Advancement and
Alumni Engagement

A Challenge to Think Differently

Newton's Laws

  • It's time for a wake-up call in our profession; we must become part of the conversation
  • Influence, change the way we build and execute our programs
  • Focus on relationships over metrics, hold staff accountable, engage in the dialogue on rising higher education costs, and raise awareness about how endowments work

Over the summer, I was asked to speak at a conference for one of our vendors. It is one of my favorite conferences, as it is forward-thinking, interactive, and contemporary. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, the conference went virtual and I was asked to record and send in my presentation. This did, however, afford me the opportunity to think differently about my talk, including figuring out what I might say, and how to use this opportunity to continue to challenge the advancement sector to think differently. So, that’s what I did.

I entered the philanthropic sector 30 years ago, in 1990. That’s hard to say, I truly can’t believe it’s been 30 years. I began as a phone-a-thon student caller at my alma mater, Belmont Abbey College. I was a first-generation college student who pieced together a patchwork of scholarships to be able to attend, but literally had no money to live on. I ate every meal in the dining hall, wore the clothes I brought with me for the entire year, didn’t go home very often, and barely left campus. Why? Because I had no money, and I wasn’t getting checks in the mail from home. In addition to my work-study job in the registrar’s office, I took the job in the phone-a-thon because it provided me some minimal spending money.

What I didn’t know at the time was that during my freshman year of college, I had actually begun my career in philanthropy. As I continued working in the student caller role, I came to know many of the staff members in the “Institutional Advancement” office. They became mentors as much as any faculty members. Ultimately, my primary mentor left to work for a different organization in the same town, hiring me in my first job after college. I was the special events coordinator in a real development office, and I was on my way.

I won’t walk you through every step of my career, but suffice it to say that I have experienced many ups and downs. I’ve worked the phones, coordinated bowl-a-thons and black-tie dinners, stuffed (and licked) thousands of direct mail envelopes, traveled hundreds of thousands of miles by car and plane to visit with donors across the globe, and coordinated and executed major campaigns. More recently, I’ve been privileged to lead teams of individuals, work with boards and academic leaders, and now get called on more often to speak at a conference, or two.

Fast-forward to my recent speech at the RAISE conference at the end of July. I started by saying that I wanted to “challenge our sector to think differently.” Why? Because, after being in advancement for the last 30 years, I think we are in need of a wake-up call. I think we need to open ourselves to the dialogue that is happening around us, with increasing frequency and volume. We need to do more than begin to hear that dialogue. We need to become part of it, and it needs to influence and change the way we build and execute our advancement programs.

Some of those issues include increasing relationships over metrics, addressing accountability in advancement, the debate over rising higher education and its impact on advancement, having a better understanding of endowments, and more.

I plan to continue the conversation and address some of what I believe are the most important issues impacting the philanthropic sector—especially for large organizations, like higher education and health care. I will also share what I believe are some of the things we must do to begin to think, and act, differently in terms of how we approach, and conduct, our work on a daily basis. Are you ready to think differently?