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May 5, 2022

Podcast: Advancement leader connects donors to their passions

Kim Tobin is Michigan State University's new vice president for University Advancement.

Do you have any experience with either MSU or the state of Michigan?

“Growing up on the north shores of Lake Superior, I would drive through the great state of Michigan many times on the way to my grandmother's house in Sarnia, Ontario on the other side of the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron. And my first college football game was in Spartan Stadium in 1992. My dad was a huge Spartans fan. He brought the whole family down, and I was just shell shocked on what a great experience it was to see all the people and Spartans fans; that just blew me away. And then a few years later, my second game was here, and it was 10/10/1998. I was with my fiancé at the time, who is now my husband of 23 years. It was Michigan State versus Indiana. The game went into overtime and Michigan State won. It was very exciting and very loud and just a lot of energy and excitement. That left an impression on me.”

What’s your background?

“I've just come off 7,060 days at Colorado State. I’ve been working and living in Colorado for the last 19 years and four months. And it's been a wonderful journey. I've done many different things working at Colorado State University advancing from working in two different colleges to working centrally and ultimately becoming the vice president of Advancement. Prior to that, I worked at two Canadian universities, and that's where I got my fundraising start. And before that, I worked in the arts; my undergraduate degree is in arts management. The beginning of my career was working with the Toronto International Film Festival and the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum.”

What got you interested in higher education fundraising originally? And why do you love the work?

“My background is in arts management. Revenue generation is of utmost importance in the arts. That was interesting to learn about, but I really started working in cultural programming on campus at my alma mater, the University of Toronto. And then I was recruited by the executive director of development. At the time, the university was in a billion-dollar campaign. And they asked me if I'd join the team and the Great Minds for a Great Future Campaign. My boss assured me he'd teach me everything he knew about advancement and development. And then two weeks later, he promptly quit and went back to the private sector. So, it was a sink or swim moment. And I've always been a swimmer, Russ. So, I dove into the deep end and swam and have continued that career. Passion and leadership have been predisposed in me almost from birth. I've had great sponsors and mentors along the way who have helped me learn and grow, and now it culminates in this great experience at Michigan State and being a Spartan.”

What attracted you to MSU at this time to lead advancement here?

“You mean beyond Sparty? I love Sparty! What a great mascot program. I was attracted to the caliber of the programs, research, creativity, artistry and AAU status at MSU. I think Michigan State has it all. Obviously, the athletics program and being a part of the Big Ten is exciting. I love the land grant mission. That speaks to me and my family and my values. I think I can parlay some of those experiences and that real commitment and passion to the land grant institution and mission that I was introduced to in Colorado at Michigan State, being the original land grant. I really feel privileged to be here as part of that history.”

What's the mission of University Advancement?

“We work to advance the institution by connecting alumni and donors to the institution, whether it be through time, talent, treasure, or testimony. We work with folks to keep them connected and engaged in the great work happening at MSU to advance the mission, whether it's alumni, parents, grandparents, or community members. It's the difference between good and great. And at MSU the mission is defined as advancing MSU's excellence and enriching its future. Who doesn't want to be part of that?”

Why is raising private dollars so important for maintaining and expanding MSU's excellence and impact?

“I just mentioned that private dollars are the difference makers between good and great. This is a fine institution where just being good wouldn't allow us to realize our full potential. Philanthropy allows us to endow funds for students and to attract the brightest minds to the campus, whether it's faculty, students, or facilities - all those aspects that really allow us to reach those heights of excellence and create a margin of excellence for an institution.”

How have advancement activities evolved over the years?

“The real change I've seen over the years is the focus on donor relations and stewardship. And I feel strongly about that. There's a moral and ethical imperative to engage our alumni and donors and to have a level of accountability and transparency in what we do at the institution in what we are doing with their funding. For a lot of people, once they make a gift, that's when the relationship really starts. Previously, there wasn't as much attention given post gift. And that's really important. We really owe that to our contributors, our investors, and the people who believe in us.

“Additionally, women have always been engaged in philanthropy, but a lot of times in the past it was more behind the scenes. There's a real movement to see women in philanthropy engage outwardly in the whole process. And as institutions, we’re thinking about how we engage women and families in different ways. And I'm really excited to know that there's a Women in Philanthropy program here at Michigan State. MSU is ahead of the curve on that. I also think technology, automation, data management, privacy and topics like diversity, equity, and inclusion are being embraced as a nation.”

How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?

“I see philanthropy as an opportunity to build authentic relationships based on mutual respect. I once worked with a dean who was a philosopher and he said to his faculty, ‘If you don't respect the person giving you a gift, then you shouldn't accept the gift.’ It really is at the heart of things that there must be a mutual interest and values alignment and interest in the work. Philanthropy is an optimistic act. There’s a core of optimism in supporting disease eradication or giving somebody an opportunity they wouldn't otherwise have. We need to think about that and remember that people believe in us to make the world a better place and to really inspire them with what we're doing that will change the world in a way that they want to see that aligns with the work we're doing.”

What are some of your short and long-term goals for MSU University Advancement?

“We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of great work has already happened here. People are ready to move forward. Our next campaign is the big opportunity out there. And how do we align with the university's strategic plan and create a strategic plan for the division that is for the long term? We're building the forever future for Spartans and for this university. There is a lot of planning to do, and I’m excited to get going to ignite what will come after that.”

What are challenges and opportunities ahead?

“Right now, my biggest challenge is time, Russ. I just need more hours in my day. People want to move quickly; they're ready. But we also need to spend time listening and thinking and reflecting on what has happened before us. In balancing those two things, I think there's a great opportunity as people are able to come back to campus. As we reemerge from the last two years, there’s nothing like coming to campus for Homecoming and other events. And yet, we've also learned the upside to offering virtual programming for our alumni and donors who live abroad or nationwide who want to participate. I look forward to working with the team to create a strategy that accomplishes and meets the needs of all people in all different ways to really continue to advance Michigan State University.

“What a great opportunity to be here today. I just feel like this is an absolute honor to work in the advancement world. I'm at the nexus between a great institution and wonderful people who care and want to make a difference. I take that as a real honor and privilege and look forward to serving alongside everybody else who's been here before me and all those who will join us along the way. With that, Go Green!”

MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

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