New Survey Reveals Majority of Educational Advancement Leaders are Confident About Reaching Goals

Level of Confidence Dropped Over Previous Two Years; Gaps Exist Between Alumni & Institutions’ Perceived Barriers for Engagement

November 2023 Survey of Advancement Professionals

The WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK November 2023 survey of advancement professionals is the tenth in our Advancement Moving Forward series. The previous nine surveys in this series were conducted in April 2020, June 2020, September 2020, January 2021, May 2021, November 2021, April 2022, December 2022, and June 2023. Details about the methodology and participating institutions are found at the end of this report.

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As the nation’s colleges, independent schools and universities complete their fall semesters, a new survey finds a majority of these institutions’ advancement leaders are confident in their ability to achieve their financial goals for the year. However, while approximately two-thirds (65%) believe they will reach their goals, this level of confidence has dropped over the past two years from its peak levels.

The Advancement Moving Forward survey, the tenth in a series conducted by WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK, one of the nation’s leading educational and institutional advancement consulting firms, finds that advancement staff are more confident about current outcomes (giving and engagement) and less confident about building toward the future (pipelines).

For example, the survey finds that alumni relations and engagement officers are significantly more confident about meeting their own alumni engagement metrics (71%) than gift officers (51%). Gift officers are significantly more likely (70% versus 57%) to report uncertainty or a lack of confidence in developing a volunteer pipeline.

When it comes to key priorities, advancement leadership, gift officers, and alumni/engagement officers are focused on the same top five priorities. These include building donor pipelines, increasing annual giving, engaging young alumni, engaging alumni through professional or career networks, and keeping alumni informed about institutional priorities and initiatives.

While the respondents identify the same top priorities, there is a divergence of opinion beyond these top choices. CAOs/AVPs are more likely than their staff to identify building and supporting alumni affinity groups as a priority. Thirty-seven percent of CAOs/AVPs identify it as a top priority, compared to 29% of alumni officers and 19% of gift officers.

In terms of the barriers facing educational advancement leaders in engaging alumni, a number of key issues emerge including time/family commitments, work commitments, geographic distances, apathy, and an uncertainty of how to get involved. The survey finds that across educational advancement leaders, institutions are often competing against these alumni priorities. For example, approximately sixty percent of CAOs/AVPs and Gift Officers say that alumni time/family commitments are their biggest barriers with (56%) of alumni relations/engagement officers stating as such.

Over the past two years WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK alumni surveys have asked alumni the reasons they do not engage more with their institutions. Comparing the responses from alumni to the responses from advancement professionals reveals important differences between the voices of alumni and the perceptions of these professionals.

For example, while institutional advancement professionals cite time/family (60%) or work commitments (43%) as the top two reasons their constituents do not engage with institutions, only (25%) of alumni cite family/time commitment and (32%) cite work commitments as barriers.

“There is a significant gap between what many educational advancement leaders perceive are barriers to engaging with alumni to what actually keeps alumni from engaging with their institutions,” says Karin George, Managing Principal, WASHBURN & MCGOLDRICK. “We are focused on helping these institutions build strategies to ensure educational advancement teams can continue to close these gaps and reach their goals.”

Among the survey’s key highlights:

  • Alumni are significantly more likely to cite financial limitations (46%) and geographic distance (46%) as the reasons they do not engage or provide financial support. These are cited by significantly more alumni than by advancement professionals (+21% and +10%, respectively).
  • Alumni and engagement officers are significantly less aware of the strategies of gift officers and gift officers are significantly less aware of the work of their alumni relations and engagement colleagues with (84%) of gift officers aware of their own fundraising priorities, goals, and metrics, compared to (51%) of alumni relations and engagement officers.
  • This (33%) gap in awareness is also reflected in the (43%) difference in awareness of engagement priorities, goals, and metrics (27% versus 70%).
  • There has been a significant shift among educational advancement leaders from 67% to 46% in the percentage worried about staff shortages or resignations. Despite this shift, this issue remains one of their top concerns followed by burnout/uncertainty (54%); and staff morale (43%).
  • Among CAOs/AVPs, (43%) cite technology (CRM, AI, data analytics), and (41%) of alumni officers cited technology as a challenge. Significantly fewer gift officers (28%) cited it as a challenge.
  • Hybrid work dominates the work setting for gift and alumni officers. At the present time (46%) of gift officers and (61%) of alumni relations or engagement officers are working two days per week at home and three days in the office. Overall, (62%) of these professionals are working a hybrid work schedule.
  • More than two-thirds (69%) of gift and alumni relations officers prefer a hybrid work schedule. Data collected since September 2020 indicates that interest in hybrid work schedules has increased dramatically, from (35%) in September 2020 to (69%) in this survey.
  • There has been a decline in the percentage of gift and alumni officers who would likely look for another job (61% to 51%) if hybrid work was not an option, with an equal increase in those who are unsure about looking. The percentage who are unlikely to leave has remained stable over the past year at one-quarter of the staff.
  • Currently (29%) of alumni and gift officers are working full-time in the office with only (14%) preferring this choice.

The WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK survey on advancement leaders was conducted online during the period October – November 2023 with 417 respondents representing 134 institutions across the nation. The institutions surveyed ranged in size from small private liberal arts colleges to independent schools to state and private universities offering master’s and doctoral degrees. The margin of error was +/- 4.5% with a 95% confidence level.

Key Findings

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