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Are You an Advancement VP of a Different Stripe?
Are You an Advancement VP of a Different Stripe?

How to snag the top leadership position without the gift officer portfolio

By Tara Laskowski


Three finalists were competing for a university's advancement vice presidency. One candidate was an alumni director at a U.S. public institution with more than 300,000 alumni. The other two had worked on campaigns and closed major gifts. The alumni director was a leader in his field, had built relationships and managed teams, and understood all aspects of advancement. He aspired to become a college president. Despite his qualifications, the search committee refused to gamble on someone who lacked fundraising experience.

"They call these jobs vice president of advancement, but what they really want is a fundraiser," says the alumni director who was passed over for the vice presidency. "I don't want to be a vice president of fundraising. My passion is higher education, and that means all of it."

He hit a roadblock familiar to alumni leaders seeking to advance their careers to the highest level. "Most alumni relations professionals do not have the portfolio or major gift prospects that will propel a board or a president to take a risk," says Mercedes Vance, an education consultant for the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.

"I know it's frustrating. I feel for them."

Despite institutions' efforts to integrate all areas of advancement, age-old stereotypes and assumptions still exist. Fundraising experience seems to matter most. So how can exceptional leaders in alumni relations become executive leaders of an advancement team?

She's got everything but the portfolio

Under pressure to close funding gaps with longer, larger, and more frequent campaigns, university administrators may be attracted to advancement leadership candidates who can quickly gear up for a campaign—bad news for aspirants who have yet to close a major gift. "There's an intense pressure that institutions feel to raise money," says Gary Olsen, vice president for university advancement at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. For institutions under budgetary stress, a candidate with a track record of long-term engagement that excludes fundraising is often considered a riskier choice.

That tension exists not only in recruiting but also in the larger nature of alumni relations departments and development offices, says Nathalie Walker, CEO of the Dublin City University Educational Trust in the U.K. "Alumni relations requires long-term planning to really succeed," she says, "while fundraising is prone to a lot more short-term dramas."

Yet by emphasizing the bottom line, administrators are losing sight of future gains, argues Tyler Forkes, director of alumni engagement at Queen's University's Smith School of Business in Canada. When Forkes began browsing job openings a few years ago, he noticed a recurring requirement in the descriptions. "Many of the ads would immediately discount you if you didn't have that direct campaign experience," he says. Forkes believes that presidents and boards should think more broadly about executive leadership roles. "Yes, dollars and philanthropic support are important, but so are things like leadership, judgment, and relationship-building. Focusing on candidates solely from development backgrounds significantly reduces your candidate pool and removes half of the senior advancement leaders who have an awful lot to offer."

Even if alumni relations professionals are in the running for a leadership role, it's still hard work to get one, Walker says. "Relatively few people get to move into the roles that oversee all of advancement," she says. "Even people with major gifts experience don't make it. The higher you get, the fewer jobs there are, so you need to prove the value of your skills—whatever they may be."

If you can't beat them, raise funds with them

So how can an aspiring leader overcome these roadblocks?

Don't give up, Walker says. "Apply for a job you believe you can do, not a job you've already proved you can do." After years of heading up alumni relations teams at various institutions, Walker applied for the CEO position at Dublin City University Educational Trust. When interviewing for the job, she reminded herself—and the search committee—that while she may never have worn the label "fundraiser," she had in fact been fundraising her entire career. "I find that when you tell people about the inspiring and transformative things universities are doing," she says, "they want to give you their money."

When Olsen heard about the VP opening at Scranton, he called two close friends for advice. He'd spent 20 years as an associate vice president for alumni relations at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and was looking for that next step. "I didn't have extensive major gift experiences," he admits. Both friends encouraged him to apply, reminding him he had the other skills—relationship-building, management, and collaboration—that the job required. "I knew that," he says, "but I think often the perception is that there is only one path."

Now that he's at Scranton, Olsen believes the best way to change that perception is to show people that hiring leaders with experience developing and implementing long-term strategies—even if they might not immediately raise six-figure gifts—works and is better for the institution. "I try to surround myself with people who know more than I do. I was to learn about the challenges of fundraisers and understand their perspectives," says Olsen, who spoke about becoming a VP at CASE's 2017 Institute for Senior Alumni Relations Professionals in April. "I try to integrate all areas of advancement into our teams here at Scranton to make it easier for our staff to grow in their careers. I want them to gain exposure to all of it."

The trick for all advancement professionals is to think broadly, says Scott Mory, vice president of advancement at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. It's shortsighted for fundraisers to believe that the relationship-building work that alumni relations professionals do is somehow different from fundraising, he says. It's equally shortsighted for alumni relations professionals to think fundraising isn't part of their job.

"Rather than focusing on what you lack on your CV," Walker says, "each of us should look at our transferrable skills and then really spell them out for the people receiving our applications."

Securing opportunities

Though institutions occasionally take chances on great leaders, most university presidents want to know that you can work with donors. Alumni relations leaders need to prove their philanthropic prowess. To do so, finding opportunities to gain that experience before vying for a leadership role is key, says Tara George, senior vice president and executive search practice lead at Ketchum Canada Inc. Volunteer for a fundraising board at a charity you're passionate about. Or ask your supervisor if you can manage a small portfolio. Sometimes you may have to take one step backward to get two steps ahead. 

"Take a parallel job in a different department," George says. "Or take a contract position for a limited time. Look for opportunities to step sideways, try something you haven't done before. It could be a chance to impress the right people and be seen differently."

Another tip from George: Use LinkedIn to search the bios of folks you admire, so you can study their path to success. Management certificates or degree programs in fundraising, nonprofit management, or higher education administration are also options to help bolster your resume. "We are in higher education," she says, "but we often forget that learning and studying are so important."

Also consider your institution's culture, Vance advises. Can you shadow certain colleagues? Or volunteer for cross-divisional projects? If not, your only option may be joining another institution to get the experience you need.

Building awareness and aspirations

Once you make it to the top, help your team members grow and flourish by exposing them to your institution's wide spectrum of advancement opportunities. These experiences—from job-shadowing in another department to serving on a committee for a universitywide project—can pay off later in their career, even if your employees don't realize it yet.

"You don't get your degree in alumni relations," Forkes says. "People tend to start entry level or come in from other areas and often aren't thinking, ‘If I choose a career in alumni relations, will it limit my ability to eventually become a VP?' "

Institutions should cross-train their staff in all areas of advancement early on, George says. Managers can assign staff from different areas of the division to work together on projects and even create annual review goals for employees to work a certain percentage of their time on tasks outside their area of advancement. "Integrated advancement is the way to go," George says, particularly with junior and midlevel positions. "It allows people to not get typecast too early in their profession."

Emporia State University in Kansas is experimenting with more integrated advancement. As head of the alumni relations staff, Tyler Curtis looks for ways to focus on alumni relations while incorporating the idea that "everyone is a fundraiser in this business." He gives his team a broader picture of advancement and the understanding that they are part of a larger process. Curtis oversees a small portfolio of corporate donors and works with them to bring job opportunities, training, and support to graduates.

"Alumni relations pros are well positioned, if patient, to become excellent leaders, because our background is relationship-building," he says. "We have the time and talent piece, but we also have to learn the treasure part." Alumni relations, Walker says, is the best training ground if you want to be an advancement leader. "You have to do everything," she says, "from the mass communications, to data management, to one-to-one relationship-building to volunteer management. It's more about challenging professionals about what they really want in their career"—and then preparing them to go out and get it.

About the Author Tara Laskowski

Tara Laskowski is a former senior editor for Currents.




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