Advancement: The art of building relationships of trust

Some tertiary education institutions take a short-term approach to attracting private funds, while a more effective method is known as advancement. This is a holistic, longer-term process whereby an institution positions itself strategically and engages judiciously with its external environment to ensure sustainability.

With this advancement approach, building trusted relationships and partnerships is key. Marketing, communications, public relations, development (fundraising) and partnerships with alumni or friends of the institution are important components of advancement.

People do not give to entities if they know little or nothing about them and it is important for an institution and its leadership to have a public profile. Potential supporters are attracted to an entity through its success and positive results in addressing national or local needs.

The following factors should be considered when building such a profile:

• Positioning the institution in relation to others in the field and within its context;

• Profiling the entity’s leadership;

• Ensuring events serve the advancement of the institution and enable follow-up to strengthen good relationships;

• Distribution of newsletters and annual reports as important tools to enhance existing relationships and to build new ones with strategic constituencies;

• The use of major events, such as graduations or the installation of a new chancellor at a university, to build relationships that further the objectives of the institution; and

• The use of communications to enhance the reputation of the institution, and also effective crisis communications planning to reduce reputational risk.

The university’s communications must be aligned with the development office (which focuses on fundraising) to ensure the advancement of the institution.

Specific marketing and communications should be developed for particular fundraising campaigns and these should be integrated into all marketing materials, whether print, electronic, on the institution’s website, or via social media platforms.

The internal marketing and communications of entities is crucial as institutions and organisations that speak with one voice are infinitely more attractive to donors than those speaking in fractured ways, or telling conflicting stories about themselves.

It is, therefore, important that an entity’s strategic plan has buy-in from the whole campus or institutional staff and that it is understood. Be mindful that dissenting voices that emerge publicly will make it far more difficult to attract the required funds.

Internal relationships

At a university, building internal relationships is as important as external relationships.

A good advancement operation will keep faculty informed about the progress of various campaigns and project fundraising, and will also assist in developing cases for support, building sustainable budgets, identifying potential donors and opening doors for faculty members to engage with prospective funders.

In such a university structure, there would be no intention to disrupt existing donor relationships, but would rather ensure that donors benefit from the broader services offered by the advancement operation. Such services might include, for example, issuing tax certificates, invitations to university events, receipt of annual reports, and other communications that help to maintain institutional relations.

In turn, the campus community adds to other aspects of advancement such as news of success, opinion on current topical issues, participation as speakers both locally and internationally, and in building relationships with prospective donors who have an interest in a specific field of endeavour such as environmental issues, the arts, human rights or cancer research.

Access to a range of experts in the myriad fields at universities constitutes a major resource in promoting an institution’s advancement.

It is critical that a university’s central advancement operation has a good grip on what is being done in donor liaison, and that there is quality control at the level of proposal writing, budgeting and report writing.

It is also important for faculty fundraisers to be trained with regard to the institutional message that they take to the external world, to ensure consistency and clarity with regard to institutional direction and priorities.

Very importantly, there needs to be buy-in around donor clearance so that there are no conflicting approaches to the same donor from different sectors or units within the university. Apart from creating confusion, this could also lead to donor fatigue.

Alumni relations

An alumni relations unit is critical for developing, maintaining and strengthening relationships with this group of key stakeholders. Many universities seriously undervalue their alumni who often feel that the only thing their university wants from them is money.

It is of critical importance to an advancement operation to recognise that alumni are the key product of a university.

While councils, vice-chancellors and faculty come and go, it is the alumni who continue to reflect the success (or not) of the institution through their activities, businesses, professions and personal successes.

Businesses undertake extensive research into their products to ensure that they meet the needs of the consumer, but universities continue to take too little care to track the successes and failures of their alumni. In addition, the student experience is often unmeasured and universities have little knowledge of what their graduates think of the institution.

Alumni, however, have major potential as:

• Networkers and ambassadors for the entity;

• Donors (especially to capital and annual campaigns, and through bequests);

• Door openers within their professions, businesses and networks; and

• Partners on projects and advisory committees.

The alumni relations unit should focus on building relationships, while any fundraising directed toward alumni or stakeholders should be undertaken in collaboration with the institutional development office.

The alumni relations unit should maintain an updated contact database which can be used by the development office, or by marketing and communications, to inform these stakeholders of institutional activities, highlights and progress.

Source: ASK Inyathelo Pocket Guide: Roles and Responsibilities in an Advancement Operation, author Shelagh Gastrow.

This article was compiled by advancement experts who work with Inyathelo.

Institutions wishing to establish or grow their advancement offices can find resources on the ASKInyathelo platform. It offers easy access to articles, materials, guides and tips on advancement and fundraising. For more information, e-mail