James Murphy, Ph.D. CFRE

Strategic Partner

About James

James Murphy, Ph.D. CFRE, Strategic Partner, Advancement Resources, penned this message for attendees of the 2019 CASE Europe Conference. He will be moderating a breakfast roundtable discussion, “Asking the Right Questions to Uncover Donor Motivation” on Wednesday, 28th August.

University Advancement is a team sport.

We often hear this refrain. It is usually cited alongside “best practice” recommendations that describe the keys to fundraising success as having a clear strategy, involved leadership, proper resourcing, and a commitment to build long-term relationships.

Fundraising relies on developing talent, building strong teams, providing advanced professional development opportunities for high-potential and high-performing gift officers, and consistent programmatic implementation by empowered managers. Yet we often hear of the obstacles to achieving stronger performance rather than the opportunities.

What is holding you back?

Some argue that UK universities continue to underperform in major gifts fundraising despite a commitment in recent years to direct more resources to advancement. While mega-gifts may dominate the headlines, the growth of six- and seven-figure gifts remains relatively flat. Yet wealth data show an increase in the number high-net-worth individuals; growth across most asset classes; a vast transfer of wealth between generations; and significant expansion of donor-advised funds. The signs of opportunity for increased giving to universities have never been more prominent.

Our recent research has uncovered some regularly cited obstacles to stronger major gifts fundraising at UK universities.

Some cite cultural factors: UK universities can be too humble about their core academic strengths and reticent about their achievements.

As philanthropy becomes more global, universities face ethical issues when accepting gifts from donors whose sources of wealth may be questionable. While universities have formulated ethics policies in response, managing risk around these gifts remains a challenge in a highly-competitive philanthropic environment. Students—future potential alumni donors—sometimes lead in protesting the sources of some large gifts.

Some have predicted that GDPR will continue to have a dampening effect on donor engagement, but so far it seems the worst-case scenarios have not materialized.

Others point to the challenges in identifying, recruiting, and retaining major gifts fundraisers with the proper skills and training to succeed in a competitive environment.

Preparing the Core Team to Lead Across the University

One of the most common factors surfacing in our discussions with university advancement leaders and fundraisers relates to the role of training and organisational alignment around advancement. Many universities continue to rely on professional associations to provide development training for their teams. Yet conferences alone can go only so far in providing institution-specific professional development or implementing rigorous change management needed to build strong core advancement teams.

Moreover, engagement in fundraising should become embedded in organisational culture with engagement and participation from university leadership, boards, volunteers, and other stakeholders. Training programmes specifically customized to each institution can provide more effective organisational alignment across the university and strengthen the platform on which to build a stronger culture of philanthropy beyond the advancement office.

The aim of advancement training and professional development is to enlarge at least three dimensions of a university advancement programme:

  • Grow individual skill sets that allow major gifts officers to effectively manage their portfolios and deliver revenue.
  • Help managers set realistic performance expectations and equip them with coaching and evaluation skills to help their development officers maximize performance.
  • Provide an alignment across the university so that everyone understands both the place of advancement in the university’s strategic priorities and their own personal role in fundraising and donor engagement.

Higher-performing advancement teams not only are more effective increasing donor engagement and major gifts revenue, but they also build credibility across the institution for fundraising and philanthropy as a strategic endeavour.

Building Skills for Stronger Performance

Major gifts fundraising is above all a relationship-based business, and relationships are sometimes complex. Working with our higher education clients, Advancement Resources delivers evidence-based training insights designed to provide fundraisers and academic leaders with a deeper understanding of donor psychology, donor motivation, and donor passion. Gaining a deeper understanding of donors and their philanthropic motivations is a powerful tool to build and steward those key relationships.

Managing for Long-Term Success

A holistic training approach builds organisational as well as individual capacity, providing advancement managers with a deeper understanding of how to connect university priorities with donors, set ambitious yet realistic goals, and encourage the best performance from every fundraiser working with high-net-worth individuals. Through our work, managers learn how to more effectively integrate portfolio management, metrics, and performance evaluation, and learn effective coaching techniques to grow and manage high performers. These techniques help strengthen talent management and retention.

Roles and Accountability

Clear definition of roles across the institution is crucial to drive successful implementation of advancement strategy. Leadership often speaks of a commitment to fundraising, but actual roles and accountability may need to be made more explicit. We have developed training processes to lead academic and institutional leaders to a clearer understanding of the professional practices of fundraisers, building a basis for trust, professionalism, and clear communications in the working relationship. The university advancement office becomes a trusted partner in the university’s strategic growth.

The Outcome: A Robust Culture of Philanthropy

Success in building a donor-centric culture of philanthropy can remain elusive and is possibly the most difficult obstacle in organisational change management. It requires not only a highly skilled advancement professionals but the rigorous implementation of training. It isn’t for the faint of heart!

For more than 20 years Advancement Resources has delivered consistent results for university programmes around the world, helping leading institutions to embed donors at the core of their work. For more information on our pubic workshops and our bespoke training for universities, please visit the link below.


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