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President's Perspective: Coming to Terms with Advancement
President's Perspective: Coming to Terms with Advancement

The word evokes puzzlement and pride—but is there a better choice for our profession?

By Sue Cunningham

Photo: Thomas Graves

Advancement is the "A" in CASE. It is part of our organization's identity. Yet for some CASE members, the word provokes debate and puzzled negative reactions. I've witnessed this over the past eight months as I've spoken with members at conferences and events. In some parts of the world, the word is unfamiliar and misunderstood. For those working in communications and marketing or alumni relations, the term can be synonymous with fundraising. For academic colleagues and institutional leadership, the word advancement is sometimes misinterpreted or completely unknown.

As members and staff develop CASE's five-year strategic plan and our long-term vision for the future, the debate over the term has emerged in almost every discussion with participants from different continents. Why so much focus on a single word? Some feel we should champion the word and promote its inclusiveness; others believe we should find an alternative. Some think we should live with its ambiguity and embrace it. So where will advancement land in our language, our literature, our vision for the future?

That remains to be seen, though I am not certain that the problem is the word as much as the definition. I believe we might define it as such:
"Advancement is the collective effort of professionals across multiple disciplines to advance their educational institution by engaging their communities to embrace opportunities and tackle challenges." This fits nicely with the definition of advancement in the Oxford Dictionaries: "The process of promoting a cause or plan."

The word advancement essentially encompasses each of the key disciplines that advances an institution: alumni relations, advancement services, communications, marketing, and fundraising. To advance institutions, each of the major disciplines must collaborate, because in many ways each depends on the others. As one university president recently expressed so eloquently to me, it is these professionals who, as a team, espouse the vision and values of their institutions. Ideally, we would recognize the importance of that collaboration with one simple word.

The aim of the name

The term advancement originated in 1958 during a joint conference between the American College Public Relations Association and the American Alumni Council. Those two organizations merged in 1974 to form CASE. In 1993, CASE shifted focus from nine disciplines to three: alumni relations, communications, and philanthropy—the "three-legged stool" of advancement.

This furniture metaphor may be outdated. It provides a somewhat narrow perspective on how our constituencies operate. Key professions in CASE's membership—advancement services and marketing—are not included. It's time to move from a less formal construct to one that shows the links between these key areas. Yet each of these disciplines advances global education, whether issuing a call to action, asking for financial or political support, or encouraging students to enroll. As former CASE President John Lippincott said in a September 2014 CURRENTS interview, "CASE believes strongly in the integration of these disciplines. If we believe in that concept, it seems appropriate to have a term for the concept."

The role of advancement has never been more important. Institutions and higher education itself are facing enormous challenges. In the United States, private colleges are struggling to survive (you can read the remarkable story of how alumni and supporters of Sweet Briar College in Virginia saved their institution from closure here). High tuition costs and student debt are causing many Americans to question the value of higher education. In Australia, institutions are coping with reductions in federal funding for public education. In the European Union, universities are dealing with a €2.2 billion loss in research funds.

As we confront these global issues, it's essential to show the educational community why CASE exists and why its mission is so important. Some view CASE as an association for fundraisers, which is a misconception. From Melbourne to Madrid, from Minneapolis to Mexico City, the future of higher education depends heavily on recruiting and graduating students, helping them start their careers—and thrive in those careers—and engaging alumni and the public to support our efforts. Success depends on all of the disciplines in advancement, and we are honored to support those professionals who are members of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

About the Author Sue Cunningham Sue Cunningham

Sue Cunningham is the president of CASE. Follow her on Twitter at @CunninghamCASE.




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