October 2018

The modern higher education “advancement organization” has been evolving since the 1970s as development, alumni relations and communications have become increasingly integrated, yet in widely varying structures with no clear “one size fits all.” The trend toward “engagement” over the past decade linked these “three legs of the advancement stool” more closely and operationally. Besides adapting lessons from business and customer relationship management, institutions have sought to engage alumni on a journey from loyalty to commitment to contribution to generate the sustained financial support increasingly vital to the health of colleges and universities.

The profile of the “best practice” advancement organization of the next decade is only beginning to emerge. The latest disrupter – technology – is driving changes in the roles and relationships of development, alumni relations and communications. So colleges and universities, each a unique ecosystem, are exploring the next design of the advancement organization – one institution at a time – and building on what the others have learned. The questions are many – e.g., Who owns engagement? Where does alumni relations fit? What is the role of communications and marketing? Who reports to whom? How fast can institutions apply the newest technologies and the latest knowledge for the greatest advantage?

For a long time, the overriding question has been whether alumni associations should remain separate from development? Those who have solved this with new structures include Stanford University (a pacesetter in the early 1990s), Cornell University, the University of British Columbia, University of Washington and more recently, William & Mary and Oregon State University.  

Now, because of data and analytics documenting the more complex elements of the engagement journey, it’s standard practice for advancement organizations to have merged their alumni and development arms. The newest attention is focusing on the role – and position – communications and marketing due to the sophisticated business systems for customer relationship management (from Amazon and Apple to Macy’s and to a growing degree in every business interaction).

Organizationally and operationally for university advancement, the popular structure has expanded from a series of units under development, alumni relations, communications and advancement services to additional units focusing on “engagement,” “relationship management,” “analytics” and “marketing.” Many institutions are trying to catch up with this evolution at the same time that their customers – the alumni – are expecting entirely new behaviors, most notably the personalized tech-driven experiences that propel all their relationships, from interacting with friends and family to purchasing anything and everything.

“Digital isn’t merely an add-on,” asserted McKinsey & Company in a 2016 podcast, “it’s a way to think differently about business models, customer journeys and organizational agility.” [1]

For the new advancement organization, there is still is no single “one size fits all” but there are clear trends driving engagement and the advancement structures, operations and staff capabilities to optimize it:

  • CRM technologies such as Ellucian and Salesforce, which are collecting meaningful data, permitting customer segmentation, fostering personalization, analyzing results and facilitating better coordination among advancement units (and advancement with other university units).
  • Fewer unit-focused “silos” and more cross-functional matrix teams with staff who are collaborative, agile and form and re-form teams (often on a project or individual donor basis) to create and manage new customer journeys – and then the processes to engage these alumni according to their preferences. Staff workflows are diversified because staff have the tools to use all the resources.
    • These include: integrating alumni and development finance systems and business processes, much stronger alignment between alumni and development regional programs and platform strategies incorporating engagement and principal gifts.
  • New types of jobs and hybrid positions incorporating different skills, such as IT professionals (formerly traditional “Advancement Services” or institutional “marketing” specialists) moving into leadership roles in advancement and as Chief Marketing Officers because of their understanding of technology tools for relationship-building and retention (from fundraising to enrollment management). Some institutions are building engagement across the entire enterprise, through CRM platforms, integrated marketing, engagement strategic plans and university strategic plans focusing on lifetime engagement of students and alumni. (Examples are: Indiana University-East, Pepperdine University and the University of Miami)
  • Digital toolsets, such as AMAtlas, the global benchmarking tool under development by CASE – a multi-year project launched in July 2018 to provide its 3,700 member institutions with global advancement-related metrics, benchmarking and analytics to support strategic decision making.[2]

How best to operationalize these new structures and roles is in the early stages, but the forward-leaning advancement organizations are placing a priority on making these changes to apply the newest knowledge within their contexts. In this mix of emerging features, presidents, CEOs and unit vice presidents are increasingly positioning communications professionals as direct reports and members of their cabinets – or certainly at the strategy table – rather than as staff reporting up through other units.

From their backgrounds in reporting, analyzing and storytelling, these professionals help synergize research for campaigns and donor messaging, integrate messaging across the customer journey (from students to legacy donors) and bridge gaps among many specialties because of their training and versatility in applying custom tools and messaging to various audiences. Ensuring that this capability is appropriately leveraged across the advancement organization and its operations is proving to facilitate the ability of fundraisers and alumni relations professionals to interact in more personalized ways with each “customer.”


[1] “Achieving a Digital State of Mind,” McKinsey & Company, February 2016.

[2] “CASE Launches Global Resource for Educational Advancement-Related Metrics,” July 15, 2018. https://www.case.org/About_CASE/Newsroom/Press_Release_Archive/CASE_Launches_Global_Resource_for_Educational_Advancement-Related_Metrics_Announces_Acquisition_of_the_Voluntary_Support_of_Education_Survey.html