Addressing Advancement in the Higher Education Industry



People often confuse development, or fundraising, with advancement in the higher education industry. While the actions have many similarities, they are different. Advancement refers to making progress in various avenues related to a university’s strategic plan. It can come in the form of alumni relations, fundraising, recruitment, and marketing and communications.

Advancement includes the many ways a university plans to move from where it is today to where it would like to be in the future. Getting to that point requires intensive planning and thorough marketing efforts. It should be a very well-thought-out process involving development programs, marketing communications, and school admission.

Advancement Models

Advancement models are designed to fit the needs of the organization. To illustrate, a university may decide to tailor its advancement model so that it is more closely aligned with the university foundation and the alumni. This type of merger is most effective with departments who have overlapping missions.

It starts with recruiting

Contrary to popular belief, advancement efforts don’t begin with existing students or alumni. They begin during the admissions process. They include recruitment and enrollment, and even re-recruitment and re-enrollment.

It’s during this process that the university introduces a culture of philanthropy among the new students and their parents. This is about creating relationships that encourage investments in the school. It also means nurturing relationships and educating donors – and potential donors – about the value of the school.


While advancement is the strategic process by which institutions advance their mission, development is a facet of that process. It focuses on connecting donors to the university’s mission in a way that is relevant. Development is designed to raise resources and contribute to overall advancement efforts.

Advancement Disciplines

Generally speaking, advancement efforts can fall into three disciplines:

  • Alumni relations
  • Fundraising
  • Communications and marketing

Let’s take a closer look at each of these disciplines.

Alumni relations

The fundamental goal of alumni relations is to foster lifelong relationships with alumni who can support the institution. To secure the university’s intended future endeavors, alumni must be involved. As a result, a two-way relationship should be developed in a way that is relevant and meaningful for both parties.

Furthermore, the alumni relations department works to incorporate alumni into the vision and institutional goals of the institution. After all, the longer the university is in service, the larger the pool of alumni they will have available to them.


There are various ways that alumni relations departments engage with alumni. Often, they plan and execute special events. Such events include homecoming, volunteer opportunities, reunions, and speakers, lecturers, or discussion groups.

Universities want lifelong investments from alumni. With small-to-medium sized institutions, one alumni relations department may be able to manage all engagement activities. With large universities, though, there may be local chapters and regional events to keep alumni informed, active and engaged. They are the link between the school and former students. In this sense, marketing – which we’ll dive into a little later – is vital to the health of alumni relations for making announcements about upcoming events via a wide variety of channels from social media, to email, to good old snail mail.

Two-way street

It’s critical to ensure that the relationship between alumni relations and alumni is always two-sided. For university advancement to continue, the office of alumni relations or alumni affairs must build trust between the institution and alumni. That starts with listening to the alumni and proving that their suggestions are valuable. When alumni are informed and can see that their feedback matters, they take more pride in their institution. They, then, have a greater likelihood of sending contributions.

It’s not all about the money

If the alumni act as brand ambassadors for the school, then it certainly makes sense to ensure they are satisfied with their school relationship. Alumni know when they are receiving marketing materials with the aim of attracting contributions. And they won’t feel as though they are part of a family if they are constantly barraged with financial giving requests.

So, the goal of marketing in this area should be focused on helping alumni to feel more positive about the university and its respective culture. It should be about ensuring alumni have a strong feeling of pride and connection to the university. Then, the coffers will start filling up naturally.


According to the CASE Board of Trustees, alumni relations is “a critical discipline within advancement.” When engaging with alumni, it must follow ethical principles, such as honesty and social responsibility, along with operational principles, such as conveying alumni interests to leadership as part of a strategic interaction.


Every institution, small or large, needs strong fundraising to thrive in an increasingly complex and competitive environment. Today’s universities aren’t just competing with other physical institutions, they’re also competing with online counterparts that offer the convenience and flexibility many students crave. It takes money to maintain academic excellence, complete projects, fund scholarships, and to create new programs.

Institutions typically raise funds in the form of these types of gifts:

  • Planned gifts (Specific types of gifts which can be financed with equity, property, and cash.)
  • Foundation gifts (Gifts given as a partner of a foundation.)
  • Corporate gifts (Boost your company’s campus visibility.)
  • Major gifts (Large endowments in the six figures and more.)
  • Annual gifts (Given annually, these funds can supply immediate needs.)

These types of financial gifts help the institution achieve its goals and foster advancement.

Fundraising targets and alignment

Professionals working in the fundraising department for a university engage in building and maintaining positive relationships with more than just alumni. Fundraising efforts are often directed at:

  • Alumni
  • Corporations
  • Foundations
  • Faculty
  • Students/Parents
  • Local civic leaders
  • Other prospective donors

Moreover, the fundraising department will often examine the needs across the institution to determine what the greatest needs are, but also to place donations in alignment with the donors’ instructions. For instance, some large donors might want to create a new scholarship fund or finance a new medical facility on the campus.

Different duties

The fundraising department also engages in analysis of giving trends and donors. Other professionals working in the department may perform duties not directly related to fundraising. These include:

  • Gift processing
  • List management
  • Database management
  • Accounting
  • Planning special events
  • Research on prospective donors.
Advancement vs. Fundraising

Fundraising can’t be described as a synonym for advancement. With advancement, the university is searching for a common cause. Once that cause is found, the next step is to build a community around it so that tangible advancements are made. Fundraising is asking for money and sharing the specific purpose for why that money is needed.

For instance, a university may have a fundraiser to help fund student learning trips overseas. Someone who works in advancement would have analytics available to review and show where donors’ passions lie and can speak to those passions. They make it a point to learn more about issues related directly to the recipients of the intended donations.

Then, if the advancement professional and the intended recipient can come to a similar conclusion, they can proceed to the next step of making any necessary changes to tailor their need requirements accordingly.

In contrast, someone who works in development may ask the donor if they would attend a university conference on something they’re passionate about to help them become more engaged with the institution.

An advancement officer, however, would interview potential donors to see where they can find common ground to work towards a unified advancement goal. In this scenario, the donor would see themselves as a leading participant in the advancement initiative. As you can see, where fundraising is transactional, advancement is more relational.

Marketing and communications

There isn’t any question that marketing and communications plays a pivotal role in advancement. You need people who can effectively communicate the university’s mission so that alumni, corporations, and all prospective donors feel connected to the institution. It’s about telling an authentic story that makes donors feel part of your mission and can therefore happily justify their support.

If the university’s marketing messages don’t sway the intended audiences, then how can they move forward with advancement? In these ways, the marketing and communications department acts as the liaison between the university and its target audiences and stakeholders. Marketing and communications manages and nurtures the needed relationships where the institution has, or would like, a presence.

In addition, marketing and communications defines the marketing strategy and determines the ideal audience profile. From there, they develop campaigns around advancement missions to deliver results based on insightful analysis. Success for marketing and communications means effectively informing the target audience while keeping them engaged.


The marketing and communications team also serve as the source and resource for various media organizations and outlets at all levels. They are the primary point of contact for nearly all external communications, such as:

  • Emails
  • Newsletters/eNewsletters
  • Social media
  • Print and online publications
  • Newswires
  • Content marketing
  • Traditional advertising, and more

Final thought

From reading this, you should now know the differences between advancement, fundraising, alumni relations, and marketing and communications. You should also understand how all these disciplines fit under the umbrella of advancement. To remain competitive, universities need an advancement department. That advancement department must have a clear vision that can be communicated effectively and that is relevant to their target audience.

Facilitating two-way communication between the institution and potential donors, while building lifetime relationships, requires dedicated and data-based coordination among the disciplines discussed here today.

Mike is a Professional Services Consultant for Higher Education at Evisions. He has been with Evisions since March 2015, and is located in Las Vegas, Nevada. In addition to Banner implementation expertise, he is also a certified Project Management Professional. Mike has over 30 years of experience in Higher Education and has worked with a variety of reporting and analytics tools. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Information Systems and Business Administration from Eastern New Mexico University.

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1 Comment

  1. Edius

    A helpful contribution to the advancement discourse, thank you!


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