Three Trends, Three Tips and Three Best Practices for Making the Most of The Advancement Committee

As WASHBURN & McGOLDRICK consultants, we often have the opportunity to help our client’s boards of trustees and chief advancement officers plan the vital work of their advancement committees. Based on our team’s experience, here are three trends, tips and best practices for effective committees.


New board governance structures: In an effort to govern more holistically and dismantle organizational silos, some boards are revising their own structure and doing work in fewer, but larger, committees. Rather than having committees that closely align with the organizational model or along VP-area lines, advancement becomes part of a new and larger committee focused on institutional resources writ large, with finance, investments, and advancement often grouped together. While we applaud board efforts to look hard at their own structures, this decision can result in decreased emphasis on engagement and philanthropy work by board members. In a few cases, this decision has been subsequently reversed with the re-formation of a standing advancement committee.

Greater emphasis on alumni engagement: Many advancement committees have embraced the important role that alumni engagement plays in the health of an institution. The advancement committee is exercising greater scrutiny of resources allocated to engagement and assessing key indicators (like CASE’s new Engagement Factor) that track levels of alumni engagement as well as the relationship between engagement and fundraising.

New models for the advancement committee during a major campaign: Depending on the size and complexity of the institution, some advancement committees are disbanding during major campaigns, giving way to a board campaign committee that reports on campaign progress to the full board and oversees the solicitation of board members. Other institutions are keeping the advancement committee in place, focusing its work on non-campaign related objectives like building advocacy networks or institutional marketing and branding.

Best practices

Ensure that the advancement committee and the board’s governance committee review and regularly update a clear statement of expectations for all board members regarding personal philanthropy, advocacy and outreach.

Work with the advancement committee to design a board education program about advancement that addresses trends, core program strategies, and key performance indicators. Clarify Board roles and provide examples of actions each trustee can take to ensure the success of your engagement and philanthropy strategies.

Help the board do its work efficiently: Some board decisions cross committee lines. For example, when seeking board approval to launch a new capital construction project, the finance, facilities and advancement committees all play important roles. Rather than having each committee do all of its work in separate meetings, bring them together for the final check-in when the project financial plan is approved, the philanthropic goals have been met, and the project schedule is set.


Work with committee leaders annually to map out agendas. Keep the focus on potential opportunities and threats to the advancement program. Make sure meetings have a time slot for substantive discussion of an emerging trend or horizon issue that could impact the advancement program. For example, how could your institution address demographic shifts across generations or engage diverse alumni communities? Work with committee leaders to frame discussion questions in advance so the conversation is focused and stays on track. Bring in outside speakers when appropriate.

Make sure your committee has a formal “charge” stating its primary role, and its responsibilities to the board of trustees. Review it regularly. Some institutions align committee goals with the strategic plan or ongoing strategic visioning process. This ensures a laser focus for the advancement committee and a stronger culture of philanthropy on the board. Many samples are available on the web.

If you’re doing all the talking, you’re doing it wrong. Don’t fill the committee’s agenda with the review of fund-raising or engagement reports. Distribute that information in advance and set aside a short period of time for committee member questions. As you consider agenda topics ask: what is it we are asking the committee to do? Frame topics around decisions or focused discussions. If you can only say that an agenda item is there “For your information,” pull that item off and include the information in the pre-meeting materials.