The results from our 2016 topic poll are in

Discover your peers’ top priorities

By Haley Gfeller

The Advancement Forum's annual topic poll asked advancement leaders to consider a range of topics and choose the ones that are most pressing for their campuses. Their answers shed light on where higher education advancement is heading across the coming year.

So where are chief advancement officers focusing their time and effort in 2016? Our topic poll uncovered four major areas of concern:

1. Principal gifts are assuming outsized importance in campaign planning

Since the turn of the millennium, campaign goals have grown by more than 43%. As campaign goals continue to balloon, fundraisers are setting their sights on high-net-worth individuals to achieve their aims.

The Advancement Forum topic poll showed that CAOs are taking a hard look at how they pursue these top gifts. Over two-thirds of advancement leaders said that principal gifts strategy is an urgent priority for them in 2016. We anticipate fundraisers will shift their strategies to better connect high-net-worth individuals with transformative projects on campus.

Percentage of Total Campaign Dollars Provided by Top Donors
CASE Campaign Report (2011)

Percentage of Total Campaign Dollars Provided by Top Donors

2. Academic partners have become central to fundraising success, but partnership challenges remain

Topic poll results

69% of CAOs prioritize principal gifts strategy and including academic leaders in fundraising


64% of CAOs prioritize maximizing multichannel annual giving

Faculty sit at the heart of the educational enterprise. They inspire major and principal donors to give transformative gifts—while rarely playing a hands-on role in fundraising efforts.

In recent years, CAOs have tried to build stronger partnerships with faculty members, department chairs, and deans to encourage their participation in discovery efforts, cultivation, and stewardship of major-gift donors. Yet the challenges of including faculty in fundraising persist, as institutions struggle to disabuse skepticism about advancement's intentions and build an effective infrastructure for partnerships.

3. Drops in donor participation are inspiring advancement leaders to rethink the annual fund

Gone are the days when smart direct-mail appeals and robust student-calling programs captured the attention—and donations—of alumni. Today, alumni are divided between multitudes of different channels: email, social media, mobile websites, and more. Yet few advancement shops can afford to invest in every new technology that comes along.

Advancement shop priorities for alumni outreach

Faced with a confusing array of channels and limited resources, advancement leaders have begun to demand a strategy for maximizing ROI. They hope to integrate all of their annual fund's solicitation vehicles into a cohesive strategy so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Having heard this from our members, we weren't surprised that multi-channel annual giving scored highly in the Advancement Forum topic poll.

4. Demographic shifts mean that advancement shops must explore more inclusive strategies

The enrollment boom of the last decade brought many traditionally underrepresented groups onto colleges campuses. Today, those individuals have graduated into the ranks of alumni, but work remains for advancement professionals to welcome them to the donor community.

Many advancement shops are finding that the old fundraising playbook doesn’t work with an increasingly diverse alumni base. Many CAOs see pioneering a more inclusive advancement strategy as the preeminent challenge of this decade. Without a refreshed strategy, the coming years could bring severe dips in giving.

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