School’s Toolkit: Integrating Your School’s Advancement Office
The concept of integrated advancement has been evolving for the last several decades. If you’re reading this resource, you’re probably struggling with how best to manage your school’s workload and ambitions, to maximize efficiency, refresh your programming, or get the most out of your team. Whether your advancement program is mature and looking to be more collaborative, or whether your small office is struggling to keep up with the many demands placed upon it, this toolkit will help you find straightforward ways of becoming a stronger program, one step at a time.
The path toward becoming a fully integrated advancement team is different for every school. To an extent, the reasons for striving for integration often determine how meandering your path might be. Often, schools arrive at this point out of strategic planning and careful deliberation. Equally as often, in my experience, schools arrive here as a result of a painful journey of personality conflicts or even budget cuts. I mention this difficult truth to encourage you; regardless of how you and your team may be arriving here, the benefits are worth the journey.
Definition: Advancement, as this resource defines it, includes the offices of development, communications, and alumni or community relations. In many cases, especially in highly tuition-driven schools, it could and should include enrollment management. Integrated offices can work in many ways: the two most common include a Chief Advancement Officer, who oversees the above functions, or multiple directors who report to the Head or Associate Head of School and who work closely together in mutual strategy, understanding, and support.
Iin order for any set of employees or teams to integrate, they have to understand each other’s roles and department goals first. Sitting down together is the first step. It may take several meetings, but laying the path is invaluable to future success. Directors should share why you’re all meeting and begin with giving the entire collective team an overview of each office’s primary data points, key performance indicators, challenges, and successes.
Here are some steps to take and some areas of consideration to share:
Know each other’s pain points and key metrics
PRO TIP: If you’re the CAO or director, be clear about everyone else’s role and WHY and HOW it supports the entire team. Try an element of visual thinking and create a relationship map on a white board to indicate areas of overlap and mutual dependence.
These questions will help guide your conversations and your reporting out to your colleagues. This is the longest section of this toolkit for a reason! It’s the most important. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but make sure to consider how best to convey and to hear what the key messages and metrics are for each area. Mutual understanding is the most important aspect of integrating your advancement office and of doing the work to be more collaborative moving forward.
Seeing the work from a bigger picture perspective (ecosystem) allowed for great professional growth over the last years. Everything became more strategic and alignment was a key component of our integrated approach. Our success required radical collaboration, assertive communication, and a greater sense of shared goals. By understanding each other's roles, we become agile in delivering projects by combining strengths and adapting to new working settings as we experienced now during the pandemic. – Gustavo Segui, The International School of Curitiba, Brazil
Once each respective area has a clear understanding of the challenges and successes of other departments within advancement, begin to make the case for a more streamlined or collaborative model. As in any industry or place of business, getting buy-in about a more integrated model from your team and anyone else involved is key to your success. Whether the notion of integration is coming from the ground up or the top down, you need to make the case for why integration is important for your institution. For example, state your goals for the revenue-generating arms of the school, and ask questions like “Let’s design the external functions of the school as if we’re starting over. If our goal is to increase efficiency in fundraising, community relations, and admissions, what are ways we could reach outside of our immediate silo to do that?” Get out white boards, giant sticky notes (or the virtual equivalent thereof) and workshop the ideas. In most cases, greater integration will be the inevitable consequence of a creative conversation.
The process of integrating our teams was lengthy and took a significant amount of work and conversation to achieve buy-in from everyone involved. It is important that your Head of School supports the initiative, as well as your Board of Trustees. But the most valuable people to have involved in the process are each of the team members involved. If you are considering integrating your offices, I suggest involving them from the beginning and inviting them to be a part of the conversation, rather than telling them when the decision has already been made. Integrating your teams will only work if the individuals on the team support the idea! – Caroline Baugh, The American School of Paris
Pro tip: for this to be successful, you must make everyone feel safe. Communicate clearly that this is aimed at growth, not censorship of what has been standard practice in the past.
Now that your teams understand each other and have begun working in tandem, make sure to meet regularly. For the first year, you might incorporate ideas like the ones below. During year two, when integration becomes a norm, not an idea, work toward a meeting structure that incorporates all areas and prioritizes efficiency and empowering all team members to be creative and fulfilled in their roles.
Ideas for future meetings:
- Identify everyone’s strength on the team. Take a skills inventory list. You may discover that a development team member has a passion for graphic design, or that a colleague in alumni relations is an outstanding copyeditor. Use everyone’s strengths (without overloading them with extra work) to the improvement of the entire operation.
- Map opportunity. Where is there currently overlap on the team? Is it with respect to travel? Events? Communications? Find ways to streamline or split up activities that could benefit the school. Do new student tours reflect that the school has a fundraising office/goal? For example, “This is our brand new theatre, the funds for which were generously donated by three current families.” When traveling or off-campus on behalf of the school, does the admission team make cultivation visits or the development team bring new-student materials to families?
- Map prospects—all of them! Upload all your school’s fundraising or admission prospects, as well as alumni and key volunteers into Google Maps or other similar tools. Find populations that contain those key volunteers and ask them to reach out to potential donors or potential new families. Review each office’s volunteer training materials (or review some in the CASE library) and develop cross-training resources that can turn anyone into an ambassador of the school.
- Review processes. Are your databases aligned, and do they communicate with one another? If not, could they? Do you use a common CRM that will allow all communications with a single volunteer or parent to show up for both offices? Does the development team know when a high-profile admissions visit is happening? Likewise, does the enrollment team know when key alumni with children or grandchildren are coming to a reunion or other campus event? Find alignment wherever you can and build those processes into your regular meetings to review and highlight for every member of the team.
- Review data. Each part of your meeting should be a review of the KPIs for each office at a given point in the school year. Ensure that each member of the team knows where the school is with inquiries year over year or donor participation, for example. Make sure you know what the data is telling you and invite members of all offices to generate ideas for responses or to celebrate each other’s successes.
Whether your team has been functioning as separate units, or if communications has reported either to fundraisers or enrollment managers, it’s time to view the communications office as the glue that holds the teams together. The storytelling a school does is at the heart of an integrated team, and communications professionals must be given space and time to think creatively about how to tell the school’s most important stories. That said, it’s also incumbent upon the communications office to listen closely to what the development/advancement and enrollment offices are saying about what drives revenue and what resonates the most with their audiences.
The role of the communications office is not only to engage audiences, it is ultimately to drive revenue as part of the advancement function. Whether that includes designing marketing emails to a list of inquiries, managing a Google Analytics account, writing annual fund appeals, or posting on Instagram, every external post or piece should ultimately be tied back to a fundraising or admissions function. Even basic quarterly newsletters or videoblogs work to retain families and therefore maintain revenue streams. Particularly if your school is on a lean budget, the communications function must consider itself integral to the fiscal health of the school.
Some questions for the communications office to consider, along with the rest of the advancement team:
- Does the school’s language, tone, and social media reflect the kind of institution it wants to be? Do the enrollment and development offices agree on that answer?
- Does the school’s branding reflect both its current families AND its alumni? Is it consistent across all departments?
- Does the school’s storytelling sound the same across all channels? For example, do the viewbook and the annual report tell roughly the same story of the institution? Why or why not? Could appeals to donors and emails to prospects reflect the same cool science project or community service day?
While integrating your immediate counterparts is essential, so is engaging faculty and other staff. Advancement in its truest, most school-wide form, relies on the contributions of a number of school community members. Ask yourselves the following questions, and brainstorm ways to engage with key audiences.
- Does everyone understand that (integrated) advancement is everyone’s job?
- Do you and your teammates visit classrooms frequently? Rotate so that everyone visits at least a class or two every month.
- Do you solicit stories from your faculty or ask to be kept apprised of new projects or initiatives?
- Does the advancement team have representation at every faculty meeting?
- Could you consider an employee advancement committee who helps identify opportunities for growth, social media coverage, campaigns, or being ambassadors?
How to successfully integrate your faculty into an advancement strategy could (and should) be the subject of another toolkit. I urge you not to forget this audience as you move ahead. Keep them in the conversation, apprised of what the goals are (for any and all revenue-generating offices), how you plan to meet those goals, and how they can contribute to the overall fiscal health of the school.
The Top Takeaways:
- Understand the other offices under the advancement umbrella: their goals, metrics, and challenges
- Meet regularly as a large team to share ideas, ask questions, and review data
- Use simple tools, like Google Maps, to create cohesion and identify opportunity for cross-collaboration
- Ask yourself frequently: how will this impact the other offices in advancement? When giving a tour, writing a donor profile, or meeting with a capital campaign prospect, ask who else could benefit from this work to the good of the school?