President's Perspective: The Road to Advancement
“All the world’s a stage.”
And indeed, we each have many parts to play. It surprises some when I mention my career began in the theatre. My undergraduate degree from Middlesex University in London is in the performing arts. My love of theatre is all-encompassing. I was just as content behind the scenes as I was on stage. And so, my career began in stage management. I promised myself I would return to center stage if I missed acting. But that moment never came—I loved running the show from the prompt corner in the wings.
In 1986, when I was stage manager at Theatr Clwyd in Flintshire, Wales, we produced Hedda Gabler by the brilliant Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. The actress in the lead role was hesitant to fire the prop gun, so it fell to me to do so in the wings. It left my ears ringing for the run of the production! A stage manager’s role truly puts emphasis on this familiar line from job descriptions: “All other duties as assigned.”
I worked in stage management for about six years before moving on to administration and development roles in the arts and then on to the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 1998, where I began my career in educational advancement as Director of External Relations. Like many of us who found our way to advancement roles, although I loved the work and had an aptitude for it, it wasn’t a career I had specifically trained for. I needed support, a network, professional development, standards, and best practices to follow. I found all that when I became aware of CASE first as a conference participant and shortly thereafter as a volunteer.
This past June, our 105 CASE Advancement Interns participated in their conference in Washington, D.C. The opening career panel participants shared with the interns how they got into the work—like me, generationally and in their career paths, most had stumbled into advancement. But what excites me now is that as we approach CASE’s 50th anniversary, today’s newcomers can be more deliberate about the profession and have pathways that are less accidental. This is exactly the growth trajectory CASE continues to lead for advancement through the Competencies Model, Career Journey Framework, standards, and educational programming.
In this issue of Currents, we provide you with two feature articles dedicated to career pathways, including one making the case for considering nontraditional hires with transferrable skills, if not direct experience.
As my career in advancement took off, I appreciated that the diplomatic and organisational skills that I had learned in staging a production were essential—not the least of which were relationship building, problem solving, and the ability to stand back and let the key players shine during a standing ovation. So don’t overlook that stage manager, for example, who might be an asset to your team. Because with CASE, you have access to the professional development and support to bring members of your team up to speed.
My career in this work has fulfilled me in ways I could not have imagined when I started backstage at Theatr Clwyd. And I still get to exercise my passion for the arts through service on the board of Signature Theatre in Shirlington, Virginia, not far from Washington, D.C.
In May I travelled to Norway for the CASE Nordic Summit. For my closing remarks, I turned to that Norwegian playwright for inspiration:
“If ever you have moments of doubt, and we all do, never forget: ‘Nothing is impossible that one desires with an indomitable will.’ So said Henrik Ibsen. I encourage you, therefore, to go forth and be indomitable as you transform the world!”
It was a full-circle moment in my career journey.
About the author(s)
Sue Cunningham is president and CEO of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), which supports more than 3,100 schools, colleges, and universities worldwide in developing their alumni relations, communications, fundraising, and marketing operations in order to advance their institutions. As CASE president and CEO, she provides strategic and operational leadership for one of the largest associations of education-related institutions in the world with members in more than 80 countries. She became president of CASE in March 2015.
Cunningham engaged CASE and thousands of its volunteers in a comprehensive strategic planning process resulting in Reimagining CASE: 2017 - 2021, an ambitious and comprehensive framework for serving CASE’s members and championing education worldwide. This volunteer and member engagement extends into a comprehensive effort to refine CASE’s governance structure to more effectively support CASE’s global reach and service to members.
Under her leadership, CASE acquired the Voluntary Support of Education survey and created AMAtlas. CASE has reinvigorated its global advocacy agenda and is engaged in reviews of the curriculum across all advancement disciplines and an update of CASE’s management and reporting standards and guidelines, which operate as the industry-leading set of standards. She is most proud of CASE’s efforts to diversify the advancement professions and CASE’s commitment to talent management, within the organization and across CASE’s membership.
Cunningham serves on the steering committee of the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, is a member of the Council of Higher Education Management Associations, and the International Women’s Forum, and serves on the fundraising committee for the Aurora Foundation.
Prior to CASE, she served as vice principal for advancement at the University of Melbourne and as the director of development for the University of Oxford. She served as director of development at Christ Church, Oxford, and as director of external relations at St. Andrews University.
She is an honorary fellow of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a recipient of the CASE Europe Distinguished Service Award, and a CASE Crystal Apple Award recipient. She holds a master’s degree from Oxford University and a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from Middlesex University.
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