Jim Husson on the Role of a VP for Advancement

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Senior Vice President for University Advancement
Boston College

When asked about what percentage of his time he allocates to three of the primary responsibilities of a VP for Advancement (delivering vision and leadership, supporting the work of president and board, and cultivating and stewarding donors) Jim laughingly replies he spends “100%” of his time on each.

It was a clever quip, but in fact it is quite true in that, as Jim explains, these duties are not mutually exclusive. “If I’m doing my job well, time spent with donors and prospective donors in cultivation, solicitation and stewardship should inform the development of our vision, as well as reflect support for the president and the board of trustees. I don’t think of these as disaggregated things.”

A seasoned VP for Advancement, such as Jim is, understands this dynamic and is mindful that a skillful VP cultivates and manages all of these relationships in service to each of the others. “My first obligation is to make sure the president of the university and the chair of the board have a sense of where we are philanthropically…keeping them informed, engaged and aware, even when they are not directly involved in a particular gift conversation, is critical.” From the other perspective, a VP must always be thinking about donors’ “philanthropic relationship” with the university. And if that donor happens to be a trustee, how might he or she benefit from the engagement of the president or board chair. Looking at the equation from both angles Jim considers part of being an effective partner and active participant in the process of fundraising.

Jim speaks of his responsibilities as “typical” of the head of advancement at any university. But his relationships with the board and president may not be so typical. With 14 years at Boston College, Jim speaks of his “longstanding, deep relationships” with most members of the board. This includes the newest members as “very few board members come from a point of total uninvolvement” with the school. To these relationships he brings the perspective of more than 25 years of experience in educational advancement.

“There has probably never been a time, in my mind, when boards have had more responsibility, more on their plate, more ownership of the educational enterprise, than we’re experiencing today.” “We live in a time when the demands on our colleges and universities have never been greater. The need for quality leadership in terms of moving our institutions forward has never been greater. And the competition for the resources we need as institutions to do that, has also never been greater.”

This places enormous responsibility on boards and requires that they operate at a very high level as a sounding board for the president and the university management team, as a close partner in the strategic planning process, as thoughtful and attentive fiduciaries, and as individual donors able and willing to help the university achieve its goals, Jim observes. What Jim leaves out, perhaps out of modesty, is the critical role Advancement then plays in ensuring that the board and president are well supported while they pursues their important and weighty business.

As with most boards, members represent a range of experience and level of commitment. Therefore, conversations with trustees around their personal commitments vary accordingly. Interaction with a long-standing member of the board who has demonstrated a history of making the university a priority as reflected by their philanthropy is very different from interactions with newer members. When the time comes to have the gift conversation, Jim says he tends to “not treat our board members very differently than our non-board donors in terms of their philanthropic engagement.” He continues, “We go where the philanthropic relationship naturally leads us.” A trustee who is passionate about athletics, for example, is not discouraged from supporting athletics should they sit on the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board. Of course, there are “special expectations” of all board members to be “exemplars of philanthropic leadership,” while keeping the focus on the impact of the gift, as they would do “for any philanthropist,” Jim states.

To contribute to board members’ sense of accomplishment, it is incumbent on advancement officers to work with board members as individuals, on the specific nature of each person’s gift and what it means to them and, very importantly, help them understand the impact their gift is making. Jim states emphatically, “It’s not enough to leave it at ‘our board members are making BC a top priority and giving generously.’ “I want to know that members fully understand the difference their gift is making and that they are moving the needle in important ways for the school.”

Nurturing a culture of philanthropic ownership among board members extends outside the boardroom as well. An experienced advancement team knows that board members are important “brand ambassadors” for the school in the broader community. Board members who can authentically speak to the importance of service to the university, using their own philanthropy to demonstrate impact, make powerful spokespersons. A messaging and outreach strategy guided and supported by Advancement is an important tool not to be overlooked or underestimated.

A 2014 report, “Consequential Boards: Adding Value Where It Matters Most,” addressed the future of higher education governance, speaking in strong terms about boards’ responsibility to uphold the integrity of our educational system. While the central focus of the report was to address specific areas where boards need to improve, it also offers this observance about board culture:

“A healthy board culture is an intangible but invaluable institutional asset, worth the same level of attention as building the endowment, or the faculty, or maintaining the physical plant. It cannot be ignored or taken for granted. It requires nourishment and care from every member of the board and, most of all, from the board chair and the president.”

We might also add that an experienced VP of Advancement is part of the equation as well. The deep knowledge of how boards work, the dynamics between president and board members, and a fundamental understanding of university culture gained over 25 years in educational advancement affords insight and acumen that can’t be gained any other way but through hard work and dedication. Jim’s experience and insight are reflected in the advice he gives to aspiring Advancement VPs:

“A VPs first obligation,” he states, “is to take the time to understand the ways that a trustee engages as a volunteer, a donor, a leader, and how those roles differ.” “Steep yourself in how your board functions.” “Know what is being asked of board members outside of their giving.” “Be thoughtful and reflect on the vantage point of the trustee, not just through the lens of the advancement needs of the institution.” “And do not mistake governance and philanthropy for the same thing.”


Jim Husson, Senior Vice President for University Advancement, Boston College

Jim Husson is the Senior Vice President for University Advancement at Boston College, overseeing the university’s development and alumni relations functions. He joined the BC development team in 2002 as Vice President for Development and was appointed Vice President for University Advancement in June, 2004. Jim has more than 25 years of experience in educational advancement and has served as Vice President for Development for Brown University and Director of Major Gifts for Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Early in his career, Jim worked for two private secondary schools, Northfield Mount Hermon School and Cushing Academy, and for the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Jim serves on the faculty for the CASE Summer Institute in Educational Fundraising (SIEFR). He is a participant in the Ignatian Colleagues Program (ICP), a national program of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. Jim is a graduate of the University of Rochester.

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