Recently, I was approached by a member of our Board of Trustees about putting together a primer on institutional advancement. As I thought about the idea, I came to see it as a golden opportunity to educate and inform our Board about what institutional advancement does and why it is important.

Many people think of advancement exclusively in terms of fundraising, and of fundraising only in terms of asking for money. Advancement professionals know that’s not the case, but we ought not assume such knowledge among Board members. Each member of the Board brings his or her own unique skills and abilities to the table, but that does not necessarily mean they have an understanding of the aims and functions of advancement, or the various constituencies it serves.

A brief, well-written primer on advancement can benefit Board members in four important ways…

  1. It can inform their understanding of the integrated approach to alumni relations and development.
  2. It can dispel certain myths about fundraising.
  3. It can provide concrete suggestions for how they can get involved with advancement.
  4. It can show them how to become advocates for advancement itself, and why that is important.

The Integrated Approach
In 1792, Yale became the first institution to start formally organizing alumni gatherings. By 1823, Brown University began the first annual development effort with its “Alumni Fund.” From the beginning, alumni relations and development led largely separate lives, and often operated in separate buildings on campus. Over time, however, professionals in these fields began to see how the work of each influenced the other. While there are some institutions that still maintain a separation of the two, the modern trend has been towards an integrated model. The goal of a primer should be to show how interdependent alumni relations and development personnel are, and that the success of each requires a carefully coordinated effort.

Dispel Fundraising Myths
One common misunderstanding people have about fundraising is that it is all about asking for money. Advancement professionals have an obligation to explain to their Boards that making “the ask,” while important, is only one step in a cyclical process that also involves a number of other critically important steps. It is not necessary to go into lengthy detail a primer. Rather, it is sufficient to simply convey the following…

Fundraising is a continuous and cyclical process
that values the relationship with the donor
more than the size and frequency of gifts.

How one communicates that message can vary, but it needs to be the key takeaway for Board members. The mechanics of fundraising can always be discussed later if needed.

Encourage Involvement
Another important message to communicate is the need for Board members to get involved in the advancement effort in some way. Not everyone is comfortable asking for money, so it is important to suggest other ways one might lend a hand. This might include hosting an alumni event, spreading the word about the organization to as many people as possible, or connecting the institution with potential donors or volunteers with valuable expertise. The goal of a primer should be to list the myriad ways a Board member can be involved with advancement, with or without asking for money.

Advocate for Advancement
One often-overlooked way that Board members can help with advancement is by being advocates for advancement itself. The functions of advancement require adequate staffing and resources in order to be effective. In their oversight capacity, Board members can help ensure advancement’s effectiveness by making sure the alumni relations and development operations have all the personnel and resources they need to deliver on desired outcomes.

Question: What are some things you wish your Board knew about advancement, and how would you best communicate them?

Posted by Mark Zobel PhD, CFRE

I help nonprofits accomplish their missions and achieve their visions for a better world through donor-centered fundraising and comprehensive development work.

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