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Building a career in advancement: Advice from the pros

March 2021

Written by: Janet Sailian

Educational advancement in North America has been represented by comprehensive professional associations since 1974 in the U.S. (CASE, Council for Advancement and Support of Education) and 1993 in Canada (CCAE, Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education). Yet to the world outside academic institutions, advancement is largely an invisible career.

In 1985, James L. Fisher, President Emeritus of CASE (1978-86), stated his dream for the advancement profession: It would become “so good and honorable and important that kids will want to grow up to be advancement professionals.” *

Are we there yet? Programs such as CCAE’s prestigious TD Insurance Fellowships in Advancement have widened awareness of advancement as a promising career path since 1998, and the field benefits from growing professionalism and specialization.

Interviews with four seasoned advancement leaders early in 2021 revealed that as a youth, not one had aspired to – or even knew about – the job of working to advance education through alumni relations, communications and marketing, development or the other advancement specialties (including advancement services and government relations).

How, then, have these leaders built thriving advancement careers extending over a quarter-century or more? What advice and perspectives can they share to those in early or middle stages of their careers? Keep reading to glean their valuable insights.

CCAE deeply thanks the following for their time and thoughtfulness in response to our questions (edited and condensed):

Natalie Cook-Zywicki, Executive Director of Alumni Assoc. & Associate Vice President, Alumni Relations, University of British Columbia
Previously worked at McMaster University and Brock University

Tracy MacLeod, CFRE, Chief Advancement Officer, Laurentian University, & CCAE Board Member
Previously worked at Queen’s University in Annual Giving; and Nipissing University, in Alumni Relations and Development

Jeff Todd, Former President of CCAE. President and CEO, UNM Foundation (University of New Mexico)
Previously, Associate Vice President, Alumni / Executive Director, alumniUBC, University of British Columbia; and Director, Alumni Relations / Executive Director, Alumni Association, Oregon State University

Susan Wright, Director, Stewardship, McMaster University

What do you wish you had known about advancement at the start of your career? What would you have done differently?

Natalie: I moved through my career with no one to pave it for me, without a clear sense of what I was working towards. Every time I took a new job, new responsibilities, I had to define and create  steps. I wish I had linked up with others early on instead of “recreating the wheel”.

Tracy: I wish I had known what an incredibly fulfilling role a career in Advancement would provide. As most people do, I fell into advancement. I was fortunate to find a job on the Laurentian campus calling alumni and asking for their investments. I gained exposure to all of the services and supports available to our students; services that I did not necessarily access as a student.

 Jeff: At the start, I didn’t know about the richness of opportunities that exist within advancement, or the privilege and great satisfaction of working to meaningfully engage stakeholders and grow support for higher education. Also, the wonderful relationships with donors, alumni, faculty, staff and students that develop and evolve in such meaningful ways.

Susan: I wouldn’t change anything! I came into the advancement world in 1995 and was so green. My first job at McMaster was as the Coordinator of Alumni Branches – I had no idea what an alumni branch was! I think back to those early days with such fondness.

Who are the key allies or partners for new and mid-career advancement staff?

Natalie: I think CCAE has been instrumental in building the Canadian advancement community and a uniquely Canadian network of colleagues. I hope young people coming into profession now understand that it is a real and respected profession. We take for granted so many professional services we have now.

Tracy: It is so important to have a colleague/confidant outside of your organization who you can call on when you need to brainstorm or bounce ideas off someone who will challenge you to think differently. The networks and connections I have made through CCAE have been invaluable to the progression in my career.

Jeff: Six categories of key partners come to mind: advancement leaders and managers within your school or university; peers and colleagues with whom you work; volunteer leaders with skills, experience, and perspective you lack; academic leaders at your institution; advancement thought leaders outside of your own school or university; and consultants and others who provide outside expertise and services to our teams.

Susan: I had great mentors right from the start and learned from the very best. I don’t think I realized that this would be my lifelong career. I feel so fortunate to work with amazing professionals across this country, and around the world.

At McMaster, all our new advancement staff are partnered with a “University Advancement buddy” – someone to show them where to get lunch, bounce off all the questions they might be afraid to ask, etc.

I attended my first CCAE conference right after I started my first job in 1995. It was the “Newcomers” conference, and I met colleagues who are still great mentors to me today.  These are critical relationships and have helped me so many times in my career. 

How can staff best ensure they continue to grow and develop?

Natalie: There is a new comfort with virtual engagement in the post-pandemic era and this era of budget constraints. We have many great opportunities online and virtually, but nothing replaces the all-encompassing experience of in-person Summits or National Conferences.

Tracy: I took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to me, learning everything I could about educational advancement. Being in the right place at the right time, and proving to people how hard I could work, helped me advance in my career.

Jeff: Staff should engage in active networking and participate in professional development programs, both as a participant and a speaker / panelist. Be receptive to constructive criticism, and in particular, participate in a 360-degree review.

Susan: It’s critical to develop excellent relationships with colleagues at our institutions who support our work – finance, athletics, Office of the President, hospitality, etc. It takes a village to do our work, so the stronger our relationships, the better.

Learn about all areas of advancement. If your role is in Comms – attend alumni events. If your role is in Development – find out what’s involved in writing a press release or a story for the website. It will serve you well and allow you to be a collaborative partner in advancement. Volunteer at your institution – learn about its history, its evolution.

I also encourage everyone to volunteer with CCAE, AFP or other such groups. 

What is the relative value of staying at one institution / in one area of advancement for many years or an entire career, versus working in different settings and roles? 

Natalie: Being an employee at three different universities in different fields has made me better at my job. I have a much more intimate understanding of the varied areas in advancement. I understand the culture, challenges and techniques of fundraising, which has enriched my work in alumni relations.

Tracy: I worked at three different universities, while growing my career in advancement. This exposed me to different cities, different university cultures and different people. When I was finally able to return to my alma mater almost 17 years ago, I felt I was coming back with a much broader view of the world and of advancement.

Jeff: I always tried to bring a healthy respect and enthusiasm for the culture and tradition of the institution, geographic location, people and processes while – at the same time – keeping firmly in mind the reason I had joined the team in the first place; which often was because of my perspective, experience and leadership. Best practice is best practice.

Susan: The value in a long-term career at one institution lies in the longevity of relationships, both internal and external, and overall knowledge of the institution.

* “The Artisans of Advancement”, by Donna Shoemaker, CASE Currents, July / August 2003 [emphasis added]