The Great Opportunity (Part 2)

Thursday, September 16, 2021

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by Sally Bryant, BRYANT GROUP

In Part I of this three part series, we considered how our current cultural moment, which is being dubbed The Great Reassessment, The Great Resignation, and The Great Reshuffling, is also The Great Opportunity, specifically for the field of institutional advancement as organizations are hiring advancement professionals at what seems to be an unprecedented pace. I discussed how this opportunity is the result of a confluence of factors and provided three reasons why this is an exciting and positive moment for development professionals, especially those who are open to new leadership opportunities.

Today, I want to delve into another opportunity of enormous importance that I see in this moment for the field of advancement and the vast philanthropy arena, an opportunity in which recruiters can take a leading role.

The Great Opportunity to Diversify the Field of Institutional Advancement

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 40% of Americans are non-white. This percentage is growing each year, and it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more non-white Americans than white. As the nation has diversified, so too has the student body at most universities. Yet, according to CASE membership surveys, just 16% of higher education advancement professionals were non-white in 2017. In 2018, Inside Higher Ed brought attention to this disparity by making this statement: “Colleges with increasingly diverse student bodies are recognizing that development staff members remain overwhelmingly white.” According to the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP), the challenge is much the same in healthcare advancement. I recognize this is an issue within the advancement executive search industry as well and has become a priority topic for discussion and strategy for the Network of Nonprofit Search Consultants (NNSC), an organization made up of owners and executives of firms serving the nonprofit world.

The challenge of the advancement field’s lack of diversity certainly is not limited to race and ethnicity. The LGBTQ+ community is also woefully underrepresented as are people with differing physical abilities (formerly called “disabilities”). In addition, while women have become the majority of development professionals, they are far from being the majority of those in leadership positions in advancement offices.

At BRYANT GROUP, we believe that a rich tapestry of voices makes the strongest team. And we see advancement leadership reflecting this same idea and vision for the future. This will not change overnight. However, the advancement field has been offered a Great Opportunity to rapidly accelerate the process of diversifying its workforce, a process that could have taken much longer otherwise. As I have noted, the advancement field currently has a massive number of open positions, so many that the current pipeline of experienced, qualified professionals cannot possibly fill them. What better time to make significant progress toward diversity and inclusion in the advancement field than right now, when the need for new development officers is so great? The Great Opportunity is the perfect time for advancement leaders and hiring authorities to think outside the box, to be intentional about seeking candidates who bring other skills, ones that could modernize and enhance our industry in new (and unforeseen) ways.

For far too long, advancement offices have posted open positions and then lamented the fact that few (or no) diverse applicants apply. They ask, “What are we supposed to do? How can we hire a more diverse staff when our applicant pool isn’t diverse?” The answer: stop relying on your applicant pool and start actively recruiting. Institutional advancement has been so homogenous for so long that it’s not going to diversify itself naturally. Passive approaches will merely produce more of the same. Advancement offices must be proactive.

Here are some ideas for how to do that:

For Entry-Level Positions:

  • Build relationships between your advancement office and minority student groups on campus. Engage with the students on a regular basis in a way that introduces them to advancement/development work as an attractive career choice. If you’re at a healthcare system or other nonprofit rather than in higher education, contact local universities to participate in job fairs or career talks. Also, consider doing this with local high schools; this is an investment in the future.
  • Take this a step further by starting internships that give students from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to experience advancement work. Then, upon graduation, don’t let them leave to gain their experience somewhere else. Offer them their first job and then mentor and guide them into becoming professional development officers. This will introduce new perspectives and creativity into the profession.
  • As an individual advancement professional, get involved with your alma mater to see how you might be able to interact with or mentor students into this profession.

For Management and Leadership Positions:

  • Do an honest assessment as to whether every requirement in your job posting is necessary. I’ve read many job descriptions over the years that narrowly define experience needed for the position. We find that natural strengths, personal characteristics, adaptability, creativity, and ability to learn quickly can be even more important than a rigid set of past experiences.
  • Build relationships with organizations comprised of professionals from underrepresented backgrounds, including professionals in other career fields that have transferable skills and experience. We’ve already seen that the advancement field lacks diversity. So, hiring authorities and advancement leaders cannot rely exclusively on promotion of diverse advancement professionals from within (as important as that is). There are dozens of professions that have translatable skills and experiences to advancement work including business, education, sales, public service, healthcare management, ministry, coaching, athletics, hospitality, agriculture, banking, and many more. The pipeline of diverse advancement candidates must be built intentionally.
  • The Great Opportunity is an exciting time that is ripe for moving careers, organizations, and the entire field of institutional advancement in exciting new directions. Advancement leaders have the opportunity right now to dramatically alter the landscape of the profession, improving it, not just for the present moment, but for generations to come, and, in doing so, having a massive positive impact on our communities. This will take time and patience; this moment may be challenging, but it is also a gift.

In the next few weeks, I will offer you three more exciting aspects of our current cultural moment. In the meantime, pause for a second, breathe deeply, be grateful that you get to do this for a living, and then boldly take the first step toward seizing The Great Opportunity!

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