How to Organize an Effective Advancement Committee

William J. Acton William J. Acton, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners

Getting everyone pulling in the same direction makes for an effective committee. It's just that we don't always do a good job establishing that direction from the get-go.

One of the biggest challenges school advancement directors face is establishing and leading a genuinely effective advancement committee. Committees are too often without purpose, established because board bylaws require them. They are usually populated with board members (and others) who, while well-meaning and earnest in their desire to help…don't know anything – at all – about advancement.

Except…usually the advancement committee has at least one member who believes he or she knows the absolute best way to "do" advancement. (See our earlier blog on volunteers who operate in this way). And staff provides little or no direction on what it is the advancement committee is supposed to do. As a result, in the week ahead of a scheduled advancement committee meeting, panic sets in. "What are we supposed to be doing at this meeting?"

Raise your hand if you've been to this advancement committee meeting:

The meeting starts with the advancement director handing out a report on giving results – the golf outing, the raffle, the annual fund to date. Then the director reads the report. There is some dreadful silence and then some irrelevant questions asked ("Have we thought about doing the outing at a different golf course next year?”). Discussion morphs into a free flow of ideas on fundraising ("What if we added a car wash?” or "Shouldn't we charge an entrance fee for our Cookies with Santa event?”). And the advancement director and staff spend time fending off these ideas or, worse, writing them down and offering confirmation of their brilliance. The final 15 minutes of the meeting are then devoted to scheduling the next meeting.

Too often, really good, smart and well-meaning people leave the meetings wondering, "What did we accomplish there?” There are a couple of very big – and fixable – reasons why the advancement committee ends up generating more frustration than effectiveness.

First…we don't put much thought into who we put on the committee. Everyone (negatively) compares the advancement committee's effectiveness with that of the finance or facilities or curriculum committees. But that's because those committees are populated with people who are experts in their assigned areas – CPAs and construction company owners and high school academics. But we populate our advancement committee with the "left over” board members in need of a committee placement. Where do we put the doctor? Or the widget maker? Or the Dad's Club president? The advancement committee, of course!

Second…we don't do a good job of clearly articulating the purpose of the committee – something we do pretty well for those three other committees mentioned above. Of course, it is easier to wrap your arms around finances and facilities for those committees. It may be a little trickier to do so with things like curriculum, marketing and the student experience for those committees, but it's doable. But it's seemingly impossible to clearly message what we want the advancement committee to do – and NOT do. Do they talk about reunions? Social media? Student fundraisers? Grandparents Day? OF COURSE! Shouldn't we talk about the right hashtags to use in our fundraising messages as well as the box lunch menus for the Golden Years' reunion? Absolutely!

Third…we don't orient or on-board the committee. There are certain things we want and need from an effective committee. We need their passion for the school and commitment to its mission. We need committee members to champion the school and the advancement department. We need them to understand what it is we are trying to accomplish as a school and as a department. We need them to partner with us to establish realistic, albeit "stretch,” goals and benchmarks. They need to understand what's doable – from a personnel, budget and time allocation standpoint. That means understanding how the department functions, how it is staffed, what its budget is, and what are the "best practices” in school advancement.

Into the void of not knowing, committee members usually toss in their own ideas and understandings of fundraising, many of which are completely wrong for a high school. Many bring ideas executed by their university alma maters (schools with budgets and staffs that are 5X yours) or parishes (where chicken dinners and raffles still reign supreme). As well-meaning as this input is, it's not helpful. What you DON'T need from an advancement committee are ideas about raising money. What you also don't need – and shouldn't require – is help raising money. You don't need them to "bring prospects to the table” or solicit friends or colleagues. The era of peer-to-peer solicitation in schools is long past, and after all…isn't that the job of the school president and advancement staff?

But at the same time, you can't just waste committee members' time by making the meetings nothing more than a series of reports by staff. What is their purpose in that regard?

So how do you make an advancement committee helpful, impactful? Simple, yet important steps:

  1. Write a clear job description. What is it you want, and don't want, from committee members. The description should include things like endorsement, understanding of your school and department mission, attendance at meetings/events, assistance with goal-setting, etc.
  2. Identify and recruit the right people. They do not have to know how to fundraise. They have to know how to think macro, believe in your school's mission and be open-minded about helping in ways you need. If you have people who are well-connected, movers ‘n shakers in your school community, they are also worthy of consideration.
  3. Make the first meeting an orientation meeting. Help members understand how the advancement committee fits into the overall governing structure of the school – board, committees, administration. Outline objectives and purposes – what the committee does, what staff does, where we need help, where we don't, etc.
  4. In the orientation, state the purposes of the committee: (a) understand/be knowledgeable about school and department mission, (b) with staff, establish departmental goals and benchmarks – goals based on previous data and what's "doable,” (c) provide support and counsel to staff as requested, (d) attend meetings and events as appropriate and possible and (e) provide ad hoc assistance as appropriate and needed.
  5. Meetings will become a blend of sharing information and seeking counsel on bigger picture ideas. There is no getting away from sharing reports. Providing the right data, in advance, will make discussion of reports more productive. Show fundraising results compared to goal, previous years, etc. to allow for thoughtful input. Bring to the meetings specific strategic issues you need help with or advice on. For example, use the committee to seek timing thoughts on rolling out a capital campaign "general phase” in order to protect the annual fund, for example.

Getting everyone pulling in the same direction makes for an effective committee. It's just that we don't always do a good job establishing that direction from the get-go. But once you achieve that, and with maybe four formal meetings per year that stay focused on your objectives, you'll start to see a productive and supportive advancement committee.

Posted on: January 5, 2024

William J. Acton

William J. Acton

Senior Partner

A graduate of Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL) and the College of Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), Bill has over 30 years of hands-on experience in organizational advancement, strategic planning, board training and capital campaign management. Prior to beginning his consulting career in 1993, he worked in development for Loyola Academy (running its alumni and annual giving programs) and then for Cardinal Bernardin at the Archdiocese of Chicago, as the first Director of Development for archdiocese’s four-school seminary system and then as the first Director of the Cardinal's Annual Appeal.

Over the past 22 years, Bill has specialized in capital campaign management, major gift solicitation, strategic planning and development operation re-engineering. Partnering with school leaders, he has personally engaged in over 4,500 major gift solicitation calls ranging from $5,000 to $10,000,000.

Bill lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife Sheila. They are members of Old St. Patrick’s Church (Chicago, IL) and the proud parents of two adult daughters, Mary Alice – a development director at a Chicago Catholic grade school – and Margy, a Chicago-based sports physical therapist.