Becoming a Great Advancement Leader

Posted on 10/06/2019

Imagine a room full of young advancement professionals. New to the workforce, each of them has chosen to work for a college, a university, or an independent school because they care about education. They’re eager and excited to get started, raise some money, and help to advance their institution’s mission.

Now imagine that a seasoned advancement professional walks into that room to address the group. As a senior leader (and an accomplished fundraiser) who has enjoyed a long and successful career working in the field, she is there to offer them some advice. In her remarks, she makes this comment: “If you want to climb to the top of your advancement organization, then you’re going to need to close a BIG gift.”

Although there is an important point to be made, the truth is that a statement like that probably does more harm than good. For one thing, big gift is a relative term. For some larger, more established institutions, the threshold for big gifts may be well into the millions (or even tens or hundreds of millions) of dollars. For other institutions (including smaller ones and those that don’t have a long history of campaigns or fundraising), a major gift might be a significantly smaller amount while still having a transformational effect on the institution.

Second, that statement implies that any one person could take credit for closing gifts. Advancement is a team sport. What’s more, a donor’s decision to make a major gift usually comes after many years of discussions that involve many different people at various levels and in various roles inside and outside of the organization.

Third, and maybe most important, that kind of statement could suggest that, if you’re looking to become a leader in the advancement field, then the only thing you need to do is to close a big gift. Unfortunately, this is a perception that is all too prevalent in the industry today. It’s this idea that leads many advancement professionals to “get their feet wet” in a specific area of advancement (e.g., annual giving, alumni relations, donor relations) only to leave their jobs prematurely after only a year or two to take a job as a major gift officer. 

This perception also leads many presidents and headmasters to hire and promote individuals into senior-level management positions in the advancement department based simply on the fact that they took part in major gift discussions. Of course, that kind of experience is extremely important, but it’s also what leads to the hiring of chief advancement officers who aren’t very good managers and leaders. 

Becoming a great advancement leader isn’t just about being a major gift fundraiser. It’s about so much more. Effective leaders are also strategists—knowing how to focus and set goals that are aligned with larger institutional ambitions and how to develop plans to achieve those goals. They’re problem solvers—identifying impediments and devising effective solutions to deal with them. They’re analysts—paying attention to trends in their industry and within their own organizations. They’re coaches—teaching and motivating staff, volunteers, colleagues, and bosses. And they’re advocates—always celebrating the institution’s accomplishments and serving as a cheerleader every single day.

It’s easy to focus on “big gifts” as a measure of success in an advancement organization, but fundraising skill is just part of the picture. Effective managers and leaders in an advancement organization need to bring more to the table. Having skills as a strategist, a problem solver, an analyst, a coach, and an advocate is what makes an advancement leader a great one.

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