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Best Practices: Working with Board Advancement Committees - Interview with James Husson

This article was first published December 4, 2013. James Husson (Boston College) spoke with us about best practices for working with Board advancement committees.

Interview Transcript

Cynthia Woolbright: Let’s talk about best practices…

James Husson: Yes.

Cynthia Woolbright: …with the board of trustees’ advancement committees. knowing that you are the Senior V. P. at (BC), share first with us what the primary role and responsibility is for your advancement committee to the board. Just give us first an overview.

James Husson: Sure. So, maybe I’ll take it from the top first and say BC takes government – governance, seriously as you can imagine. And the board is not a small board. The university’s board of trustees numbers around 50. And with any board of this size, I think it means that most of the work of the board of trustees really takes place in the board’s committees. The university’s board of trustees has a number of standing committees—investment and endowment, academic affairs, finance and audit—all the usual ones you can think of.

And university advancement is one of those board committees. There are about a dozen members on the advancement committee. It has a chair. And at the university level, the chairs of each of the board’s committees are members of the board of trustees’ executive committee. There’s a chair of the committee; and because the committee links to university advancement its purview matches my purview, which is alumni relations, development, and advancement communications. The chair and I will work together to determine what agenda items we’ll cover over the course of the year. And we work very effectively together. It’s a great structure, I think. It certainly works very, very well for BC. And I found it to be very helpful to my work and the work of my team.

The board of trustees meets four times a year there is a half day meeting of the entire board, and then leading up to that are meetings of the various committees that are running concurrently.

So in our case the advancement committee meets in the morning for about two hours, four times a year.

Cynthia Woolbright: You mentioned that you and your chair really develop the agenda, the goals, for the year. Talk a little bit about how that occurs in terms of setting the strategic goals and priorities for fundraising and how that gets reported and acted upon through your committee?

James Husson: The one thing that’s probably important to understand about (BC) is that most of our advancement committee members on the board are trustees who, prior to becoming advancement committee members – and, in fact, in most cases, prior to becoming trustees – have been very active volunteers and leaders in other ways with university advancement. So we’re fortunate in that most of our committee members already have an oar in the water, so to speak…

…not just through their giving but through their involvement. So they may well be members of their regional campaign committees, chairing those regional campaign committees, involved with some of our affinity groups that are pretty much volunteer-led, involved in their class committees, or if they are parents, members of the parents leadership council.

The advancement committee membership comes in with a strong longstanding relationship with the work of the university advancement. There’s not a lot of catching them up, so to speak.

The way we tend to approach the work of the committee is the chair of the committee is somebody that I work closely with on a number of fronts, and we tend to approach our time together in two ways. One, because we’re in a campaign, about half the committee meeting is devoted to a discussion of campaign progress.

My vice president for development, (Thom Lockerby), and I sit down with the committee. We might have a half dozen key points we want to share, but then we talk about topics or wherever the discussion may lead us.

Almost every meeting – we do what we call a spotlight discussion where we choose a part of the organization that we want the committee to understand more deeply. And in those situations, we’ll bring in a person from university advancement to give an overview or present on an issue and give the committee a chance to really dig into it. And that’s great because, you want the committee to understand different aspects to the work of university advancement. It’s helpful for leaders in our organization because they can have the benefit of time with leading trustees who will ask questions, share their own observations, volunteer ways in which they can be helpful.

Or parents fundraising might be another topic that we’ve covered in the past. And, you know, you can think about those key areas of any university advancement organization, and we try and cycle through those so the committee has a sense of any one issue in a little bit more depth.

Cynthia Woolbright: Would it be safe to assume that your board chair reports to the board overall?

James Husson: Yes. The way the board meeting itself is structured is that at each meeting there are committee reports…

The chair of the advancement committee would report to the entire board issues that we discussed in a meeting. And then each meeting has minutes which are circulated to the entire board as well.

And then because the chair of the advancement committee sits on the executive committee of the board – and that’s a group that meets four times a year as well in addition to these meetings – all of the other chairs of the committees and the president have an opportunity to get into any issue in that meeting relating to advancement as they might like to.

Cynthia Woolbright: And so when you think about expectations then of your advancement committee -- how do you talk with them about expectations as they’re recruited onto the advancement committee of the board?

James Husson: I think the nice thing is by the time a person comes onto this board of trustees, whether they’re on the advancement committee or any other committee, it’s known that the board’s expectation of itself is that its members are making (BC) a priority in terms of their philanthropy and in terms of their time and their counsel. And so what that means is that there’s not a need to have a conversation once they come on the advancement committee around our expectations because those expectations are already well understood by the time anybody joins the board.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay. And is there a financial expectation, both in terms of annual giving and during a campaign?

James Husson: The way the university expresses this to the board – and the board chair expresses it to the membership is, we want every member of the board to make (BC) their top, or very close to their top, philanthropic priority.

And because we’re in a campaign, there is the expectation that some structuring is involved, and so that’s also been very, very clear.

Cynthia Woolbright: One of the questions I had was about prepping for the committee meetings Is there anything that you can think of that might be unique, different, interesting at an advancement committee meeting?

James Husson: The only thing I would say that we do that I also found to be helpful is, after each meeting – it’s a simple thing – but we send an email to the members of the committee inviting any comment or observations they might have that may have occurred to them after the fact. And so, you know, we try and keep those informal lines of communication open…

Cynthia Woolbright: It’s an ongoing engaged conversation throughout the year.

James Husson: It is. I’m probably on the phone or in person talking to my chair of the committee, you know once a week, once every other week. We’re in very, very regular communication.

Cynthia Woolbright: So that leads up to the last question and that is about lessons learned that you might share with us on best practices for this development or advancement committee.

James Husson: I think the main lesson I’ve learned is that effective engagement of an advancement committee is as much about how effectively you leverage their involvement off the committee, outside the formal meetings, as it is about what happens in the meeting itself; that if a person is on your advancement committee and 90% of their touchpoint with the organization and with you is in that meeting itself, then, candidly, it’s probably hard to have that person feel very effectively engaged or involved. And so that’s been key for me, and it’s caused me to either really make a case for committee members who have that kind of level of interest and involvement already, or where that’s not the case, to build it. And so we do that very openly. I’ll say to the committee members that my goal is to have each of you involved in a deep way in something. And so, for example, at reunions, we’re proud of the fact that many of our trustees chair their reunion class efforts.

Because, we like the message that it sends, we think it’s important and it helps them become better trustees.

We do a lot at (BC) with our youngest alumni. We’re very heavily engaged with that part of our community. And we’ll often ask our trustees to host those events, attend those events, speak at those events. So my main lesson has probably been just the importance of not creating a kind of ivory tower of governance, but…

Really asking our advancement committee members of the board to be in the trenches with us.

Cynthia Woolbright: That’s great. And what percentage of your time, Jim, would you estimate that you spend with your committee – with your chair and with other members in this process?

James Husson: It’s hard to say because as I said, it’s all interrelated. Because my committee members are active as volunteers, they’re attending events, they’re active donors, and they’re on the advancement committee. I would say about half of my face time, if you will is with members of the board of trustees…

Cynthia Woolbright: Well, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

James Husson: It’s a pleasure.

James Husson

Senior Vice President Office of 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). Jim is a graduate of the University of Rochester and Northfield Mount Hermon School.

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