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Jim Thompson on Trends and Challenges in Advancement

Former Senior Vice President and Chief Advancement Officer, University of Rochester

For the next installment in our series on trends and challenges in advancement, we sat down with Jim Thompson from the University of Rochester. The conversation began with what he anticipates will be the major trends over the next five to ten years. In Jim’s view, one major trend will be “the professionalization of the field” resulting in "some type of certification process that is more than a CFRE."

The second trend, Thompson offered, will be moving toward a more donor centric program. "We will get better over time; we will worry less about asking, and more about identifying and trying on the different passions of our donors. If we speak to their hopes and dreams, then we can be the implementators of those hopes and dreams for them."

As to challenges, Thompson suggested that, “Our country needs to better understand the fourth sector as a vital part of our nation's fabric." Thompson stated he is "stunned that the current administration is seeking to limit philanthropic contributions, just as our country is eliminating many programs and services. Whether we want to or not, this sector is an important part of our American character," Thompson said. "It's been a long- standing part of our history. It's our invention – charity has always existed, but philanthropy is our contribution to the world. It's why we have the hundreds of universities doing what they do."

The conversation moved to discussion on the two to three challenges that he faces on a regular basis, and what keeps him up at night. Thompson stated that he didn’t want to sound like a broken record "but connecting people to their hopes, dreams and passions" is always on his mind. "It’s not always at our fingertips, so we must be good at helping donors identify what moves them. He speculates that natural empathy plays a role, but "moving to a higher level of sophistication among our staff is required to connect donors to our universities through their interests."

In Thompson’s view, another challenge relates to the "thousands and thousands" of alumni and others in the greater community that “we have yet to connect with.” Acknowledging that it takes time and requires people to be on the road all the time, it is "what is required for us to be in front of and engage our alumni and friends on a regular basis."

Thompson spoke passionately about the importance of the university community to understand development and advancement. "It’s relatively new in many cases on our campuses." At the University of Rochester, where, in Thompson’s view, the advancement program is unparalleled, "It’s never been done to this degree before.” “We must make sure that our on-campus colleagues and friends understand philanthropy as much as those off campus do."

The discussion moved to what he envisions in staffing and functions over the next several years. Thompson made a biological analogy: "Think of advancement as a membrane around the university, helping everyone to thrive in all ways—helping people with careers, health, and much more." He became animated in talking about stewardship as a very important aspect of all our organizations. "Ethically, stewardship is important, and it's just good business that we know why individuals make their gifts and then make it come alive—show the impact."

The discussion moved on to the role of the board of trustees in raising philanthropic support and what changes he envisions in the next five to ten years. Thompson stated, "It is always evolving with our trustees, and I am blessed with a board that really cares about this place and wants to be involved in an effort to move us forward." In Thompson's perspective, trustees help secure gifts and deepen friendships. And, "they can be exemplars with their own giving, efforts, and work on behalf of the university."

As the conversation concluded, Thompson stated that in his view, "A good measurement of our success is to determine whether we are optimizing the value of the 300,000 alumni, parents and friends who are potential donors to the University. The measurement of a healthy advancement shop is whether we are optimizing the opportunities around us--regardless of the size of the institution."

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