A look at advancement’s frontier

Expert Insight

A look at advancement’s frontier

Across all of my research, I aim to keep a firm eye fixed on the horizon. The questions our chief advancement officer partners ask my EAB colleagues and me almost always pertain to the future: What role will digital transformation play in advancement in the years to come? How will demographic shifts affect our work? What will the comprehensive campaigns of the 2020s look like? How will we have to structure our major gifts teams to continue thriving?

Given my perennial future-focus, I was pleased to come across Michael Worth and Matthew Lambert’s latest collection, Advancing Higher Education: New Strategies for Fundraising, Philanthropy, and Engagement, out earlier this summer from Rowman & Littlefield. Worth and Lambert have assembled an inimitable cast of the brightest minds in advancement today to gaze out across the years to come and advise their readers of the most reliable path to success.

Their contributors, who range from chief advancement officers to functional leaders to CEOs of tech and consulting firms, offer wide-ranging and provocative perspectives on nearly every major challenge facing our industry today.

Engaging emerging constituencies

Take, for instance, engaging diverse constituencies. As my colleagues and I have noted in the past, the people that advancement officers are tasked with engaging and fundraising from are growing increasingly diverse. For many institutions, this has upended business as usual. The tried-and-true strategies that our teams have used for years now see diminishing returns.

In a series of thoughtful essays, the authors that Worth and Lambert have lined up offer their perspectives on how advancement must contend with generational change, the financial ascendency of women, increased racial and ethnic diversity, and the internationalization of enrollments—and, consequently, alumni populations. As Kestrel Linder and Felicity Meu, the authors of the “generational change” essay remark (specifically about alumni born after 1980), these often-overlooked populations “are the future of philanthropy, and this future has arrived.”

The evolving role of advancement

Or consider, on the other hand, the transformations that the institutions we serve are themselves undergoing. In his own visionary essay on “the present and future of higher education,” Matthew Lambert traces the accelerating privatization of colleges and universities in the United States and the enlarged part our teams must play in the soon-to-come “hybrid university.”

…the crucial role of advancement professionals today is to bring forward the imagination, creativity, and inspiration required to galvanize industry, government, philanthropists, and higher education in a common mission.

Matthew Lambert

While advancement leaders have long looked beyond the alumni community, they have never before served as such a critical center-point in higher education’s hub-and-spoke model with its constituents. Today, we are curators and conveners as much as engagers and fundraisers.

Readers looking for insight into the leading edge of nearly any part of the advancement profession will find something worthwhile in Worth and Lambert’s collection. I personally attached to Darrow Zeidenstein’s take on the mismatch between institutional strategic planning and advancement’s needs, in which he advocates for advancement to engage in its own targeted “strategic thinking” initiatives that can serve as the basis for more bespoke fundraising efforts. I’m reminded here of many of the “big ideas” fundraising initiatives that my colleagues and I have traced across the profession in recent years.

Navigating a new terrain

I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight, at least in passing, Armin Afsahi’s expansive essay on three of the environmental shifts that make advancement’s work harder—suspicion of institutions, an abundance of options to fill needs previously met by advancement (e.g., connection), and innovation—and the various solutions we can adapt in this climate.

His thoughts on the new “talent quotient” that is changing the skill sets advancement leaders must hire for was particularly compelling. “Most of our organizations have continued to hire from the same pools of professionals,” he writes, “from tactical event planners to outgoing gift officers, with little or no regard for how those professionals match up with the unique needs of an agile and rapidly evolving industry.” My ears perked up when he underscored the importance of “a strong sense of curiosity and the proficiency to translate information to diverse audiences” to success on the front lines. Sounds like a curious chameleon to me!

I could go on. Every corner of Worth and Lambert’s book holds insight, regardless of whether you’re a new entrant into the fundraising profession or a tenured executive leading a large team. As a researcher who solicits the thoughts of hundreds of advancement leaders every year, I was pleased—to say the least—to find such a star-studded cohort assembled in one place.

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