Strengthen Your Campaign Planning: Leveraging Provosts as Key Advancement Partners

Strengthen Your Campaign Planning: Leveraging Provosts as Key Advancement Partners 

Campaigns often rise or stagnate based on the fundraising prowess of the campus president or chancellor, yet little has been discussed about the role of the provost as a crucial partner in campaign planning. Nonetheless, with a position that sits strategically at the intersection of academia and advancement, provosts can be the key to cultivating partnerships, generating “big ideas,” fostering collaboration across campus departments, and reallocating resources to maximize their impact.  

The growing role of presidents, deans, and faculty as partners in fundraising is increasingly the subject of articles, workshops, and trainings. In fact, in one recent CASE Currents article focusing on the advancement-faculty collaboration, author Ellen N. Woods notes that “today’s economic climate makes a seamless collaboration between the fields of advancement and academia imperative.”  

At GG+A, we often remind our clients that advancement officers are the relationship experts while deans and faculty are the content experts. In advancement, we bring people together and provide the systems and protocol for good conversations, but it is the faculty – their research and work with students – that donors frequently invest in. 

From what I have observed in my own work, and from the ways I have encouraged leaders to collaborate with academic colleagues, here are three key reasons why advancement leaders should proactively engage provosts as campaign planning partners. 

Provosts Are Uniquely Positioned for Campaign Priority Setting 

Today’s provost at a comprehensive university is arguably the most demanding role in all of academia, often with 15 to 20 direct reports and an overfilled schedule. As the chief academic officer, he or she is responsible for the oversight of all academic programs (deans of schools and colleges), establishing academic priorities and allocating resources for them.  

As you take the first steps towards envisioning your next campaign, a conversation between the president, provost, and chief advancement officer to discuss the provost’s role will clarify the critical connection between the academic plan and establishing campaign priorities. Often deans are asked to develop campaign priorities for each of their schools and colleges. With input from advancement, these may be further shaped by predicted donor capacity and other factors.  

With provosts’ heavy internal focus (in contrast to the president, who often has a heavy external focus), it is not necessary for them to have direct interaction with donors. But a role in campaign planning and priority setting is critical to a campaign’s success. 

In a recent comprehensive advancement review that GG+A conducted, a large public institution had just completed a more than $2-billion campaign; however, we quickly discovered that the provost had not set expectations or accountability measures for deans. This was a significant reason the campaign failed to achieve some of its goals – while the overall dollar amount was achieved, the campaign had been conducted in silos with some units succeeding and others not. That institution also raised significantly fewer principal gifts than its benchmark peer cohort. 

Provosts Pave the Way for Interdisciplinary “Big Ideas” 

The cornerstones of major capital campaigns are big ideas that seek to address today’s most significant issues, such as climate change; pandemics; uses of artificial intelligence; housing and food insecurity; border, regime, and refugee crises; and more. The academy has a distinctive ability to convene cross-disciplinary experts who can develop innovative programs for creating societal change, and these are the very ideas that attract today’s megadonors. The nine-figure gifts that sit atop campaign pyramids are most likely to be cultivated by having well-conceived big ideas. 

In addition to unit goals, senior administrative and academic leaders should have initial conversations about topics for big ideas that cut across campus divisions. Once broad topic areas are identified, a plan should be developed to bring together key faculty and deans to begin conceptualizing these ideas. 

As we have seen with our clients repeatedly, the biggest obstacle toward establishing plans and gift opportunities around big ideas is the bureaucracy within the academy – most notably, the fiefdoms controlled by the deans of schools and colleges. To be fair, deans are appointed to advance the school or college they oversee. Today’s successful dean spends (or should spend) upwards of 50% of his or her time on advancement and external relations, working closely with development staff to secure resources that will advance their programs, services, and facilities. 

Unfortunately, this drive to promote “their school” often keeps deans from collaborating with each other toward interdisciplinary initiatives where the rewards are shared. I have seen faculty very excited to collaborate with colleagues across campus only to be told by their deans that it wasn’t a priority for the school. This is why the role of the provost in campaign planning and execution is so important. Provosts have the necessary carrots and sticks to remove obstacles that prevent deans from being good collaborators on interdisciplinary projects.  

Provosts Can Convene the Right People 

Provosts may not have time to personally participate in envisioning sessions. In these cases, they should deputize members of their team to participate as appropriate. In my experience, involving leaders from advancement and the institution’s office of research to observe will help shape case statements and gift propositions down the road. Very often the faculty engaged in these sessions dream big and visualize how their work may be enhanced through interdisciplinary collaboration.  

Gathering the right people for the conversation is a delicate art, but when it is achieved, magic happens!  A large research intuition with whom I work recently convened its council of deans for a presentation on plans for a new medical research facility. The conversation took an interesting turn when the dean of the arts said she wanted to contribute to the project by raising money for art installations throughout the facility. Not to be outdone, the deans of public health and social sciences talked about incorporating spaces to collaborate on patient research. It may take multiple conversations, many meetings, and a shifting cast of participants to arrive at the best big ideas, but the payoff will be worth the time spent planning. 

The academy has a distinctive ability to convene cross-disciplinary experts who can develop innovative programs for creating societal change, and these are the very ideas that attract today’s megadonors.

In addition to sponsoring the envisioning process, the most important role for the provost is in setting expectations for the deans during the campaign planning process. The provost should communicate unequivocally that collaboration on big ideas is as important as individual unit goals. Joint goals may need to be included in the annual goals used to evaluate the deans. In some institutions where collaboration is least customary, provosts may need to identify the right incentives to ensure the good faith participation of deans. I have often coached client institutions and their leadership on strategies to achieve interdisciplinary collaboration.  

The role of provosts in institutional advancement is not one you’ll find in general trainings or guidebooks for new leaders. Therefore, it is important for presidents and vice presidents of advancement to work with provosts as they arrive in their position. Strategic counsel, campaign planning support, and direct coaching can help emphasize the provost’s role and maximize his or her effectiveness. 

As big ideas solidify and the campaign progresses, advancement leadership also needs to adjust staffing for interdisciplinary initiatives. Within central development, building a culture of principal gift officers working smoothly with unit development officers and developing clear processes around relationship management and gift credit will help mitigate internal rifts. The meeting agenda of an institution’s senior administrative and academic leadership should include quarterly updates on campaign progress, with considerable focus on cross-disciplinary initiatives. The active role of the provost in championing these initiatives, along with the president and chief advancement officer, will help set the tone for a successful campaign. 

Campaigns in higher education continue to aim higher and stretch expectations to new levels.  As advancement leaders, we need to utilize all the expertise and resources we can find to achieve these lofty goals. Let’s be sure to engage the talents and competencies of the provost. 


Keith Brant, Vice President has more than 30 years of experience in advancement work, including development, alumni engagement, marketing, advocacy, special events, and advancement services. If you would like guidance in developing your institution’s campaign plan or fundraising strategy, connect with Keith at kbrant@grenzglier.com. 




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About the author

Keith Brant

Vice President

Keith Brant, Vice President, has led advancement teams at distinguished higher education institutions for more than 30 years in all areas of advancement, including development, alumni engagement, marketing, advocacy, special events, and advancement services. He has created strategies for ambitious major campaigns that have exceeded goals, directed programs through transitions,…