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Meet Michelle Dodenhoff

Q&A with our Vice President for Development

If you worked at the University of South Carolina ten years ago, Michelle Dodenhoff might be a familiar name. Dodenhoff served as the university’s associate vice president for development from 2004 to 2009, then vice president for development and alumni affairs from 2009 to 2013, during which time she oversaw USC’s first-ever $1 billion capital campaign. Prior to returning to USC this summer, once again as VP for development, she spent nine years as chief development officer and senior vice president for philanthropy at Ochsner Health in her native New Orleans.


You had a very successful first tenure at USC, and then you spent nine years as senior VP for philanthropy and chief development officer at Ochsner Health Clinic Foundation, the biggest health system in Louisiana. What brought you back?

It just it felt right. I knew that there was an opportunity to strengthen the program. And really, at the end of the day, it had a lot to do with Michael Amiridis. When I came to South Carolina as an AVP for development, he was the dean of engineering. I worked with him and his gift officer. And then when I became vice president, he was provost. Our daughters were in the same class, so we also knew each other as parents. I just have a profound amount of respect and admiration for him, and I think that for fundraising to be successful, the relationship between the president and the chief fundraiser needs to be tight. I felt that we could be a great team to embark on the university's next capital campaign.


Tell us about your work at Ochsner. What does nine years doing fundraising in health care teach you that you can bring back to academia?

Ochsner Health was an amazing organization in terms of developing its people, and leadership was very important. For anyone in a leadership position, 50 percent of your evaluation was on performance and 50 percent was on leadership skills. I learned a lot, number one, about myself and my own personal leadership skills, where there were strengths and where there were weaknesses, and I spent a lot of time working on those things. I think I'm a better leader today than I was nine years ago, and I think I have a better skillset in developing leaders and developing staff, in coaching and mentoring.


As for the fundraising skillset, that just kind of gets honed. You're always having to work through different situations, so that's a kind of a constant. But as a member of the executive team, I had to weigh in on things that were not in my immediate wheelhouse. Every decision, particularly the strategic ones, was made by this group of 13. I hope to do something similar here, that I can be another voice on the president's cabinet dealing with issues that might not necessarily be related to fundraising but where I can offer valuable insights.



The university has changed since 2013. How do you feel about the USC you left versus USC now?

So I might not answer that directly. One thing I was thinking when I came on board is that I am going to try my best to approach this as if it’s my first time at the university. I am aware that not only has this university changed, but the world has changed. We are in a very different place in 2022 than we were in 2019, and certainly than we were in 2013. Even just what’s happened in the last three or four years — there's a whole list. I need to understand what that change has meant for the University of South Carolina, and I'm still I'm still figuring that one out. Again, though, I’m trying to approach this as if it’s my first time, which sometimes is hard because I have so many good memories.



There’s a picture of the Horseshoe on your wall signed by former President Pastides, recognizing your leadership on the university's first billion-dollar capital campaign. What lessons from that campaign can you use as you ramp up the next one?

 While many things change, some don't. I am confident under President Amiridis’ leadership that we have a bold vision for the future. So we need to be bold as well. Two, we need to continue to be donor-centered. We need to really listen to our donors and appreciate their passions, what it is they want to accomplish. Then we have to figure out how all of that aligns with what the university wants to accomplish.


Philanthropy can bring organizations down paths they never knew existed. I saw it in the last campaign. When a donor comes to us with some amazing idea and amazing passion — it might not be something that was on our list, but it’s a brilliant, remarkable idea — we need to listen. I always love when that happens.



Here’s a literal million-dollar question — or billion-dollar question. What are the two or three most important factors in running a successful, large-scale capital campaign?

 Bold vision. Engaged donors. Committed staff.


A more philosophical question: How do you describe the value of supporting a university — this university but also higher education in general? That's really the pitch, right?

The way I look at that is, “What do we mean from a societal perspective?” For an example, I'll use the College of Education. What does the College of Education do? The immediate answer might be, “They train teachers.” But I think of it differently. I would say they increase access, they help increase test scores, they help make sure our young people can go out and change their cities, their communities, the world. It’s the same with medicine: We're not just training doctors. Maybe we're training the person that finds a cure for a disease. Supporting these missions has a multiplier effect.


Depending on their financial means, giving can be hard for some people. Is asking just as hard?

No. I get that question all the time, and this is kind of my go to answer. The donor relationship is built on a continuum, and it’s a process. It starts by trying to understand what they want to accomplish. We have conversations until we get to a point where we're developing their vision together. There are a lot of steps along the way, but the goal is to engage with them to the point where they're driving toward what they want to accomplish and we're helping figure out how we make it happen.


What draws you to this kind of work?

I think it’s that I love stories — and I love people's stories. The people I have met throughout my career have been amazing. Helping them accomplish something that’s important to them is the part of this job that I love the most. You know, philanthropy is usually triggered by a significant life event, something of meaning that someone experienced. Helping someone figure all that out just feels natural to me — it's an interesting little puzzle. I've never really thought about what it is about me that attracts me to this profession, but I do love it.


This interview was originally conducted by University of South Carolina TIMES, a print publication for faculty and staff.

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