What Marketing Organizations Can Learn From Advancement

When helping an institution answer critical questions about marketing structure, staffing and systems as part of an organizational capability assessment, I often think back to my time as a unit-level chief development officer early in my career. Please join me for a brief trip down memory lane to explain.

I recall that formative experience well; it was my first time being a part of a comprehensive fundraising campaign, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. My position was jointly funded, half by the unit and half centrally through the university’s foundation. I was embedded in the unit and dual-reported to the dean and a senior administrator at the foundation, who served as a de facto consultant for us.

All the chief development officers met monthly. Once the campaign was in full swing, the centerpiece of those meetings was reviewing and discussing progress on our unit-level fundraising goals, which all contributed toward the larger university campaign goal. I won’t forget the occasional sweaty palms from those meetings, but I appreciated—perhaps more so in retrospect—the sense of community with my development counterparts, learning together and learning from one another’s experiences. Some fellow fundraisers have remained strong colleagues as our careers have progressed over the past several years.

Among the reasons for the dual-reporting, dual-funding structure was to ensure that our work didn’t stray from the cultivation, solicitation and stewardship of donors. Schools and units were thinly staffed in external affairs. Many of our positions were new, including mine. We were each working to build a development program and infrastructure for major gifts fundraising. Understandably, the foundation didn’t want our roles to evolve into special event planning or “other duties as assigned” by the dean.

This more centralized model for development remains common in higher ed, but it’s far less prevalent for marketing. Why?

The difference comes down to goals.

Whether you were the development director at the school of engineering or the library or—in my case—a branch campus, my counterparts and I were all working toward the same result: to generate private support from individuals, foundations and corporations to advance the university and our particular unit. While our cases for support differed across units, the measure of success (in gifts and pledges) was the same.

Now compare that to marketing departments. Across an institution, marketing goals can vary significantly, depending on the unit. Academic schools and colleges are focused on everything from graduate enrollment to academic program rankings, while athletics and performing arts marketers are fixated on attendance and experience metrics. Still other units—from student affairs to the library—are trying to reach and move internal audiences to action.

A myriad of marketing objectives from unit to unit can result in a hodgepodge of marketing strategies and tactics and thus missed opportunities for needed efficiencies and overall effectiveness spanning the institution.

What I valued about our development community “back in the day” went beyond just the shared goals. It was the shared understanding of our work and the shared culture of how we worked. For instance, no matter the unit, every development officer understood what effective stewardship meant and looked like. Can the same be said of every marketer at your institution regarding an integrated constituent journey?

I also found the clear delineation of responsibilities to be helpful. That is, major gift fundraising was priority one for unit-level chief development officers. Centrally, the foundation handled scalable work (such as direct marketing for annual giving) and provided specialists as needed. Every school and unit, for example, did not need a gift planning attorney, but that resource and expertise were available to us as needed. Has your college or university established the core marketing capabilities that should exist at the institution level and at the unit level?

Whether marketing has a reporting line from the units to the center or not (and we would advocate for more institutions to explore versions of hybrid structures seen in advancement), it is incumbent on the CMO or VP to move the institution in a direction of shared goals for marketing. Your institution’s strategic plan should be the first place to look. (We’ll have much more to say about higher ed strategic plans in the months ahead with forthcoming RHB research analyzing thousands of pages of college and university strategic plans.) We’ve even seen examples of plans with specific goals related to marketing and communication. One strategic plan goal from a land-grant university was to enhance communications about its strength in research, innovation and entrepreneurship and the impact of those activities on local, state, national and international communities. The work of all—or certainly most—marketing departments at that university can ladder up to this common goal and guiding light.

It’s not about “centralization” per se, but wouldn’t institutions benefit if the totality of their marketing took a more integrated, cohesive, coordinated approach? This future state is the exciting, challenging work of a higher ed CMO, providing important leadership to evolve an institution from a collection of disparate marketing activities to a unified marketing organization.

The ingredients are the same as the ones I experienced in my early-career advancement work: shared goals, a shared culture and a shared understanding of your work.

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Rob Zinkan

Rob is the Vice President for Marketing Leadership at RHB.