Laying the foundation for a New American University

R.F. “Rick” Shangraw Jr.

Q-and-A with ASU Foundation CEO R.F. “Rick” Shangraw Jr.

Ten years ago, when ASU President Michael M. Crow unveiled his blueprint for a New American University, Newsweek called it “one of the most radical redesigns in higher learning since the modern research university took shape in 19th-century Germany.” Students, faculty and staff began seeing major transformations immediately in the way their departments and colleges interfaced with each other and with the community. Crow’s blueprint called upon university leaders to reshape the institution on a grand scale; a scale that would require a similarly bold redesign of ASU’s fundraising arm.

As CEO of the ASU Foundation, R.F. “Rick” Shangraw Jr. is well aware of the differences between a traditional college fundraising operation and his organization. It’s spelled out in bold maroon on the wall that greets him in the Fulton Center every morning: “ASU Foundation for A New American University.” The first time Shangraw stepped into that lobby, he was already infused with Crow’s philosophy, having served as ASU’s senior vice president for the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development and co-director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, both of which were established to advance the president’s vision for ASU as “university as enterprise.”

Now, after one year in the corner office, Shangraw explains why remaking a university also demands remaking the foundation that supports it.

Why is a “foundation for a New American University” different from any other university foundation?

RS: University foundations have traditionally depended on grateful alumni for financial support. They utilize an annual fund operation to get an initial investment from an alumnus, then develop that relationship over time until eventually they connect the donor with the college where they received their degree.

But today, we need to appeal to our alumni and non-alumni based on our ability to address the grand challenges facing our communities. We need to connect with a donor’s passion, regardless of their specific degree or even their alma mater. We’ve become more solutions-focused, which has greatly expanded the number of investors in ASU.

What does the ASU Foundation offer someone with an interest in supporting ASU?

RS: We can match them with their passions. These are people who want to figure out ways to do personalized medicine. They want to figure out how to train teachers better, how to build sustainable cities. They want to solve problems, and we have to provide them investment opportunities which enable them to pursue those passions and change the world.

This is not new, by the way. If you look at non-university foundations like the American Red Cross or United Way, they don’t have “alumni,” so they’ve always been fundraising based on solutions. What is new is for a university foundation to say to alumni, “We’re glad we can connect with you because of your purposeful affiliation with ASU, but now how do we actually match what you’re really interested in?”

And how do you? Many solution areas seem to be outside the scope of a university foundation.

RS: We’re not trying to be the new American Red Cross or United Way. But we are the foundation for a New American University, and that model enables us to break new ground. We started with our Challenges initiative in 2009, identifying issues with global impact. That led to ASU Solutions, which has only recently gotten under way. Solutions is our deep commitment to use-inspired research aimed at solving the greatest challenges of our time, which we’ve currently grouped into five areas.

So with Solutions, we can ask potential supporters of the university, “What are you interested in solving? Are you interested in better health outcomes? Are you interested in better preparing teachers? Improving our cities? Making better designs or better decisions? Are you interested in university as enterprise, a whole new way of thinking about how a university is evolving in the United States?” Well, we can connect with you.

While this groundbreaking new model is still in its early stages, are you already seeing it as a success?

RS: It will take more time to judge success for this new approach. It’s not like a traditional campaign that comes along every couple of years and says, “Here are the big ideas we want to chase after”; then the campaign builds up and dies down, builds up and dies down.

We want something that’s sustainable across time; something that gives us this set of solutions that we know the university is working on that we can actually go out and present to people as a way of connecting their passions with what we’re exploring and attempting to solve here at the university. We are reorienting the ASU Foundation around outcomes and focusing more of our message on what Arizona State University is doing for the rest of the world.

In the year you’ve been CEO of the foundation, what has been your most important achievement?

RS: Bringing the foundation into better alignment with the New American University; making sure we’re in tune with what the university is doing to enable us to fundraise around it. We have spent the last decade pursuing the New American University vision, and I was part of it on the university side. What we’re seeing a decade into it is results. It’s a model that’s working. Instead of us talking about it as a concept, we now have proof points on how it’s working. Now we can say to people, “We had this vision, we implemented it and it’s working really well. Now we’re asking you to join us as investors.” I’m very proud of the progress, but President Crow will be the first to tell you there is much work ahead. We are doing that work.

What has been the most important ingredient in that success?

RS: We have a world-class team in the foundation that wakes up each day passionate about helping to advance ASU, the New American University. Without those team members and, of course, ASU’s impressive faculty, students and staff and our generous investors, the New American University vision would have turned out to be a hallucination instead of a bold reality.

Erik Ketcherside,
Communications Manager | Editorial Services
ASU Foundation for A New American University