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Retiring advancement leader has been “making magic” and growing MSU’s “margin of excellence” for decades

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Scott Wasserman
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Marti Heil is vice president of University Advancement at her alma mater Michigan State University, and she's retiring and ending her distinguished service to MSU.

Marti has a career spanning 45 years across three universities raising critical funds, tirelessly promoting the value of philanthropy and expanding alumni engagement efforts.

She came out of retirement in October of 2018, returning to MSU, where she has now spent more than 33 years in advancement. Marti was born and raised in Lansing, Michigan and is a 1976 graduate of MSU's College of Communication Arts and Sciences with a bachelor's degree in advertising.

“It has been my absolute pleasure and honor to serve Michigan State University and a privilege to do what I have done for 45 years. And it’s been even a greater privilege to have done it at my alma mater.”

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Russ White | MSU Today
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Marti Heil

What originally attracted you to advancement work? What do you love about it? Why do you do what you do?

“When I got started in fundraising, it was not something that you sought. You mostly fell into the career. I started in public relations. That's what I always wanted to do. And someone that I worked with said, ‘You'd be good as a fundraiser.’ And I thought, ‘Well, how would I ever do that?’ And it truly has been my passion, and it has been a privilege to be able to serve in this capacity as a fundraiser for so many years.

“I like to refer to it as making magic. It's that goosebump moment when you're bringing together passionate donors and alumni who have a desire to make a difference and to make a positive impact in the life of a university. And they're visionary because they see a need and they have financial resources.

“And our job as fundraisers is to be able to match those visionary donors and alumni with visionary faculty who are making a difference through their research. It's matching them with students who will also make a difference in the world and make the world better. And to watch a donor get joy from seeing their financial resources put to good use to make a difference in a student's life or to make a difference in a faculty member’s research discovery is magic.”

What attracted you back in 2018 when your alma mater needed you and called you back?

“It was special to be able to serve MSU for 30 years as I grew my career, and it was special to be able to take that experience and apply it at two other institutions. But to cap off a career by being asked to come back and serve in a leadership role was a dream come true. It felt like more than a duty. It was a respect for the institution and having a sense that I could make positive impact at a time that MSU was going through a lot of changes.”

How has advancement work evolved over the years?

“Our donors continue to become more and more sophisticated. And that has been an absolute joy to be able to be part of teaching our alumni how important private philanthropy is to an institution, a public institution in particular. I started at Michigan State in 1980. And I think at that time, our entire staff, including gift processing, including our receptionist, including the vice president, our total staff might have been 20 people. And I remember that first year we were raising around $12 million.

“I remember we had a champagne toast for our first million-dollar gift. Fast forward and we now have around 320 staff in University Advancement. And we're raising currently $224 million with three months to go (in the fiscal year). That's quite a significant growth. And so, credit to our very devoted alumni and our extraordinarily generous donors. It takes a village. We have an incredibly talented staff. And the university has embraced alumni engagement and fundraising to the point where everyone on campus understands the value, the importance, and the impact that private philanthropy can make.”

Why is the private fundraising so important to a place like MSU?

“Well, it would appear as though we have a huge budget, and we do have a huge budget. Most of it is earmarked. And so private philanthropy provides that margin of excellence to be able to attract outstanding faculty from across the country because there are endowed chairs affiliated with the positions. Most faculty when they're researching and they're teaching and they're providing service, they are also obligated to raise money to help with the research.

“And what often makes the difference in attracting those outstanding faculty and retaining the superstar faculty is having an endowed chair that pays for the margin of excellence so that they don't have to spend time going out and raising funds to do their research. They have a pool from that endowed fund that helps them. And scholarships often make a difference in whether a student can attend school. And that student may become a brilliant doctor or policymaker in government or a social worker or educator who will change the world.”

What are some challenges and opportunities ahead for higher education advancement in general and particularly for MSU?

“There are always challenges. Part of the challenge for Michigan State is that comparatively speaking our sister institutions in the Big Ten have all been raising money for many years longer than Michigan State has. We didn't start private philanthropy as an active strategic department until the late '60s. And most of the other Big Ten institutions started raising money in the early 1920s or 1930s. We have some catching up to do in educating our alumni about why private philanthropy is so important.

“We also were categorized early on in Michigan State's history as being a state-supported institution. And we really are no longer state-supported. We certainly are state-assisted, and we depend heavily on the state of Michigan for much needed funding. But in terms of our total budget, it is more and more imperative that private philanthropy helps make up the difference.”

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Michigan State University
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Kim Tobin

Your successor is Kim Tobin. She will take over as vice president for University Advancement. Obviously, you don't want to tell her what to do, but do you have some advice for Kim as she comes in?

“I have had the privilege of meeting with Kim several times since her appointment. She's someone who I am very excited about. It makes a difference when you've put as much time and years and effort into an organization. I have no qualms handing the leadership over to Kim. I think she's going to be terrific. I think the staff is going to respond to her as a leader. I know our alumni and our donors are going to embrace her.

“The best piece of advice I would give Kim is to embrace being a Spartan and to be a sponge and learn as much as she can about Michigan State and the culture of Michigan State and our alums. One of the first things we've all tried repeatedly to say to her, and it's become a joke with us, is that when someone says, ‘Go Green,’ what do you say back? And she very quickly learned that saying ‘Go White’ is the proper response.

“So, I'm just so excited about Kim. It's a great opportunity for her. She's bringing 20 years of experience to the table. She's doubling her staff. She's doubling the amount that she's responsible for raising. She'll be able to bring that talent to Michigan State and be able to build upon the foundation that the team and I have put into place and take it to the next level. I will be her biggest cheerleader and the staff's biggest cheerleader.

“Once a Spartan, always a Spartan. Being born and raised in Lansing, there was never any question where I was going to go to school, and I'm not going anywhere. I will always be around as a donor. I will always be around as an alum. And whatever I can do to assist in the transition, I'll be there because being a Spartan is very, very special.”

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.