President's Perspective: Trust Matters

Advancement’s role in building and sustaining institutional confidence

By Sue Cunningham

Sue Cunningham

Sue Cunningham
President and CEO of CASE


With 5,000 page views (and counting!), the Currents article on self-care is one of our most-read stories to date. Clearly, the idea of stepping back from the pressures of our professional lives struck a chord with CASE members. On holiday this past summer, I did my best to unplug from work and catch up on my reading. But my reading only led me back to issues related to our profession and I soon found myself sharing links to articles about leadership and challenges!

Some of my reading and listening addressed trust and the many ways that it and confidence in our institutions can be weakened or ruptured. This caused me to consider the important role that advancement leaders can and do play in building and sustaining institutional confidence and trust.

Recently, Inside Higher Ed hosted a webinar on the results of its 2018 Survey of College and University Business Officers in the United States. Some findings were about the importance of the relationship between advancement leaders and chief business officers. The survey found that CBOs with less confidence in the financial sustainability of their institution also were not convinced that key stakeholders had a solid grasp of the institution's financial position and concerns.

I concluded that a true partnership between advancement leaders and finance colleagues can help them clearly translate the institution's financial story to key constituent groups and facilitate difficult conversations about institutional positioning and potential. Our skills here are vital.

Similarly, I've been catching up on articles describing educational crises, whether sudden or slow burning, that have resulted in high-profile scrutiny—in a few cases resulting in the departure of the institutional leader and other senior-level leaders. Often, the cause can be traced to a breach of trust between leaders and the community they are committed to serving.

In these instances, the insights of advancement leaders can make a difference—if we have the comfort level and confidence to exercise our professional judgment and share our truth. We have a unique, dual perspective inside and outside the institution that is crucial, especially in times of crisis. We hear things, we learn things; it is our professional obligation to bring this information to the leadership table, especially when it concerns matters potentially damaging to the institution.

As headlines continue to prove, it doesn't take much for trust to be shattered. We all know how hard it is to develop trust with our constituents and how easy it is for one crisis—or even just a difficult interaction—to undermine what took so long to build. As institutional leaders, the more we can bring information and insights forward to our colleagues and help them to generate important conversations and engagement, the better off our institutions will be.