4 ways to navigate unrealistic expectations placed on advancement leaders

Expert gives advice for the campus advancement leader in today’s era of unrealistic expectations.

We all like to say that our jobs are pressure cookers. I am quite certain that today’s higher education advancement leader and development leader speak the truth when they say it. Advancement work has never been for the faint of heart, but at least in the old days there were more long lunches involved.

The ratcheting of fundraising pressure in recent years has coincided with budget shortfalls and other financial challenges on campus. Most institutions will say that they don’t use advancement and development to fill budget holes, but certainly some do at the expense of programs and initiatives that deserve advancement’s attention and funding.

University governing boards often look to their institution’s CEO and advancement leader to quickly find alternative funding sources in an era of declining state support combined with increased calls to keep tuition flat. These short-term pressures often supersede long-term relationship building and strategy that should serve as the core of any successful fundraising program. In many ways, this bottom-line focused environment in advancement is reminiscent of another collegiate industry that is quick to dismiss its leaders who don’t show immediate results: big-time intercollegiate athletics.

Career advancement professionals should anticipate these issues and seek out jobs and commitments that are suitable for their career growth and contentment. In an active market that currently favors the candidate and challenges the employer, advancement professionals may get multiple job offers that seem attractive and good for their upward mobility but are not necessarily in their best long-term interests. (I highly recommend “How to Handle Advancement Job Opportunities (and Create Good Career Karma),” by my colleague Dennis Barden.)

Anyone looking for a long, healthy career in advancement and development must understand the often-unrealistic expectations placed upon the advancement leader today, and work to keep those expectations in check and in line with their own.

(Next page:  4 considerations for today’s advancement leader)

A few key considerations:

1. Prioritize cultural fit. There is a vast difference in the advancement needs and pressure culture of major research institutions vs. smaller liberal arts and other schools, and each institution has its unique vibe and dynamic. An advancement leader has to fit in on campus, in the administrative offices, and in his/her function or territory of responsibility. Hasn’t this always been the case? Yes, but today’s cultural fit is absolutely essential as a foundation for handling the rigors of one’s job. Choose your organization wisely

2. Focus on leadership competencies. Advancement and development leaders are being recruited more methodically and with clearer must-have skills and competencies in mind. Institutions are looking for individuals with proven track records of fundraising results, communications and PR skills, the ability to influence and work with presidents, boards and other administrators, and so forth. Even the ability to handle certain types of high-pressure situations can be gauged.

The key for advancement professionals is to know their strengths and weaknesses and how they apply to a position you’re considering. Skills and competency assessments are frequently used by colleges and universities to gauge the capabilities of potential new hires, yet they can also be extremely useful as a career development tool for advancement leaders to know themselves. Not all roles are created equally. Some may require its leader to serve as more of a principal gift officer, while others may need a strong administrator to get operations back on track. Know your strengths and how they fit the requirements of the position.

3. Understand viable career paths. Advancement leaders have traditionally come from varied backgrounds—historically, many of the best just sort of landed in their positions from other parts of academia or even from private industry; now a more traditional route is emerging, often starting in college when students take roles as “telefund” callers. As advancement and development careers become more standardized, advancement professionals will have a clearer picture of what jobs entail and what particular pressures they will face.

An important piece of advice I often give an advancement leader when looking at a career move is to think about the job you’re considering within the context of the next job beyond that. How will the opportunity position you in the market? How will it expand your portfolio of responsibilities? Who is your boss, and how will she or he support your career development? I’ve seen many professionals take positions for increased pay and status that are ultimately not in their best long-term interest. It’s important to be very thoughtful about your ultimate career goal and whether the job you are considering will help you achieve that goal at a future point in time. Choose your career path wisely.

4. Be ready to push back. A strong backbone is needed to resist unrealistic expectations placed upon advancement professionals. This starts in job interviews – hiring managers and search committees will appreciate candidates who are ambitious yet pragmatic about what can be accomplished in a given situation. If expectations are not in line with reality, be extremely cautious. Listen to your gut and what you’ve identified as potential concerns. Articulate how you hope to partner with the organization to achieve success. Institutions may present you with a lofty compensation package. However, remember this: to whom much is given, much is expected. An open and honest conversation with your potential supervisor is critical. The best piece of advice I’ve been given over the years is to choose your boss wisely. Like many others, I’ve paid the price when not adhering to this principle.

As long as colleges and universities are strapped for resources and challenged to succeed in the marketplace, advancement leaders will continue to face unrealistic expectations. The key for anyone who pursues an advancement career is to manage expectations – from others and oneself.

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