Rise to the Challenges: Advice from Senior Advancement Leaders

Today’s senior leaders in advancement face the challenge of aligning their work to keep up with the changing landscape of higher education.

Our Senior Institutes give leaders the opportunity to share best practices and collaborate on the big issues facing the profession.

As we gear up for the Senior Institutes this April, we spoke with these senior leaders on the state of higher education and what they’re most looking forward to at the institutes:


Tamara Elliott Rogers, former vice president for alumni affairs and development at Harvard University, from the Winter Institute for Chief Development Officers;



Donna Thornton, vice president for alumni engagement, annual giving and communications at Rutgers University, from the Institute for Senior Alumni Relations Professionals;



Justin Fincher, vice president for advancement strategy and administration at Ohio State University, from the Institute for Senior Advancement Services Professionals; and



Andrew Careaga, chief marketing and communications officer at Missouri University of Science and Technology, from the Institute for Senior Communications and Marketing Professionals.


CASE: How did you find your way to advancement in general and your field in particular?

Donna Thornton: I worked in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. In each instance, my jobs involved public relations, building consensus and communities, negotiating contracts and fundraising. When I had the opportunity to join my alma mater’s alumni association as the director of annual giving and membership, I found that all of the skill sets I had developed over the years came together in one profession and I loved it! I particularly enjoyed alumni relations because of the outreach and relationship building.

Justin Fincher: During graduate school I became interested in studying how people stay connected to an institution after they graduate. So, I defined a benchmarking project with a local university and spent the summer immersing myself in the advancement field. Throughout that experience I found advancement professionals to be incredibly strategic and I was inspired by how they managed relationships for decades on behalf of an institution. My research interests evolved into a career leading diverse teams of advancement professionals at large, complex institutions.

Tamara Elliott Rogers: Similar to many people, I did not seek out the field of advancement. I was leading international admissions and at some point I felt like I wanted to learn something new. As I spoke to others at the university, they kept suggesting that I would be good at fundraising. I confess I was surprised, but it turned out to be a great move! I took to it well and learned a tremendous amount. I often say that in admissions I had the heart and soul of Harvard, but in fundraising, I had the bone and muscle. You don’t really understand an institution if you don’t understand it’s financing.

Andrew Careaga: My path into communications and marketing was pretty typical. I studied journalism in college, went to work as a general assignment reporter at a small, daily newspaper, and after a few years joined a small non-profit organization as their communications coordinator. That position gave me the opportunity to expand to photography, speech writing, presentations and even managing one or two staff positions.


CASE: What are the biggest challenges facing advancement in higher education?

DT: One challenge is being able to change quickly and effectively. Traditions are important, but those traditions change as the alumni population changes. Finding the balance of honoring the past and looking to the future is very tricky. The danger is not recognizing quickly enough that it’s time to change.

JF: A challenge I see is the proliferation of technology solutions that promise to be the “magic bullet” for our industry. Because the software landscape is evolving so quickly advancement leaders are often purchasing new products and then defining goals and measures for success—a backward process to be sure.

TER: One challenge is the issue of diversity, inclusion and belonging. We haven’t achieved this in our professional ranks as well as we need to.

AC: There seems to be a disconnect between the public’s perception of the value of education in general and the value of each individual’s experience. A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that public confidence in higher education continues to decline in the U.S., but most college-educated Americans feel positively about their personal college experiences—it helped them develop important skills and knowledge and opened doors for personal growth. The challenge for us in the higher education sector is to bridge that gap between the broad public perceptions and the more positive personal perceptions of higher education’s value.

CASE: What can we do to mitigate these challenges?

DT: 1. Be willing to change. 2. Use data to make decisions but don’t forget the relationship aspects of the profession. 3. Have a relevant strategic plan that is aligned with the institution.

JF: On the talent front, our profession has to look at this as a systems issue versus tackling pieces and parts. We’ve added small internship and recruitment programs that produce dozens of talented professionals when we really need hundreds at a time. Without an expansive infusion of new talent, we will continue to recruit talent away from other institutions which is a zero-sum game. To solve this challenge, it will take leadership across the profession coming together at places like Senior Institutes to consider holistic plans on behalf of the profession versus our individual teams.

TER: Challenges don’t always need to be mitigated; you can also rise to them! With respect to the challenge of creating diverse teams in which all members feed valued, we need to be intentional and focused. We need to listen to colleagues to hear the breadth of their experience because what we don’t know is as important as what we do know. CASE has been taking on this issue in a robust way and my former (I just retired!) team has been super impressed with the conference content on this topic.

AC: I’ve heard administrators, alumni, politicians, and others claim that “we just need to tell our story better” and all will be well. But the issues of perception are complex and will take time, persistence, partnerships and money to alter. Too often we invest too little (if at all) in trying to change public perceptions, we expect immediate results and we don’t partner with other organizations, including the government, to try to address these issues. Public perceptions are shaped by a wide array of factors, and attempting to influence one factor may lead to unintended consequences related to other factors.

Choose your boss, not your job. If you want to grow and build a career in advancement, find a boss who will push you and support you.

CASE: What is the best piece of professional leadership advice you’ve received?

DT: If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.

JF: Choose your boss, not your job. If you want to grow and build a career in advancement, do your homework and find a boss who has a track record of developing other advancement leaders. Find a boss who will push you, support you if you make a mistake and expose you to opportunities that are not within your job description. And then, when you become the boss, pay it forward. Push your team. Give them credit. Help them when they make mistakes. If you have a great boss, and you constantly work to be a great boss, everything else will fall into place.

TER: I’ve always admired generosity in leadership. When I was in admissions, I worked with a dean who told me that when I look good, he looks great. He took pride in the success of his staff and I hope in my career I was able to do the same for my colleagues.

AC: The best leadership advice I’ve ever received comes not from a personal mentor or colleague—although I’ve received much good advice from both—but from the Bible. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger.” I try to remember that every time I’m tempted to fire off an email response to something that has pushed one of my buttons.

CASE: What are you most looking forward to at the Senior Institutes?

DT: I’m looking forward to connecting with professionals—to learning from them and engaging in discussions with them. And I’m also ready for some warm weather. It’s 30 degrees in New Jersey as I write this and I’m tired of the cold!

JF: I’m excited to spend time with the profession’s thought leaders, wrestling with our shared challenges and considering new solutions happening at local levels that could scale across the profession.

AC: I’m looking forward to learning from colleagues, making some new friends and connecting with some longtime colleagues. I’m also looking forward to presenting with my boss on an intriguing topic we’re calling “Working With Leadership During Times of Transition.” It should be fun.


hyatt-regency-scottsdale-resort-and-spa-p285-aerial.16x9.adapt_.1280.720.jpgRecharge and join your colleagues in Scottsdale, Arizona, April 16–18, to discuss best practices and collaborate on the big issues facing the industry.

Register now to attend the Institute for Senior Alumni Relations Professionals, the Institute for Senior Advancement Services Professionals or the Institute for Senior Communications and Marketing Professionals.

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