From vision statements to strategic goals

How to help deans articulate academic priorities to advancement staff

By Dena Schwartz

Regardless of their capacity to give, today’s top donors want to invest in a vision that will move an institution forward into the future, regardless of which department, center, or program that project supports. However, getting academic leaders to describe how advancement projects fit into their overall vision and priorities is often easier said than done.

In particular, deans are often expected to have a high-level strategic plan for their college or school. This may include multidisciplinary initiatives, potential new programs, and ways to innovate the student experience. However, given current budget pressures and funding cuts, many deans use vision statements to emphasize core programmatic needs, like building renovations, additional faculty lines, or small-scale updates to current programs. Advancement staff struggle to articulate these priorities to principal gift donors, who want to use their philanthropy to make a difference in the world, instead of relieving budget pressures.

Pressures Impede Deans' Big Picture Thinking


Survey helps deans think outside of the box

In order to encourage deans to think beyond their current needs and look at how their divisions are poised to make a difference to the university, the advancement team at one public research institution created a survey for all deans. It emphasized thinking beyond immediate needs and articulating a concise vision to move their unit forward and bring it closer to its aspirational peers. The survey was distributed at the conclusion of a major capital campaign, enabling advancement staff to move the institution forward in the absence of campaign goals and a guide.

The questions on the survey itself were designed to help deans think big in terms of:

  • How to differentiate their unit from their peers
  • How to make the institution as a whole stronger
  • How to garner additional philanthropic support

The questionnaire began by asking about the current state of the unit and then proceeded to ask:

  • Where the unit excels
  • The dean's aspirations for the unit
  • Estimates of how much philanthropic support would be necessary to achieve that vision
  • Programs of facilities that may no longer be necessary
  • Other changes necessary to turn the vision into reality


The survey itself was distributed at the deans’ annual retreat and they were given a few weeks to complete it. Advancement staff emphasized that this was not a task that could be assigned to their unit-based development staff—the deans themselves had to complete it. However, the deans were encouraged to work on the survey with input from across their school or college (including development staff).

Align the vision of academic leaders and advancement

After receiving the completed surveys, advancement staff crafted the case for each unit and began exploring funding opportunities with donors. In the future, the survey may be used again to assess which priorities should be further developed and which initiatives should be refreshed or replaced. As deans turn over, the questions can help guide new deans as they formulate their own vision for the unit.

The survey format is a low-cost way to get deans to think about what the future could look like for their division. Furthermore, it requires them to think about priorities that would be interesting to donors versus needs that merit internal funding. For deans who struggle to think of the big picture, a set of guiding questions are a bridge between the academic enterprise and advancement, while helping to clarify gift opportunities that will appeal to impact-minded donors.

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