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Advancement Services: A Decade of Change

This article was first published October 5, 2015. Advancement Services/Strategic Partnerships: Interview with Deborah Cunningham, Former Associate Vice President, University of Connecticut Foundation; currently a principal at Cunningham, Scarlett & Associates


It has been our observation that over the past ten years that the role and responsibilities of Advancement Services has evolved significantly. Where once the primary tasks of Advancement Services were gift recording, database upkeep and prospect research, AS staff now hold much more senior positions with titles like “associate vice president,” and often report directly to a vice president.This past August, The Woolbright Group spoke with Deborah Cunningham, Associate Vice President, University of Connecticut Foundation, about the changing role and status of Advancement Services.

“By far the most significant contributor is the role that information now plays in all of our decision-making. As you know, data touches every aspect of fundraising, from the management of our very top prospect relations, to the building of our pipeline for the future of our organizations. We really need data to provide the insight into all of that information so we make smart and efficient decisions,” Deborah explained. “And we also have many more tools to use that data effectively. Ten years ago we had a lot of data but it was sitting on a mainframe machine, and we couldn't do a lot with it to help us make our decisions and to drive our activity,” she continued.

A much more sophisticated approach to data segmentation and analysis places AS in a leadership role, one that means serving the overall advancement program in a variety of ways. As one example, Deborah explained that her duties have expanded beyond a focus on the automation of the fundraising system, to involvement in automation across many departmental processes including HR and disbursement.

Partnering with the various departments in an advancement division, such as Alumni Relations and Development, allows AS to provide immediate input at the highest levels. Deborah found that, “sitting at the table throughout all of the decision-making with both Alumni Relations and Development made it easier for everyone involved. Because I knew the impact of the backend, I was able to make some key customizations to keep pace with changes that were very, very rapid.“

Having a seat at the table when discussing the need to make fundamental changes in their prospect management culture gave her the opportunity to share examples of behaviors and data that did or didn’t support the culture.

“We were able to work together using our data, using our past data, looking at our systems, thinking of the behavior we did want to drive, and then going through all the pieces that needed to come together from organizational structure, to system customization, to reporting, to engaging in conversation across the organization, and having the right players at the table for each of those discussions, from principle giving meetings to donor retention meetings.” She pointed out that it is very important to develop strong partnerships at all levels of the organization—not just at the management level.

We asked Deborah what she would advise someone seeking to develop cross-departmental partnerships. Her advice was to seek “quick successes,” initially working with one or two managers on projects in which you can partner from beginning to end. Deborah explained that, “Once you have a success or two, you will be recognized as someone who gets things done and people will seek you out going forward.” One caveat that Deborah felt to be very important when partnering on a project is to be transparent and proactive about defining the “costs” to the organization in terms of both dollars and resources.

“I always like to make sure people are informed that [the project] will, for example, require 80 hours of business analysis and 40 programmer hours. People don't necessarily always understand that, and I think you need to do that from the outset,” she states.

In order to evaluate whether new systems and processes are effective, Deborah states that metrics have also been expanded and adjusted. New metrics were implemented that measure caseload, project progress, and whether gifts are matched to the priorities of the organization, among other things. Measuring board participation, both in terms of volunteer activity and board member contributions, is another important facet of the evaluation process.

When asked what the role of Advancement Services might look like in the next three to five years, Deborah uses her own career trajectory as an example.

“I started here eight years ago as the Assistant VP of Advancement Services, then came Associate VP, then VP of Advancement Services and Annual Giving, and now VP of Administration,” she recounts.

“Since we have begun to automate all of our operations from HR through Facilities, Donor Relations, and certainly fundraising operations, the role [of Advancement Services] really becomes about the overall operation. So I think we're likely to see structures that look more like VP of Fundraising and Donor Relations, VP of External Relations and Communications, or maybe Engagement, VP of Financing Investment, and VP of Operations. Many of those components that we now call Advancement Services are going to start to fall under Operations,” is her forecast.

“Fundraising is not about sitting in an office entering contact reports. It's about being out and building relationships. So we need to bring the tools to the relationships, and I think that's really the evolution, moving that data to where it really is needed and when it's needed, whether it's 2:00 o'clock in the morning or whether it's on an app or whether it's on the web. So I think that's where we're heading and it’s Advancement Services that is going to make that happen,” she concludes.

Our last question for Deborah prompted these final thoughts:

“One other thing that I think is important is that it's not just about the amount of data, it's about the quality of the data. And that is a constant challenge. And it's also about continuous improvement. That's an old phrase, but it's something that's very much a part of what Advancement Services does. We are constantly looking to stay on the leading edge of technology, looking to be more efficient as an organization, and looking to make smart decisions. And I think that's really part of the ‘service’ that any good Advancement Services leader needs to bring to the table.”

Formerly at the U of Connecticut Foundation, Deborah Cunningham is currently a principal at Cunningham, Scarlett & Associates, providing strategic management, reporting and system architecture, as well as process consulting to fundraising organizations. Prior to joining the Foundation in 2007, Deb was a Senior Consultant for SunGard Higher Education in Waltham, Mass. During her many years at SunGard, Deb worked with a variety of customers including Dartmouth, Harvard, Columbia, Notre Dame, University of Colorado, the California State System and many others on major system implementations, automation, staffing assessments and re-engineering of policy and process.

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