Chief Advancement Officers: What Do You Wish You’d Known When You Started?

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Turnover is an issue across almost every advancement shop — and movement at the leadership level is no exception. Besides movement between institutions, every year many fundraising professionals enter their first year as vice president of advancement or chief advancement officer.

As we start off a new fiscal year and prepare for the start of a new academic year, we asked the speakers at our conference, Essential Leadership Skills for VPs of Advancement, for one piece of advice for new advancement leaders. “What do you wish you had known when you first took the chief advancement officer position?” we asked.

Here’s what they had to say:

KELLY GAGAN, Nazareth College
“When I realized that the true power of the position came from asking the right questions of your staff as well as your campus colleagues, it was a seminal moment. While the team obviously looks for visionary leadership, they are much more invested if you have asked the questions that allow them to share the vision with you when you explore answers together. The ability to ask open-ended questions is one that needs to be practiced but once perfected can yield pivotal results. The key to coaching is to stay curious and to be fully present as you listen for the answer.

  1. Remember that you are never allowed to have a bad day – at least that your team can see. Air your frustrations to your partner at home, to a trusted friend outside of the college but never in front of your team. They take their cues from their leader and that person is now you.
  2. While you are responsible for the alumni, development and sometimes marketing functions of your division, you are also an officer of the college. Present your case for increased budget and/or staff but then move your sights higher and look for the good of the entire institution.
  3. Get to know the president, your fellow vice presidents and deans but also know by first name the head of the grounds team, the security officer and the beloved history faculty member. As much as the senior administrators are critical, so are those on the rest of the team who can make things happen behind the scenes. The fact that a vice president takes notice of them and their work will pay dividends for years.”

DEXTER BAILEY, SUNY Stony Brook University
“I wish I’d had advance notice about the political dynamics of the executive suite and the importance of cultivating peer VPs into their respective leadership roles in Advancement. In order for Advancement to be successful, all the VPs under the President’s leadership have to be brought on board. The key is to understand their needs and illustrate how Advancement can be part of the solution while moving the institution’s mission forward.

  1. Assert your leadership role immediately. As the CAO you carry a serious responsibility that is dependent upon your strong leadership.
  2. Study your boss’s management style and understand her/his priorities before establishing your plan of action. Your boss is your top prospect; treat her or him that way. Your priorities should mirror your boss’s strategic plan for the institution.
  3. Focus on staff development. You can only thrive with good, goal-oriented, talented people around you.”

DINO HERNANDEZ, Notre Dame de Namur University
“The one thing I wish I knew as I headed into my first VP gig would be the enormous amount of time I would spend on managing Trustee relationships with and for my President. Easily, every week it accounts for 5-10% of my time. Whether it is for cultivating Trustees as major donors, or engaging them from a priority setting perspective for capital projects, or finessing on behalf of my President institutional needs and action items . . . it is a time commitment. Concurrently, in my first VP gig it also surprised me to see consistently how unprepared my college or university President was in external relations. I spent a surprising amount of time coaching and mentoring my Presidents in the ‘art of the ask’ and key cultivation/stewardship strategies. I would have to routinely prep my Presidents and even role play the ask with them prior to donor calls and visits. In one memorable instance, one of my early Presidents ‘froze up’ and quietly asked me to make the ask for the institution as that President was so nervous he felt he could not pull it off. So now, I spend time making sure my President is well prepped and versed on the strategy.

  1. Read your new institution’s financial statements with special attention to the level of private support – restricted and unrestricted – as you map out your goals going forward.
  2. Spend time interviewing and building bridges with long-tenured faculty and dedicated alumni/donors; beyond stewardship, this also presents a natural good first impression as you hit the ground running.
  3. Early fundraising wins are critical your first 100 days. Pull your gift pyramid reports on what was actually raised last fiscal year and work those current donors. People are watching you and results matter!”

CHRIS BIEHN, Ithaca College
“I wish I had understood the level of ambiguity that exists at the VP layer.  I don’t mean that institutional policies weren’t well defined but more that as a VP I play a role in the interpretation and the possible exceptions to those policies when necessary for the good of the institution.

  1. Do an assessment of the division, ideally before you arrive. Hire an outside person to come in and provide a comprehensive review of staff, processes and results as well as recommendations. Share this report with the division upon your arrival and as you share your vision for the program moving forward.
  2. Create a multi-year plan for engagement and philanthropy growth. Connect high level goals to institutional priorities and share drafts with your VP and Dean colleagues. Build plan using teams from across advancement units. Establish a mission and vision statement, agree upon metrics, build dashboards and create milestones. Establish values for workforce and help culture evolve.”