RAISE Podcast: Courtney Surls, American University


On this episode of the RAISE podcast, Brent chats with Courtney Surls, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations at American University. They talk dream jobs, market fluctuations, obligations to alums, and why Change Can’t Wait

Listen here, and catch the highlights below.



Some highlights from the episode:

Courtney studied opera at Iowa State University. She tells us that everyone can sing – it’s just a matter of technique and breath control to make sure you’re not hurting yourself. And then you can safely transition from your day-job as a tech CEO to moonlighting as a country music star. (FYI, @brentgrinna.)

Courtney is the lead female singer of a faculty/staff band at American University called The Artifacts. The provost is the guitar player, the athletic director is the drummer, and the head of the musuem is the lead male singer. 

Courtney served on the senior class council at Iowa State. After graduation, she became a teacher. The principal asked if any of the junior teachers were willing to fundraise for the archdiocese. Courtney raised her hand and said, “I’ll do it.” 

Courtney believes that your fundraising strategy shouldn’t follow the market. Relationships should be constantly building over time. You should never use market fluctuations as an excuse for backing off of building relationships with donors. 

All leaders should have staff retention top-of-mind right now. Across the board, staff members are worn out from 18 arduous months of navigating pandemic life. How can you keep them motivated? How can you provide flexibility in their work days? How can you make sure they feel the impact of their work? 

Courtney explains that she feels an obligation to the broad alumni base to communicate what American is doing and why, and to invite them to participate in the campaign at any level. But she also understands that with limited staff resources, American has to prioritize where and with whom they invest in building deeper relationships. Of course we want to acquire new donors, but not at the expense of folks who have already donated in the past and might be on the cusp of becoming major donors. 

In this new era of fundraising, substantive, concise, thoughtful engagement is paramount. No more spending lots of money on big dinners where prospects enjoy a cocktail and conversation, but there’s no goal or outcome from the event.

What is the objective of a public launch? Is it really about a big party or is it about saying “this is who we are and what we’re doing”? Courtney and her team answered that question, and then launched the Change Can’t Wait Campaign. Check it out.

About Courtney… 

 Courtney Surls serves as American University’s vice president for development and alumni relations. 

“She is an experienced leader whose collaborative style and contagious enthusiasm combined with high performance at remarkable institutions will help us advance AU in unprecedented ways,” said President of American University Neil Kerwin.

Surls leads a fundraising and alumni relations program that has grown in size, scope, ambition and performance over the last few years. She will help AU leverage significant momentum to support strategic priorities, attract new sources of funding, and deepen lifelong relationships between AU and its more than 120,000 alumni. 

From 2012-2015, Surls has served as senior vice president for development at the Newseum, where she provided strategic leadership for fundraising, membership, and stewardship and prepared the institution for its next fundraising campaign. Prior to her position at the Newseum, Surls was Vice President of Development at University of Southern California.

Surls’s experience also includes positions in development and advancement at Loyola Marymount and as a teacher and development director at an independent school in Los Angeles. She earned her master of education degree in school administration from Loyola Marymount and her bachelor’s degree in music and music curriculum from Iowa State University. 

Surls says, “I am honored to serve American University at this remarkable time in its history. With strong leadership and exceptionally committed faculty and staff, AU is poised to achieve new levels of distinction in engaging alumni and attracting philanthropic support to realize its bold ambitions.”

Want to work with Courtney? American University is hiring! She can be reached on LinkedIn, or by email at surls@american.edu.

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