Institutional Strategic Planning and the Under-Leveraged Capability of Advancement

One objective of RHB’s study of 108 current strategic plans was to bring a constituent-oriented lens to this research. Faculty, staff and administrators play a central role in strategic planning. What about other core constituencies—students, alumni, donors and other stakeholders—and the functional areas responsible for them?

For instance, we have previously discussed research implications for the marketing function. Marketing’s more strategic capabilities were not present across our review of strategic plans, which included four-year public and private institutions from all 50 states. Rather, the role of marketing was largely limited to promotion. 

Another external-facing function that warrants deeper consideration in relation to strategic planning is advancement. What would an analysis of 2,400 pages of strategic plans reveal about higher education advancement—and specifically philanthropy?

Across the full set of plans, 73 percent explicitly referenced alumni in some way (or the functions of alumni relations or alumni engagement), and 68 percent of plans mentioned philanthropy. In comparison, 48 percent of plans mentioned marketing.

References to philanthropy came in three focus areas:

1. Alignment with strategic plan priorities

It is imperative that fundraising priorities be aligned with an institution’s highest strategic objectives. Therefore, we often saw philanthropy cited in plans as an essential ingredient in achieving strategic plan goals and initiatives. Strategic plans foreshadowed comprehensive campaigns and provided clarity for fundraising priorities. To create the most coherence, a strategic plan and subsequent comprehensive campaign often shared the same name (or had closely related ones). As one institution’s plan stated straightforwardly, the university will “launch and complete a comprehensive fundraising campaign generating resources that support institutional priorities.”

2. Financial sustainability or revenue diversification

Colleges and universities facing financial challenges or uncertain conditions were looking to private support as a prominent part of their solution. As one plan stated, “We will think outside the box about alternative revenue streams,” while another institution committed to increasing its financial resources by “expanding traditional revenue opportunities” and “augmenting innovative fundraising models.” Institutional strategic plans are now clearly calling on philanthropy to help fortify their short-term and long-term operating sustainability.

3. Expression of institutional values

Far less common were mentions of philanthropy in a much broader, values-based context. In these instances, institutions spoke of building an enduring culture of philanthropy or building upon an existing culture of philanthropy that included robust and meaningful constituent engagement. Here, philanthropy as an expression of institutional values took precedence over merely increasing cash gifts to the annual fund by a certain percentage each year of the plan.

In one example, a strategic plan discussed philanthropy not just as an institutional value, but as a “classically American value.” This institution’s alumni have “exemplified the generosity that has helped make American higher education the envy of the world.” And while the plan included philanthropic ambitions that required launching a campaign to both advance strategic priorities and support the institution’s future financial health, the institution also planned to expand engagement of all kinds to “ensure the continuity” of the example that alumni have set and the expression of this institutional value.

In December, Dr. Aimee Hosemann and I presented along with Jonathan Purvis, Butler University Vice President for University Advancement, to advancement officers at the CASE District V Annual Conference in Chicago. Jonathan shared an example of expanded engagement in the form of a university leadership tour to important markets to host intimate conversations with Butler’s most faithful alumni leaders and friends. The purpose was meaningful dialogue about the university’s strategic direction.

These types of outreach efforts help an institution better understand the perceptions and perspectives of external constituents. Advancement officers have a pulse on these perceptions and the experiences of key stakeholders. Like marketing, advancement can bring—and should have the organizational capability to bring—constituent data and insights to help inform institutional strategy.

On a related note, 68 of the 108 plans in our study (nearly two-thirds) did not conduct environmental scans or surveys to inform strategic planning. These plans did not go beyond a general overview of market forces and trends that could affect the road ahead. 

Leaders in both advancement and marketing should be playing a critical role to help ensure their institutions have a constituent-centered, market-oriented strategic plan. The majority of the time, though, they are not part of strategic planning core groups. Colleges and universities that see these functions only in the transactional or tactical realms of raising money and getting the word out are doing a disservice to the constituencies who matter most to their institution and to their institution’s future.

  • Spread the word
Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.