The benefits of adding a DEI officer to an advancement leadership team

2015 and 2016 were challenging years at the University of Missouri—Columbia, where I was Vice Chancellor for Advancement from 2012 to 2020.

Throughout that period, we experienced the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, a series of racial incidents on campus that attracted national scrutiny, a number of Black and other minority students reporting that they felt general hostility toward them on campus, as well as the football team announcing it would boycott all football-related activities until the President of the University of Missouri system resigned (the protests led both the President and the university’s Chancellor to resign). In the wake of those challenges, I was involved in a series of campus-wide discussions aimed at bringing about diversity, equity, and inclusion-related changes. Three weeks prior to the President’s resignation, we announced a $25 million gift and kicked off a $1.3 billion campaign with alumnus Sheryl Crow appearing with a surprise performance. After the national coverage of the threatened football boycott and the President and Chancellor’s resignation, we were flooded with donors pulling and threatening to pull pledges and gifts. This is the atmosphere where we started evaluating how to address these challenges.

At the same time, my advancement shop had established a proactive talent management program that was beginning to show dividends in recruiting and retaining top performers. Among the program’s key initiatives was a push to find ways to diversify our workforce given the strong evidence that more diverse workforces are more successful than more homogenous workplaces.

Given the campus-wide need to address DEI issues, as well as my department’s need to recruit and retain a strong team, I decided to hire a full-time diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) team member who would be a part of the advancement leadership team. The position, as I saw it, would be an investment by helping us bolster donor outreach, assisting with internal recruitment, and improving the internal workplace climate.

It was difficult to find one person who could fill that wide-ranging role. However, once we made a hire, we quickly saw our investment begin to pay dividends across our division. That’s why I hope that our approach can serve as a model for other institutions looking to improve their operations. Those types of changes are particularly important at this moment. While employee turnover tends to be high in advancement, it will likely jump even higher given the “great resignation” that’s expected to take place in the post-pandemic boom. Any proactive steps an institution can take to mitigate that risk will likely pay off.

Defining the role

At the time (and still to this day), there were few institutions with this type of position in place, which meant that we didn’t have a model to lean on. And, because DEI issues touch nearly every area of advancement, we conceived of this role having broad responsibilities. That said, we focused the job description in a few specific areas:

  • Donor outreach: We had an initiative to provide more financial support for diversity or students of color across all areas of student success. We thought that this role could also help with outreach to alumni of color. That was an important task given that many alumni of color felt they hadn’t had a voice, which is why we felt it was important to have a person who was there to listen to them.
  • Bolster the advancement climate and the recruiting pipeline: We sought to be an institution of choice for fundraisers, which we knew required us to foster discussions that could improve the overall climate within advancement, as well as expand our recruiting pipeline for recruiting advancement professionals of color. We sought to find ways to create a positive climate where staff felt valued and included. The team member we ultimately hired served on search committees, did outreach to different communities, and participated in recruiting calls.
  • Serve as a member of the advancement leadership team: We wanted this team member to provide his or her perspective on the crucial issues facing the division.
The impact

We conducted a nationwide search for a candidate but ultimately hired a former corporate executive who had been a volunteer and donor who I had gotten to know in the course of the campaign. He was retiring, moving back to Missouri and, given his experience, I thought his presence could help our team be more effective.

He swiftly proved me right as he quickly began producing qualitative results. Relatively early in his tenure, he began leading discussions with our team on concepts such as unconscious bias and how some perceive people of color a certain way or in certain category. Those discussions attracted significant turnout as staff were drawn to a forum where they could discuss wide-ranging subjects in the open in a nonjudgmental manner. We found that the sessions helped heighten the awareness of issues that some of us had not previously focused on. At the same time, he also did survey work to provide a format in which staff could feel secure sharing their thoughts with the knowledge that they wouldn’t be identified.

He also hosted focus groups that helped him (and the rest of the advancement team) identify certain issues that we could address. For example, one staff member told him that she had experienced microaggressions, such as someone whose colleagues assumed he liked rap music because he’s black. By coming in, identifying those types of issues—and, more importantly, presenting solutions—he helped improve our climate within our advancement team.

He provided individual coaching to people within the division, particularly people of color. For example, he worked with them on individual development plans. That provided a framework for him to help a staff member who wanted to be a vice president in five years in which he could identify her strengths and weaknesses and map out a strategy to help make that happen.

And, externally, he made outreach to communities of color. That was an important step because some of that work involved connecting with people of means who were never asked for a gift. That helped address some longstanding issues in which alumni of color are treated differently from other alumni.

Finally, he provided a critical link between our department and the broader university by coordinating with campus-wide DEI staff in terms of fundraising and cultural issues and serving on campus-wide committees that look at areas of DEI.

A replicable model

While every institution has limited resources, this role has been an incredibly valuable investment for the University—both in terms of measurable ROI and intangible elements. His external efforts helped the University build a donor pipeline and sent a message to diverse populations considering employment within our department. And his internal work helped improve our overall climate.

Those are real, tangible benefits, which is why adding a DEI role isn’t simply a step that an institution can and should take to “do the right thing.” While it is the right thing to do, it produces a much broader impact as the position helps improve the fundraising shop in terms of culture, as well as its productivity. That’s why I hope others learn from and adopt this model.

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About the author

The benefits of adding a DEI officer to an advancement leadership team

2015 and 2016 were challenging years at the University of Missouri—Columbia, where I was Vice Chancellor for Advancement from 2012 to 2020. Throughout that period, we experienced the aftermath of the Ferguson riots, a series of racial incidents on campus that attracted national scrutiny, a number of Black and other…