Change at work can be stressful but it can also be an opportunity to improve and grow.

A university leadership transition may put stress on staff, faculty, and the operational systems of an institution. Successfully transitioning to a new president, provost, or college dean can be challenging but change does not have to be a negative experience. Instead, this kind of change can be used as an opportunity to reinforce positive outcomes from outgoing leadership or heal troubled internal systems and/or donor relationships. University advancement services can and should capitalize on leadership transitions with a strong change management strategy.

In truth, any transition will be perceived by some as a long-awaited relief, and by some as a painful upheaval. Regardless, your opportunity is to choose the story you want told, always rooting your message in the mission of your institution. For example, if the new leader has been brought in to resolve known problems at your university, acknowledge those challenges and share the new vision of how they will be addressed. If the new leader is replacing a beloved founder, share how the established success will be continued.

Getting Started

It is best to develop your plans well in advance of the incoming change. Begin by taking a close look at what is and is not succeeding in your advancement program. This process could be part of your annual review; a “spring cleaning” of sorts wherein you identify underperforming areas as well as strong segments. Use this self-analysis to determine your external and internal communication plans, focusing on what you want each audience to know about your department. This collection of challenges and opportunities is the basis of a change management plan which will serve your advancement department, whether it’s utilized to inform a transition plan or during an internally-driven change process.

Priority Communication

Both external and internal communications are essential to optimize the experience of welcoming a new university leader. It is important to note that this is not a blank slate. You must consider the existing perceptions and opinions of your audience to address concerns in your communication plan.

To prepare external communications, advancement services should closely consider their audiences. Put simply, who needs to be told what, and in what order? Shape messaging around a communication theme, such as exploring a new vision or maintaining excellence. Then, tailor messages for each audience. Identify university partners to align your message, and to deliver your message as appropriate. Consider how you might use the transition to strengthen specific relationships.

Internal communication is your first opportunity to present the advancement services team to new leadership. Consider what you need your new leader to know the first day, the first week, and the first six months. Outline goals, opportunities, and challenges in detail. Shine a light on your team’s work, but don’t hide the challenges. Despite your protective instincts, this is the right time to be upfront about the shortcomings you identified in your departmental spring cleaning and request the support you need to reach your goals.

A Case Study in Leadership Transition Management

Last summer, Pace University in New York welcomed its eighth President, Marvin Krislov, following the retirement of President Stephen J. Friedman, who had given more than a decade of service to the University. The University advancement department executed a multi-stage communication plan to articulate the transition, beginning work in the fall of 2016, and continuing through spring 2018. These efforts focused on two key areas: introducing the president to University constituencies and presenting advancement services efforts to the new leader.

Communications work began as Pace University’s search committee of trustees interviewed and considered new presidential candidates. At the same time, advancement staff began a review of the alumni and donor database, prioritizing and coding groups of donors and prospects to receive the announcement of the new president. This messaging was tiered by priority: trustees, lead volunteers, and top donors received personal calls from the chairman of the board and key staff the evening before the public announcement. Email messaging—also tiered to give key groups precedence—was sent to alumni and donors in the morning before press releases were issued.

Prior to President Krislov’s arrival in New York, advancement staff identified and ordered the top 100 introductory meetings for the new president and began scheduling outreach to set meetings during the first weeks and months. In addition to one-on-ones, a trustee welcome reception and other small gatherings were created for key volunteer groups and were held during the start of the fall semester. In October, the president’s official inauguration week events included a reception for regional politicians and influencers, and a breakfast event for top supporters. Introductions continued through spring, with a series of regional alumni events to bring area alumni together with the new president. Pace University used these events to strengthen alumni relations, as well as rebuild connections with alumni.

Top 5 Actions to Prepare for Leadership Change

1. Take an honest look at the perceptions of your University and advancement department.
2. Identify external and internal strategies for communication, considering how your advancement department may capitalize on the benefits of this change.
3. Control the message by reaching out to specific audiences early and with information tailored to the interest group, alumni, trustees, volunteers, etc.
4. Reinforce the case for support. The person at the helm will surely shape the institution, but the core value proposition of the institution has a longer life-span than any one staff member or leader.
5. Take a deep breath, then exhale. Repeat.

Remember, leadership change is your chance to identify strategic growth, and to control the story of your advancement services department. Recognize the stress, and take advantage of the opportunity.

About the Author

Jennifer Ruden guided the fundraising staff at a New York area university during the silent phase of their nine-figure campaign, meeting annual stretch fundraising goals, and developing staff capacity and campaign strategy. She created the first major donor program for Comic Relief Inc., the presenters of Red Nose Day USA, which has raised over $100 million in the US to combat poverty in the US and overseas. Jennifer secured six- and seven-figure gifts, planned cultivation dinners to engage key prospects, developed a comprehensive prospective donor pipeline, and established guidelines for named fund opportunities. Jennifer has conducted campaign feasibility studies for prominent art organizations in New York City, meeting with top trustees, foundation directors, and other key stakeholders to gauge interest, test campaign messaging and determine the most effective campaign plan. Jennifer’s recommendations shaped the fundraising strategy and operations for these legacy institutions.