Presidential Recruitment in Higher Ed: Advancement’s Role

With Mercedes Vance and Suzanne Teer

A chief advancement officer in higher education tends to be very well connected on campus, and certainly off campus as well with important alumni, donors, and community leaders. Because the advancement executive has relationships with such important constituents, he/she becomes an important figure in the recruitment of a new president. In the interview below, WittKieffer’s Mercedes Vance and Suzanne Teer shed light on the advancement officer’s role as a new president is selected and once the new leader takes office.

[Note: This content originally appeared in the Third Edition of Best Practices in Higher Education Presidential Search, a WittKieffer Guide.]

In a presidential search, why should the chief advancement officer have a seat on the search committee? What role can and should they play in the recruitment?

Vance: The college president today has so much responsibility for fundraising, whether the institution is private or public. The chief advancement officer can ensure that the search committee gets a true understanding of how presidential candidates have navigated the external world of donors, foundation boards, board of trustees, and so on: How have they worked with trustees to open doors and build relationships externally? How have they worked with their advancement officer to recruit foundation board members? The advancement officer can ensure these and other critical questions are fully explored in interviews.

Teer: If not on the committee, the advancement officer can still play a key role. They can advise the committee on external constituents, beyond trustees, that candidates might meet with during the interview process – for example majors donors, alumni leaders, influential community and business leaders. This is a cultivation opportunity for these individuals. Their voices can be important in providing feedback, they can do a wonderful job selling the institution and this will give the new president some friendly faces in the community when they come on board.

What criteria should advancement look for in presidential candidates?

Teer: There are number of important criteria. The first is vision. The president must have a compelling vision for how their institution will impact its students and society in the future. And they must be able to communicate that vision in a way that engages and compels others to want to join them – and the institution – in making that vision possible. They must have tremendous integrity and engender the utmost of trust and confidence. The philanthropists capable of making transformational gifts will want a personal relationship with the president. And they must trust the president to accomplish what they say they are going to accomplish and to be exceptional stewards of their investments. The president must also be an exceptional relationship builder. Presidents are not engaged in transactional fundraising. They are engaged in building and strengthening long-term relationships with donors that quite possibly will sustain for years beyond their tenure. This requires a long-term perspective and being willing to invest the time and energy into nurturing these relationships over time.

Vance: You’re also looking for a history of fundraising. Right now candidates who have not been presidents before often come from a high-profile deanship where they’ve had to raise funds to build programs and facilities. Even individuals who come from the provost line should show fundraising savvy. Today’s provosts are increasingly brought into a major gift to make the connection between the donor’s passion and the interests and needs of the university. In sharing experiences such as this, provosts can display a commitment to advancement and development.

Once a new president is selected, how can the chief advancement officer prepare for and help facilitate the transition?

Teer: The CAO can and should play a vital and leading role in preparing for and facilitating the transition for the new president. Taking a very practical approach, the CAO – along with their leadership team – should put together a plan to introduce the president to key constituents over the course of the first one to six months of their tenure. It should cover all key constituents – trustees, alumni, donors, volunteers, community and business leaders, prospective donors – and include individual meetings, small groups and larger groups. Likewise, it should include a coordinated communications plan to reach out to the same groups both at the time of announcement as well as when the new president arrives on campus. A well-orchestrated and thoughtful plan can help get the president off to an exceptional start and can also go a long way in solidifying the relationship between the CAO and president. The president will see the value the CAO can add and the professionalism they demonstrate in their approach to their work. The transition with the new president only happens once and it’s absolutely essential that it be optimized and handled with great care.

Vance: The advancement executive must keep an open mind and support the transition at all costs. Prepare documentation for the president – here’s where we are, what we’re raising, what our campaign strategies are, how far along they are. Get the new leader up to speed. This can be hard if it becomes clear that the president might want to bring in their own development or advancement officer. My advice for the CAO: Support whomever the new president is, try to understand their agenda and establish a chemistry. The only choice is to maintain one’s integrity and professionalism.

Describe the ideal partnership or relationship between the chief advancement officer and the president.

Vance: The ideal partnership is based on trust, which is the foundation for chemistry and compatibility. Ultimately it comes down to the question, Can the president and chief advancement officer “be in a car together for a four-hour drive”? They have to be comfortable around each other.   

Teer: That’s a great litmus test! I would extend that to say that the ultimate result of that trust is that the president should see the CAO as a confidant who has the best interest of the institution at heart and is doing everything in their power to help achieve the institution’s goals. A CAO who is eternally optimistic about what is possible while also being incredibly pragmatic about the path ahead – and willing to push the institution and its leaders as needed – will be of enormous value and support to the president. It’s lonely in the president’s office and the CAO can be a great source of support and partnership.

What might a CAO hope for from a new president in their first three, six and 12 months on the job?

Vance: The first three months involves helping the president get to know where the advancement program is – is it an institution that’s in the middle of a campaign and the president really needs to hit the ground running, just launching a new campaign after a feasibility study, or is just at ground zero and really needs a build? For the rest of the first year, the CAO can look to build the relationship with the president and with the community and donors. The president should have room in his/her calendar to get on the road with the advancement officer. After the first year, the honeymoon is over but hopefully the two executives are moving in lockstep.

Teer: With any presidential transition, there’s an expectation that new ideas will emerge that will impact the future vision and priorities for the institution. The first year is a critical time to begin to articulate those ideas − working within the institution’s culture − and incorporate them into the institution’s strategic plan and fundraising priorities. The CAO can provide valuable feedback and help shape those ideas in a way that will excite donors and encourage them to get on board and help the president and institution achieve its goals.

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