Notes on a Michigan Fundraiser

Notes on a Michigan Fundraiser
A Conversation with Tom Baird

By Jordan Andre Moore

When Vice President for Development Emeritus Jerry May (School of Education ’78) closed the book on 30 years of service to the university, many wondered who could possibly fill his shoes. A national search was set in motion. But as it happened, President Schlissel didn’t have to look far.

In December 2018, the U-M Board of Regents approved the appointment of Tom Baird (AB ’83), assistant dean for advancement at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, as Michigan’s next vice president for development.

Nearly 12 months into his new role, Baird sat down with Leaders & Best to reflect on his first year. Our conversation ranges from the future of U-M fundraising to the art of work-life balance and the power of positivity.

I meet Tom Baird in his office. The bookshelves are empty and, besides a few framed photos of the Ann Arbor campus, the walls are bare.

The office is being renovated because he wants it to be a collaborative space, one that can be utilized by his team even when he’s on the road. The decor is going to be midcentury modern, but at the moment, the office looks like a half-assembled IKEA office display. It’s a work in progress.

He’s wearing khakis and a striped Oxford, sleeves rolled. It’s a casual day for the guy who’s been one of the most dynamic fundraising leaders at U-M for over two decades.

Baird has held a number of roles in U-M fundraising. From UM-Dearborn to Michigan Medicine, LSA to the Office of University Development—where he headed plans for the Victors for Michigan Campaign— he’s been the one U-M fundraisers call on to lead their teams.

Baird chatting with development colleagues at his welcome reception.
Baird chatting with development colleagues at his welcome reception.

“I joke that I can’t hold a job,” he says. But the truth is that most of his opportunities have come from other people asking him to apply, and pulling him into interviews. “I didn’t have a direct pathway or plan. You could say I’m organically ambitious.”

It was this ambition, curiosity—whatever you want to call it—that first opened the door to the world of fundraising.

When he graduated with a degree from LSA in American Culture Studies, a career in philanthropy wasn’t on Baird’s radar. Nor was settling down at his alma mater, for that matter. He grew up in Ann Arbor and East Lansing and had just finished four years at U-M. It was time to move on. So he joined a progressive airline startup and, after a few years, tried his hand in the world of finance.

When Baird was nearly 30, his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died soon afterward at the age of 59. The loss of his father shifted Baird’s priorities in unexpected ways. He had just finished his master’s degree at Boston University and was looking to make a change. So he packed up his life in Boston and drove a U-Haul to his brother’s house in Dexter, Michigan. With his belongings in storage, he spent the next two years traveling the world. Eventually, Baird found himself back in Ann Arbor.

It was the mid 1990s. A friend at Michigan Law suggested he apply for a gift officer position. “I said, ‘major gift officer, what’s that?’” he recalls with a grin. Two weeks later, he was flying to California to meet with donors, and the rest is history.

Today, Baird leads one of the most prolific fundraising operations in the country with a wealth of experience to draw on.

“I know what it’s like planning campaigns and leaning into what’s next,” he says, reflecting on what he learned while launching the Victors for Michigan campaign.

“When we set the goal of $4 billion, I had never run a campaign of that scale before. There’s a point where you have to either run for the hills or just say, ‘Here we go.’”

Baird and his colleagues chose the latter, and the results speak for themselves. Victors for Michigan amounted to a record-breaking $5.28 billion effort that made U-M the first public university to raise more than $5 billion in a single campaign. But U-M donors weren’t ready to stop there. As soon as Baird took on his new role, many wanted to know what was next for fundraising at Michigan.

President Schissel and Baird enjoying a University of Michigan Museum of Art After Hours reception.
President Schissel and Baird enjoying a University of Michigan Museum of Art After Hours reception.

Planning for the future in the wake of a one-of-a-kind campaign presents big questions. The landscape of fundraising is evolving at a rapid pace. It’s the age of globalization, smartphones, social media, and cryptocurrency. These are all on Baird’s mind.

“How do we try new things? How do we create a culture of innovation? There are a lot of opportunities,” he says, with a spark in his eye.

He’s energized by the possibilities ahead and the opportunity to partner with President Schlissel and academic leaders to ensure U-M remains the leader and best in fundraising.

“I find the digital space incredibly interesting. If we can be a leader in digital fundraising, and be on the cutting edge of technology to run campaigns, to facilitate marketing and communications, to better connect with donors—all that sounds pretty exciting to me. And it’s just something we have to do.”

For Baird, there’s a balancing act to being an innovator and creating the right expectations for the future. Thanks to more than two decades of experience, it’s a balance that he knows well. He’s done it before.

Anyone who has worked with Baird knows that he’s committed to creating a positive work environment. Positive Organizational Scholarship is the backbone of his leadership style, and it starts with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

“For us to be the leaders and best in fundraising, our work must reflect the diverse world around us,” he says: It’s not just the “right” thing to do, it’s also what gives us the greatest chance of success.

“These are some of the questions I think about: How do we achieve a diverse workforce? How do we ensure that we engage our extensive and diverse alumni base in giving to Michigan? How do we ensure everyone’s heard and at the table when decisions are made? How does everyone in our community know that they belong?” Answering these questions requires tough, honest conversations and a team deeply committed to equity and inclusivity.

Sustainable, mission-driven teams are another key ingredient of Baird’s positive work philosophy.

“I get excited about the structure, the roles and responsibilities, the organization having a clear mission, and putting all those pieces together,” he says. “It’s this geeky sense of enjoying the way organizations can be optimal and how you create a culture where people feel really engaged and excited about their work.”

Administrative specialist Tanya Milligan and Baird at the Office of University Development’s Summer Party
Administrative specialist Tanya Milligan and Baird at the Office of University Development’s Summer Party

For every team Baird has led, positive culture has driven results. At LSA, his team exceeded its Victors for Michigan fundraising goals by over 30%, totaling more than $538 million. But high production isn’t the only measuring stick. It’s about maintaining infrastructure and output that can be sustained over time, he explains, reflecting on the role work-life balance played for the LSA team. In terms of sustainability, emphasizing work-life balance is key.

He admits that striking this balance is something he’s still working on as vice president. Since taking the job last January, the pace has been nonstop. Countless meetings, donor events, long flights, and emails absorb his time, and he’s candid about the struggles of balancing a successful career while also being a husband and father.

His iPhone is on the table, and it beeps with a new notification. He resists the urge to check it, but touches the back of the phone every now and then, as if to remind himself of the messages he needs to send after the interview is over.

“I have people texting me all the time, but I have a great team who step up to help. … You can’t do it all by yourself. ”

At home, his daughter keeps him accountable. “She will pick up my phone and look at how many hours I’ve been on it. I say that I’m reading The New York Times, and she’s like, ‘no you’re not,’” he recalls with a big smile. “It’s a challenge.”

Baird has always relied on the strength of good partnerships. From his wife and daughter at home to his colleagues at Michigan, he has built his life around successful teams.

When I ask what the secret is, he says he doesn’t have a magic formula—at least not one he’s willing to disclose. Leading teams is something that just comes naturally to him. It’s what he has always been good at—even in high school, when he was captain of his track and cross country teams.

“I was never the best or the fastest, but I remember getting something called the ‘oil can award’,” he muses. “I suppose it’s awarded to the person that keeps things moving, that helps build the team.”

Captaining a high school sports team isn’t quite the same as fathering a family or taking the reins of a global, multibillion-dollar fundraising operation. But they all rely on the mechanics of teamwork for success, and on their leaders to keep the wheels turning. And that’s where Baird is at his best.

In this year following the Victors for Michigan campaign, fundraising at U-M continues its momentum. Donors are making exciting gifts. New volunteer groups are forming.

If the landscape of fundraising is evolving, it’s also very much familiar terrain. U-M development is, and always will be, about the people and the relationships that make Michigan Michigan. And it’s this team that Baird knows he can count on as U-M prepares for the future.

“A lot of people say I have big shoes to fill,” he says. “It’s absolutely true, but we have a team here who are standing on the shoulders of giants. At Michigan, we have a special culture.”

“We have all these volunteers—people who really care about Michigan,” Baird says. “We have hundreds of thousands of donors who will continue to give. But we also have so much untapped potential. The future is bright.”

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