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Trends, Challenges and Practices in Managing Human Talent

Amy Bronson, Director of Recruitment and Training, University Advancement, Boston University

WG: Within our advancement programs today, what are the three most critical challenges that hiring managers are facing? What are the actions that our profession might take to transform these challenges into opportunities to hire and retain the best and brightest?

The re-emergence of the talent war and keen competition among institutions and not for profits for "platinum" talent, i.e., highly sought after, seasoned professionals with proven abilities who can make a bottom line impact, as well as understand and promote your culture and brand. This is coupled with the reality of escalating salaries in the marketplace, as well as the management challenge of retaining key players who are being aggressively sought by peers. Solutions include proactive recruiting and retention practices with a strategic focus on star players. We must understand compensation trends, address them, and self-assess to make sure your shop has a culture and reputation that attracts and retains talent.

Another challenge is managers who must invest significant time and resources in staffing while under increasing pressure to meet ambitious goals in a still challenging economic and fundraising environment. It is taking more time and effort to raise money as well as hire effectively; candidates and managers are constantly juggling priorities with their portfolios, staffing and program management. One way we are addressing this at Boston University is by implementing a new role, Director of Advancement, who reports to a unit’s chief fundraiser with heavy staff/program management and light portfolio duties. DOA is a senior position and attractive career path for fundraiser/managers who desire less road work as well. Another effective solution is to create and staff a talent management team to lead recruitment and retention efforts.

And we face a lack of strong management/leadership training and career paths for aspiring leaders. Poor managers recruit ineffectively, are unable to address and correct poor performance or motivate and maintain a first rate team. Building and retaining a high performance team requires a set of communication/management skills and experience that our profession has not adequately addressed, but that we are beginning to identify and build upon. As we look to the private sector and begin to adopt best practice in staffing, we will be able to develop better leadership programs, resulting in happier and more productive staff who will be less likely to leave. This will include everything from improved performance management tools and metrics, to measuring the effectiveness of our training and retention programs and return on investment in these efforts.

WG: From your perspective, what are the major trends that our advancement programs face over the next three to five years in terms of hiring and retaining our staff? Are there particular positions that are the most challenging to hire/retain? If so, which one(s) and why? What is the longer term perspective or trends that might position our advancement programs to meet the priorities of our respective college or university to raise philanthropic support?

AB: As I see it, major trends include: Developing effective career paths and strategies at all levels, from internships to engage Gen Y, to creating progressive leadership tracks for future CAO’s. We need to find ways to effectively grow, reward, and retain our best staff based on merit, performance and fit.

We need to bring more talent into the profession by transitioning Sector or Career Switchers who are highly effective private sector candidates who want to join our field but are encountering many obstacles. We have to create new ways to identify, train, and develop the best private sector talent to strengthen our profession.

Partnering with staff is key, which includes addressing work life issues, creating non traditional career paths, rewarding performance not just longevity, creating effective retention strategies and succession plans, developing leaders with cross functional expertise, and being nimble enough to meet staff needs and pay more attention to star performers. The best future managers will have retention plans with moves management similar to their prospect work.

Longer term trends that will increase in importance in support of institutional objectives include: Using analytics and effective measures across the board for recruitment and retention; and the need to develop leadership programs at the University level to address succession and better connect advancement leaders to the broader goals of the institution. Institutional leaders are looking for quantifiable return on investment to justify investing significant resources in the advancement arena. As we move to more effective retention efforts (bonus pay for performance and creative perks), we will need to ensure our investment in people and practices produces an outcome that augments the bottom line.

It continues to be a challenge to identify frontline/major gift officers with robust portfolios and significant travel experience, and senior fundraising managers who have actual team management experience. Many good fundraisers want to spend less time on the road and development management experience but they have not yet managed staff. Promoting internal staff coupled with effective management training can help; implementing defined career paths and transitioning promising annual fund staff to entry level major gift roles can also help fill the gap.

There are several core areas. We evaluate our communications and activities from the donor’s point of view, through events, publications, or reporting on outcomes. We focus on showing donors the impact of their giving first hand. For example, when we do a capital project report, we understand that when someone has given a major or multi-million dollar gift for a building, they didn’t give just to build a building, they gave the gift to enhance the educational environment for our students. So it is important to convey to donors all the ways that their gift has impacted campus life, students, faculty and the community.

WG: What kind of guidance do you give to deans, administrators, and faculty so that they can be effective in building donor relationships? How do you engage them?

We work very closely with our faculty and deans as we view their engagement as a fundamental part of stewardship. To some donors, hearing from deans and faculty is the most meaningful communication from the organization. It can be immensely gratifying for a faculty member to build a relationship with a donor that supports their work and equally as gratifying for a donor to see the direct benefit of their support, so we facilitate that whenever possible. We are all stewards of our donors, as well as stewards of the university. Our job is to help donor fulfill their philanthropic dreams, and we work hard to find what inspires them.

WG: Within your own department, what are the types of professional development programs are you offering for your advancement staff? How are you measuring the success of these programs in developing and retaining the staff?

We offer internal/external training opportunities, support extensive professional development for all staff and engage training/development consultants and executive coaching. We measure effectiveness via surveys and multi source feedback, as well as by looking at performance. We are currently working on better benchmarking and effective measures of these efforts.

WG: For a college/university to consider forming a department such as yours, what are the critical considerations? What might be some of the "lessons learned" in the early stages of such a department?

Ensure your leadership understands and supports the case for talent management, and gather hard data on your staffing challenges as you make your case. Reach out to the extensive network of current talent managers for input and advice. Emphasize that no one person can own talent development and recognize that it is a team effort.

My advice to colleagues is to leverage all resources such as University HR partners; make sure you provide enough staffing and resources; identify early wins and agree on what success looks like. Make sure your talent manager has a seat at the senior management table.

WG: Since we all are interested in "best practices," what is one of which you are most proud in your organization?

I am proud of our strong recruitment program that attracts top talent because this is a great place to work and grow your career. Investing in staff through topnotch innovative training, executive coaching and professional development resulting in significantly less turnover is another win. Building and implementing effective talent management measures using tools including a recruitment website, compensation analysis, and performance management accountability is another strength. Our culture is collegial and professional with effective and highly experienced leadership.


In her position at Boston University, Amy is engaged in building and sustaining an outstanding team of advancement professionals who are undertaking an enormous challenge: the first comprehensive campaign in the history of the University. Amy oversees the talent management program for a staff of 200 including seventeen schools and colleges at the University. Encompassing talent acquisition, organizational and learning development, human resource management, finance and administration, Amy partners with colleagues across the University to ensure the advancement team is ready to meet the campaign challenge.

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