What Engagement-Focused Advancement Looks Like

The funding landscape for higher education has changed in ways that make it necessary for institutions to rethink their approach to advancement. Donors, both individual and corporate, are increasingly less likely to make unrestricted gifts, and alumni indicate that they feel disengaged and unvalued by their alma mater (according to a national survey of higher education alumni conducted in 2010 by the Collaborative Innovation Network for Engagement and Giving, only 52 percent of alumni believe their alma mater values its alumni relationships). As a result, many institutions are trying to meet advancement goals in a challenging economy by calling on fewer and fewer donors. This is an unsustainable advancement strategy.

Only by focusing on engagement strategies with all of your constituents -- including everyone from students to faculty to business to alumni -- can your institution break free of this pattern and build a sustainable constituency base of support into the future. This requires a fundamental rethinking of your institution's approach to engaging donors and other constituents, and it requires that the whole institution share responsibility for the work of advancement. This entails:

  • Bringing more functions within the institution into the work of cultivating prospects
  • Bringing these functions into the work early on, well in advance of solicitation
  • Prioritizing long-term planning for developing meaningful relationships with key constituents, over short-term solicitation goals
  • Developing multilayered partnerships that invite your constituents to take a more active role in the advancement of the institution's mission

"Think not just about engaging prospects in fundraising, but engaging them in the life and the mission of the institution. Rather than conveying the message, "Come help us raise money," convey the message, "Come help us achieve this shared objective.""
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Jim Langley, founder and president of Langley Innovations, and past vice president of advancement at Georgetown University, offers two scenarios to illustrate how an engagement-focused approach to advancement can lead to a sustained alignment with the institution and deeper commitment and contribution from your constituents. Both of these scenarios suggest ways to cultivate a sense of shared enterprise that both leads to positive outcomes beyond just dollars raised (such as advocacy for your institution and valuable input into challenges faced by your institution) and makes the ask a natural -- and in some cases, anticipated -- next step rather than an imposition or a cold solicitation.

Scenario A: Engaging Parents

Langley suggests engaging parents by involving them in the design of student affairs programs. Educate parents about some of the dynamics of undergraduate life (for example, about factors that contribute to student success), and seek their input on institutional programming. For example, you might convene a small group of parents to provide input on programs that support the emotional health and stress management of students, or on intramural programs or intercollegiate athletics, or career services. "These are all programs that parents may like to contribute input to, and they all have a bearing on the parents' view of the value of the education their child is receiving."

"When the ask comes, the need and the opportunity are clearer to these parents if they have been informed and involved along the way in the design of campus services and have provided their input on challenges the institution is facing. The solicitation then becomes an informed conversation about what you've been facing and what you hope to achieve together. It isn't a solicitation that comes out of the blue but that evolves out of an informed discussion."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Here's an example.

"We want to engage parents during the first year," Langley notes, "and we know that their probability of giving will be the greatest in the second year, after which the probability decreases. So the ideal time to engage parents is right after Thanksgiving of the first year. They have seen their student return home and have received a report card on institutional performance -- i.e., on whether their son or daughter is happy."

After Thanksgiving, Langley suggests, send your president and your vice president of student affairs (VPSA) to a location with a high density of parents, and invite 20 parents to a salon event hosted by a parent volunteer who is already very engaged with your institution. Send these 20 parents an invitation that makes it clear that:

  • They are being invited to a private reception to meet with your president and VPSA
  • You want to hear directly from them what they have learned from their student about the student's experience with the institution so far
  • You want to share with them your master plan for student life and invite their input

Langley suggests offering a 15-minute presentation during the reception about the institution's plan for student life, then stop and gather input from the parents: "Now, let's stop and hear about your experience. How is it working through the eyes of your son or daughter? What is and what isn't working?"

Constructive feedback at the reception sets the stage for a later ask. Hear parents' concerns, acknowledge what needs to be done, and indicate what you intend to do in the next year to address it. "Watch their reactions," Langley adds. "Then follow up by having an advancement officer pay a call." The purpose of this initial visit is not to make the ask but to present the parent with an early-stage planning document that responds to the concerns they voiced, and ask for their further input.

"You create a sense of shared ownership and a spirit of continuous improvement. That inspires parents and engenders their support. You listen, you care, you respond, and then when you ask, it is clear how the parent can help you make a difference."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Scenario B: Engaging Unaligned Philanthropists

Here's a second example that illustrates outreach to potential donors that is founded in collaborative work to advance the institution's mission. Suppose that your institution is looking to build or expand an ethics initiative or a business ethics program, and you have identified that you have the dual goals of developing an academically rigorous program that has a deeply practical focus -- the program needs to address real-world issues. In this case, Langley suggests, identify business leaders who have expressed interest or concern about business ethics and then invite them to the president's office to offer their expertise in a briefing.

At the briefing, the president can ask questions such as:

  • What is the best way to strengthen our students' grasp of business ethics -- is it a course, a program, an ethics center?
  • As business leaders, what would you want to see on a resume from a recent graduate that would make a difference?

Capture the ideas, thank the business leaders who attended, and emphasize that their briefing will have a direct influence on the design of your initiative. Then follow up; share with them a draft of the initiative, check to see if you captured their input faithfully, and seek their feedback on whether the initiative is on the right track.

Because they helped shape the concept and then refine it, these business leaders are likely to see themselves as involved in the project, and as having shared ownership in it. "This is evolutionary engagement versus precipitous engagement," Langley remarks. "This approach takes away the feeling of being ambushed or taken for granted. Rather than simply ask for funds to meet your institution's need, you instead have the opportunity to ask, 'Can you help us support this project or entity, this bold concept that we created together?' In some cases, you won't even have to ask for funds, because they will become so engaged and enthused along the way that they may volunteer an amount to see the project done."

In our recent article, "An Engagement-Centered Approach to Corporate Relations," Chris Groff, executive director of corporate and foundation relations at Fairleigh Dickinson University, notes that more corporations are increasingly eager to partner with institutions in ways that help meet their organizations' objectives, beyond just making a philanthropic gift. Groff suggests:

  • Take steps to establish your CFR office as a "one-stop shop" for connecting companies with resources they need (e.g., student recruiting, volunteer opportunities for their staff, executive education, research)
  • Develop multilayered partnerships, deepening your existing corporate relationships by partnering on multiple efforts
  • Creating "partnership overview" documents that help your connections at that company make the case for a philanthropic gift
  • Identifying stewardship activities that not only recognize the organization but engage them further in the work of your institution

"Companies are now very accountable for the funding they give to philanthropic efforts," Groff adds. "You really need a broad and deep relationship with the company. CFR needs to be responsible not just for bringing in money but for bringing in relationships."

Read more in this article.

Getting Started

There are two critical first steps in shifting resources toward an engagement-focused approach to the advancement of your institution:

  • Framing the issue for your institution's leaders
  • Engaging the board in a pilot project

Whether the conversation is initiated by a new president or by the head of your institution's advancement operation, someone first needs to raise the issue that it is imperative not just to bring in more dollars and more donors but also to find fundamentally better ways to build support for your institution. Langley adds: "Make sure your key internal stakeholders understand why merely relying on your institution's development officers to continue going out to prospects and saying, 'We're doing great work, would you help us?' will not be enough to secure your institution's future."

"It's critical to shift the focus from solicitation to engagement. Each institution needs to ask the question: Do our fundraising tactics really match our values? Or is there a disconnect between who we say we are and how we behave as an institution?"
Amit Mrig, President, Academic Impressions

The engagement-focused approach to advancement defers solicitation in favor of first developing a greater degree of engagement, because greater engagement leads to a higher long-term return not only in monetary gifts but in other benefits, such as high levels of input and volunteerism from key stakeholders, as well as broader constituency and advocacy for your institution. This focus on sustainable, long-term return, however, can make engagement-focused initiatives a difficult sell when the financial pressures under which institutions operate tend to encourage short-term thinking and a prioritization of short-term results.

As you pilot specific engagement-focused initiatives, it will be critical to mine your data to show the short-term returns that you do receive. If you hold stronger club events for young alumni or increased opportunities for alumni to connect with your faculty, what indicators can tell you in the short term that these efforts will bear fruit?

To learn what you can look for, we turned to Marianne Pelletier, Cornell University's director of advancement research and data support. Using alumni relations as her example, here are ways that Pelletier suggests measuring the degree of engagement and its impact on giving:

Quantifiable Measures

Pelletier offers these examples of quantifiable measures to assess the impact of engagement-focused initiatives:

  • The distance between the first attendance at an event and the first gift.
  • Which events or forms of engagement connect your institution to higher donors.
  • The impact of event attendance on the likelihood of accepting a solicitation visit.
  • Track an "information score" -- Pelletier's idea is that the amount of information volunteered by a prospect is an indicator of the degree of their engagement; for example, if a prospect volunteers their cell phone information or information about their children, that is an indicator of increased engagement. It is also a measure that you can correlate over time with giving behaviors.
  • Note individuals who call your office to send their regrets and decline attending an event. These individuals are showing a degree of engagement and interest simply by investing their time to call you. Are they likely to welcome further engagement?

Finally, make sure to track these indicators not only going forward, but also in mining your past data. Identifying the types of events or engagement efforts that in the past have contributed to a high long-term return can provide the basis for your first investments in increasing engagement.

Next, engage the board members in planning the new strategy. To get their buy-in, Langley suggests talking about engagement-focused advancement as both "a more graceful way to raise money and as a strategy for building long-term engagement and commitment from your donors. Everyone on that board has been approached at some time in a way that was not welcome to them; they are predisposed to understand the need for a new approach."

Finally, identify a specific project that can serve as a pilot for a more engagement-focused approach, and engage the board members in that initial project. Ask the board chair to host the first event. In this way, you can get not only board support for the necessary shift in thinking, but also board engagement in developing and testing the approach.

Read our article, Engaging the Board in Your Campaign, for practical tips on finding opportunities to engage the board in what board members do best -- big-picture thinking, advocacy, and getting key messages out to the community.

In This Issue: A Whole-Institution Approach to Advancement

"The 'lone wolf' approach of sending out a development officer to make the ask is not as successful as the engagement-focused approach. The new approach brings us back to what true philanthropy is: people working together to achieve a common purpose."
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

The institutions well-positioned to thrive amid decreased external funding and economic uncertainty will be those that have engaged all of their constituents in the work of advancement. In this issue of Higher Ed Impact: Monthly Diagnostic, we have interviewed some of the foremost horizon thinkers in higher education advancement to identify new approaches to solving the challenges facing your institution. This issue will offer practical advice for:

We will also offer links to further resources -- such as recent articles Higher Ed Impact has published on engaging corporate donors, engaging the board, engaging faculty and staff volunteers, and harnessing the power of alumni volunteerism.