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| There's a new vice-principal heading to McGill. Nancy Wells will take over the development and alumni relations portfolio from vice-principal Derek Drummond in this role starting May 1. The office is responsible for providing special services for graduates, maintaining and promoting alumni and donor relations, supporting the activities of current students and raising funds for the university's development needs.
Provost Luc Vinet says she has "both a wonderful personality and wonderful professional qualities. She had incredible experience coming from Stanford, which is the prime American university as far as fundraising goes. I think we're extremely lucky to get her."
photo: owen egan
Like most people who entered development in the 1980s, Wells took a winding route to get there. After a sociology BA in her home state of Massachusetts, she headed to Indiana University for a master's in education with an emphasis in college student personnel and administration. Wells later moved to Mount Vernon College, Washington, D.C., as assistant dean of students. Then consulting beckoned.
"I ran into a friend of a friend, who had a small fundraising consulting firm. He asked if I'd like to apply my people skills to the management of the firm," says Wells. After a few years as a managing director, Wells figured it was time to apply her newfound skills to higher education, her first love.
In 1992, she joined the fundraising team at Stanford University, in sunny Palo Alto, California. Most recently she held the post of associate vice-president and director of university development, where she managed seven development units with a total of 150 employees. Alongside deans, she worked on development for the schools of humanities and sciences, education, and earth sciences, as well as the institute for international studies.
Wells had a brief stint in 2000 as University of Washington's vice-president of development and alumni relations. She realized it wasn't quite the right fit, so chose to return to Stanford before establishing too many relationships that would need to be later undone. Wells says she made the most of her time at Washington by consulting with the staff, deans and president and making organizational recommendations.
After another two years of solid associate vice-president experience at Stanford, Wells is excited to take on McGill's vice-principal position for a variety of reasons. Her family is nearby and she's already delighted by Montreal's urban vitality and laid-back style. Wells wants to learn French to sink herself into what it means to live in the city, the province, and in Canada. She's also looking forward to "getting back into this geography" and honing her cross-country ski-skating skills.
First and foremost, she says, she was attracted to McGill because of its academic excellence, and "the opportunity to work at an elite place like this in a leadership role." But our new principal's boldness and energy also played a huge role in Wells' decision to come here. "Heather Munroe-Blum is someone who seems comfortable with the external relations aspects of her work. A chief development officer wants to come to a place where the principal is comfortable with bringing the university out to the public," says Wells.
Development involves building long-term relationships, which is why the integration of McGill's development and alumni relations offices is a real asset, Wells says. "McGill is very solid in its outreach and fundraising. I'm impressed with the alumni loyalty and the pride and confidence this place has, as expressed in the [development] office. It looks like a good place to come into and bring to the next level."
That next level has yet to be defined. "My bias is toward action, but strategic action," says Wells, who envisions an office where people are comfortable taking risks.
Wells' first step is to spend some time with McGill's key supporters and look at the structure and needs of the university. "I want to get in and understand things as much as I can, listen to people, just get inside the place for a while, but begin fairly quickly to make some moves to strengthen the office and to deploy our human resources as strategically as possible."
In general, Wells says, "development and alumni relations organizations need to be nimble, be flexible, permeable and always looking to the outside community and also to our faculty and our students."
"Student development is very important. If students are happy with their experience in an academic institution, chances are they'll want to stay connected. If they want to stay connected as alumni, chances are those who have the capacity and the inclination to do so will invest. And you want students to be happy for a much broader reason — they are why we're here."
Director of student aid and international student services Judy Stymest, part of the hiring committee, was particularly impressed by Wells' "appreciation and understanding of students." She's confident that the "vibrant and engaging" Wells is the one who can successfully lead McGill through the next capital campaign.
Within the development field, some see the fundraising challenges as daunting, but Wells loves her work.
"People from outside [development] think you're coming in and just grabbing somebody's wallet out of their back pocket and that couldn't be further from the truth."
It's easy to ask for money "if you understand that what you're asking for is but a means to an end, and that you're meeting other people's needs to be connected to an institution, to leave a legacy, to support that to which they're dedicated." An alum who cares about the institution is going to feel good about investing in a chair.
Nonetheless, a development officer needs to be "comfortable with a reasonably high level of rejection," Wells says, particularly in the large gift range, where success is hard earned. "You need to be comfortable taking the risk, asking what is essentially a very personal question of someone, which is 'would you invest in our educational institution?'"
Fundraisers do need "to negotiate the lightning rod aspect of this work," Wells says. "When you're talking about money, no matter what context it is, it's a commodity that everyone wants."
"People ascribe all sorts of power and characteristics to you that basically you don't have. You need to have a strong sense of who you are."
"I always say you need to be intellectually curious and emotionally very resilient in this business," adds Wells. "You have to be conversant and comfortable with a wide range of topics and discourse. You never know quite what you're going to encounter."
Contrary to what people think, it isn't all about parties and schmoozing. "Development is very hard work, nine-tenths of it is behind the scenes. And there's a lot of pressure associated with the work because it's bottom-line oriented."
Search committee member and executive director of development and alumni relations Honora Shaughnessy says, "We were so impressed by the breadth of Nancy's experience. It was clear to us that she had a very strong professional background and strong leadership skills. And when we met her and coupled these with her enthusiasm and great interpersonal skills, we knew we had a winner."