Conversations with Leaders: Will Davis
For Will Davis, fundraising for Governors State University is personal.
“As a child, I would accompany my late father to night school,’’ said Davis, sitting in his office on the top floor of GSU, where he is Vice President for Institutional Advancement and CEO of the GSU Foundation.
“When I lost him suddenly, I was without a father for the remainder of junior high and high school. And when I graduated from Mount Union College, I was the first in my immediate family to graduate with a four-year college degree, so I see myself in these students,” said Davis, the son of an Air Force Technical Sergeant who traveled the world before his family settled in Ohio.
It may have been sitting outside those classrooms that young Davis cultivated the simple but powerful statement emblazoned across his email signature: Education is Economic Development. This principle seeds what he calls his “capitalistic mindset and community heart,” as well as his fundraising message to corporations and community organizations throughout the Southland.
“I look forward to a day when GSU is the anchor institution uniting the Southland in public / private partnerships that benefit everyone: GSU students and faculty, corporations, municipalities, and the community at large.”
A former big pharma sales leader, Davis is responsible for strategic partnerships and advancement in the areas of corporate and individual giving to the university. He has moved in corporate and political circles for more than two decades, so it is with confidence that he tells potential donors it makes economic sense to support Governors State University students.
“I believe education is a holistic solution to many problems within communities. I grew up in integrated communities and schools and benefited from learning in diverse classrooms and having stability. I want to see that here—for Governors State to be that example of diverse excellence.”
His message is resonating in all the right places.
In 2017, Davis brought C200, a group of powerful women (members’ companies generate more than $1.2 trillion in combined revenue), to campus for a daylong seminar to network with several students, three of whom received $5,000 each in scholarships.
Bringing in C200—which has committed to return to GSU annually over the next four years—has been one of Davis’ many bright moments since he arrived in 2012. Since then, he has amped up fundraisers and prioritized alumni. “I’m looking for relationships, not transactions.”
Davis is proud of his relationships with students, especially those who are part of the national model Male Success Initiative (MSI), led by GSU’s Robert Clay, Director of Intercultural Student Affairs, and MSI Coordinator Sean Smith. “They are doing a great job with MSI, allowing students to see what they can be. The students show up at my door, and they bring others. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to steer a few in the right direction.”
The iconic Chicago Defender newspaper recently recognized Davis among its selected 2018 Men of Excellence for his contributions to the community.
“Through proven success and selfless dedication to the community, these exemplary men are lauded as role models for the next generation,” reads a plaque given to Davis and other honorees.
Always quick with a powerful message packed in a soundbite, Davis has one for the students as well. “I tell them, ‘Right now, you have a business. Your business is you. Your brand is you. You have a budget, you have a reputation, and you need a strategy and an economic development plan.’ ”
For the university’s 50th anniversary in 2019, Davis looks forward to the return of former students, retired faculty, and “those whose shoulders we stand on,” he said. With more than 48,000 alumni, Davis is working to build and renew, relationships. “We have a powerful network but we need more engagement. No matter how they connect, when alumni and current students share, everyone benefits.”
As a leader in higher education, Davis sees the current benefit of working at Governors State, as well as the return on his investment.
“When I walk through these halls at night and see someone’s son or daughter sitting outside the classroom while the parent is inside — it resonates: that used to be me. And that memory is what inspires me to drive one way for 55 minutes with my daughter, my car pool buddy. I can make a difference here at GSU, and I have hope in the possibilities that we can all provide for these students, and that GSU can move them forward personally and professionally.”