Aligning development activities with institutional strategic plans

During my 35-plus years in development I’ve held fast to my view that development offices are—at their essence—service organizations. They serve donors and alumni by helping them find ways to engage with, and support, institutions they care about. They serve institutions by securing resources that advance the organization’s mission and strategic goals.

With many institutions facing exceptionally tight budgets and uncertainty, it is imperative that development priorities and activities are in alignment with the strategic priorities of the universities we serve. While helping donors make gifts that speak to their priorities and wishes and to best serve our organizations, the focus of development professionals must be on the mutually-beneficial intersection between the donors’ interests and the institution’s plan.

Sounds simple, right? Of course, it’s Development 101. But it is easier said than done. Herding the cats so that they’re all on the same page, heading in the same direction—choose your metaphor—takes understanding, clear communication, and intention.

A common understanding

Getting everyone on the same page is important. A method that’s worked well, at two institutions where I have worked, is to develop advancement-created white papers that detail major units’ key initiatives. The white papers ensure that advancement understands the university’s strategic priorities and needs. They also help promote a common understanding across campus of what development was securing gifts for.

The process of creating white papers is straightforward and intentionally uncomplicated. It starts with understanding where institutional decision-making authority lies for each major initiative or unit—who is in charge and who speaks for the initiatives. It’s different at every organization and dependent on the degree to which the organization is centralized or decentralized. For purposes of this discussion, let’s assume the responsibility lies with the deans.

To understand the initiatives, the vice president for advancement, the assigned development officer, and a development writer sit down with each dean and ask four questions:

  • What is your vision for the initiative/college/program?
  • What resources will it take to realize that vision?
  • What are the donor opportunities within that list of needs?
  • How would you prioritize those opportunities?

In some cases, articulating the answers to these questions may require only one good interview. More often, a few conversations with some drafts in between are required.  Some deans already will be well-versed on their vision and what it takes; others will be highly consultative, seeking input from their faculty members and institutional partners, or proceeding with a planning process.

From there, the writer drafts a three- to five-page document for the dean and vice president’s review and approval. During the conversations with each dean and the drafting of the white paper, the vice president and/or development officer provide guidance to tease out the donor opportunities from the needs and to help determine sources and amounts of dollars needed. For example, whether an initiative would be better funded by annual gifts or an endowment, and what endowment level is needed, given the distribution policy, to produce the required amount to cover annual expenditures.

Development can then use the white papers to determine the best strategies and tactics to secure philanthropic support for the initiative/college/program and to inform its work plans from prospect identification to principal gifts and all programs in between.

How to leverage white papers

The white papers are somewhat similar to cases for support, except that they are internal and fluid documents.  Periodic review and adjustments may be done as time goes by, circumstances change, and fundraising goals are met.   When the white papers are used as strategic communications devices, they fulfill purposes beyond articulating priorities and guiding advancement work.

The white papers also serve as source material for a range of purposes—from marketing pieces to websites to gift proposals and talking points. They ensure that all are using consistent facts and language to describe initiatives and their impact. Summarized and compiled, they provide presidents, provosts and others with a digestible, institution-wide overview of priorities.

The white papers help development officers and others involved in the fundraising process maintain focus. Practically all development officers—particularly at large organizations—know what it’s like to be approached every day by a faculty member, program director or colleague with a need or brilliant idea. The question development needs to ask is, “How does this idea fit in the dean’s vision and priorities?” The white paper provides a mechanism to guide whether a particular idea will be pursued and by which to deflect those ideas, no matter how legitimate, that would be fundraising distractions.

Communicated internally, the white papers promote transparency and trust. They share the priorities for which gifts are being pursued, demonstrate that fundraising direction is determined by institutional priorities and leadership, dispel any myths that fundraisers are deciding where gifts are being directed, and exhibit collaboration with academic and programmatic leaders.

While the white papers are internal documents, sharing them strategically with selected volunteer leaders or potential donors can be effective cultivation to strengthen the relationship and begin giving conversations. Making insiders out of outsiders precipitates a sense of ownership and chances to gain valuable feedback on priorities and associated giving opportunities.

A clear intent

The development office’s role as a service organization doesn’t just happen. There are far too many obstacles that can cause fundraising to veer from its focus on institutional strategic priorities. Sometimes the obstacle is unrealistic expectations, urgent needs, or the lack of any institutional strategic planning. (The latter is another conversation for another time.)

Aligning development work at all levels with institutional priorities, keeping all on the same page, singing the same tune, rowing in the same direction or trying to herd the cats–choose your metaphor–can be a heavy lift but it’s worth it.

Having a well-conceived road map allows one to move forward with a common direction, be flexible and pivot—or put out a fire—when necessary, then return to the road map without losing one’s way in service of the organization. Intention precipitates collaboration, accountability, transparency, and trust—strengthening relationships and enabling a stronger culture of philanthropy.


Looking for guidance on how to better align your development office’s work with institutional strategic priorities? Or helping your organization articulate its priorities and create inspiring ideas worthy of big gifts? GG+A can help. Please reach out to Laura at lsimic@grenzglier.com.

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About the author

Laura Simic

Vice President

Laura Simic, Vice President, brings more than 35 years of experience in fundraising and executive leadership in public and private higher education to the GG+A team.  She has frontline development officer and two decades of executive leadership experience encompassing all areas of advancement including alumni relations, advancement services, communications, annual…