The Strategic Initiatives Group for Advancement Professionals (SIGAP) is a community organized by and for fundraising professionals dedicated to securing transformational support for large-scale institutional priorities, interdisciplinary research initiatives, institutes and centers. SIGAP convenes an annual conference to share best practices, augmented by ongoing networking and digital resources.
It began with a conference call in 2011.
Ben Porter was a major and principal gifts officer at Northwestern University tasked with raising millions of dollars in gifts for three prominent research institutes. The problem he faced was that, unlike colleagues in schools and colleges, the institutes did not have established alumni bases, nor any historical donors, from which to draw prospects. They had superstar faculty but no natural constituency around which to build a fundraising strategy.
Nevertheless, the institution placed a high priority on fundraising for these centers. Ben needed a plan for success that required out-of-the-box thinking and strategies beyond the traditional methods of affinity- and loyalty-based fundraising. He coordinated a call with colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, University of Michigan, Duke and Johns Hopkins to seek advice on how they would approach this puzzle. As it turned out, these colleagues were facing similar challenges – some much farther along than others– and were ready to share what they had learned. This led to the formation of the first group of leadership, Ben Porter, Donna Lawrence (Stanford), Aaron Westfall (University of Michigan), Sharon Stanczak (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) , Andrew Rentschler (Johns Hopkins University) and Barbara Collins (Duke University).
From that first call came a realization that more and more institutions were prioritizing fundraising for challenges that did not adhere to the traditional, school/college-based fundraising models. These fundraising priorities, deemed “strategic initiatives,” represented choices made by university leadership to dedicate time and resources to a significant area for long-term benefit of the institution and the world. The gifts themselves could be huge – $100M or more – with the power to disrupt not only the problem but the University’s structure and organization. The group resolved to establish a peer-led conference that could bring together other fundraisers from top-tier research institutions to talk about raising these disruptive gifts.
In 2012, Northwestern hosted the first “Strategic Initiatives Conference” with six participants, with the intention that it would rotate annually among the peer group. As it went along, each new host invited one or two new universities, and soon the conference grew to include over 60+ attendees from across the US, UK and Canada. Peer-learning and friendship became the hallmarks of the Strategic Initiatives Conference.
A high-water mark came in 2018, when the University of Oregon hosted the conference. President Michael Schill explained to the group how Oregon designed and cultivated a historic $500M gift for The Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact. In both size and content, this conference would be difficult to top. Additionally, more universities were requesting to join the conference, but the job of host was becoming a daunting task. The Strategic Initiatives Conference was growing beyond a once-per-year event and into an enduring community. In 2019, the individuals who had invested the most time and energy over the years regrouped at Northwestern to decide how to move forward. The result of this meeting was the decision to establish the Strategic Initiatives Group for Advancement Professionals (SIGAP), to provide a better foundation for the annual conference and the growing professional network. The group incorporated as a non-profit organization in 2020 and unanimously elected Leti Light of Berkeley as its first President.
Today, SIGAP serves as the organizing entity for the Strategic Initiatives Conference as well as virtual networking and peer-learning events throughout the year.
2012: Northwestern University
2013: University of Michigan
2014: Stanford University
2016: Johns Hopkins University
2017: Duke University
2018: University of Oregon
2019: Northwestern University
2020-21: Virtual conference series hosted by SIGAP