why: there are Queen’s alumni across Canada and in every American state.

“Generally speaking, our strategy should be aligned with where the concentrations are,” Mitchell said, pointing to the Northeastern states, Toronto, Texas and California.

Next week, Mitchell heads back west to meet with alumni to discuss their continued involvement with their alma mater. In March, he said, he’ll be on campus for a couple of weeks for the first time since he has been at Queen’s.

“I’m looking forward to that,” he said, laughing.

At noon Mitchell led me through a maze of hallways until we reached a room known as the “salon.”

If it weren’t for the conference call and Mitchell’s ever-buzzing Blackberry, the salon would have a Victorian feel. A large display case holds old photos of the University and an antique grandfather clock stands in the corner.

Once a month the Queen’s Centre fundraising committee meets here for an update, Mitchell said. He and seven colleagues ate a catered lunch and began a discussion with a few disembodied voices coming over the speakerphone from across the country. Principal Hitchcock—who lost her connection at one point and returned sounding confused—also joined the conversation from her office in Dunning Hall.

Just before 1 p.m., Mitchell and I ducked out of the meeting so we could make our way through the cold to Mac-Corry to meet with Joy Mighty, director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning, which needs increased funding.

Mighty told him about the centre and said she has had a frustrating time dealing with the advancement office in the past. Mitchell reassured her.

He said they need to identify the “case for support” for the centre—fundraising jargon for the reason to donate. Mighty gave him a package with information about the centre and its needs and he promised to look into it.

Back at the Old Medical building, we headed upstairs to the meeting room we were in earlier. The room looked different filled with 25 advancement staff for the preliminary advancement services business review meeting.

Mitchell sat on the sidelines this time, listening to others make presentations. Just before 3 p.m., he thanked everyone and apologized for having to skip out early—again.

With a stack of papers in hand, Mitchell led me to his weekly meeting with Principal Hitchcock.

Mitchell filled her in on some fundraising budget details they both assured me are confidential.

“You notice that we aren’t using names,” Hitchcock said with a grin as they talk about “the issue” and restrict the conversation to pronouns.

Mitchell tried to convince the Principal to fit a trip to Calgary into her schedule.

“I think it’s important for you to get out there at least once this year,” he said.

By then it was 4 p.m. and Mitchell headed to another meeting, and then a dinner engagement. As for me, it was time to roll the credits on my day behind-the-scenes and head to class.

Before I went, however, I had to ask one last question: What does he like most about his job? Mitchell answered the question by telling me his theory about organizations: some people are more creative and keep the ideas flowing. Some are more rational and keep you focused.

Mitchell said he’s “one of those crazy people” who likes both dimensions. He loves the team-building aspect of his job, but he’s also very good at schmoozing.

“Most people are one or the other,” he said. “I sometimes wonder if I might be one of the hybrids.”

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