Leadership Published Date, 2023

Outsourcing And Higher Education Advancement: Seizing The Moment

Created By: Steve Orr and Amanda Nelson
June 26, 2023

Outsourcing is trending across the nonprofit sector. Thanks to the pandemic and economic pressures, nonprofits are getting more sophisticated about when and how to outsource tasks that can be handled more efficiently by consultants and service providers. Depending on the organization, outsourced tasks can include executive search, campaign planning, database management, and planned giving, for starters.

The State of Outsourcing in Higher Education

Institutions of higher education have a bit of a head start when it comes to outsourcing. Many leading universities and colleges caught onto the economic advantages long ago and regularly make use of consultants for nonacademic functions, including advancement. The client controls the size and scope of the team based on current needs. When an institution needs strategic advice or an extra pair of hands (or several extra pairs), the consultants are there. When things are under control, consultants “disappear” from the payroll.

Today, the advancement departments of universities and colleges across the nation are competing for talent like never before—and often falling short. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Nearly 80 percent of college leaders, hiring managers, and administrators say their campus has more open positions this year than last, and 84 percent said that hiring for administrative and staff jobs has been more difficult in the last year.” Some commentators point to a dearth of qualified candidates, while others cite systemic issues that impede hiring or, by the same token, the demands of shifting systems to keep pace with DEI currents. Regardless of the cause, fundraising can’t happen without executives to provide leadership, managers to oversee operations, and skilled professionals to carry them out.

Many institutions are on the brink of launching major campaigns but can’t proceed for lack of talent. Lost time means missed opportunities at a time when big visionary projects are needed to stand out from the competition. (For example, see what McPherson College in Kansas is achieving by adopting a bold new vision.) Outsourcing allows institutions to launch ambitious campaigns and to develop the infrastructure and systems necessary to sustain them.

The Outsourcing Advantage

Skilled consultants can fill in for everything from back-office research to frontline gift officers. However, outsourcing is not a magic potion. It takes work to lay the groundwork for success and to foster the conditions in which consultants—and therefore your institution—can thrive. While outsourced specialists may have deep expertise and strategic acumen, only the client can establish the metrics for success and secure the internal buy-in to realize ambitious goals.

Orr Group has enjoyed mutually fruitful relationships with colleges and universities, and in our experience, the client-consultant synergy works best when advancement departments secure internal buy-in about the purpose of the initial project. Conversations with the firm before the contract is signed can help establish realistic goals and expectations—and minimize surprises. In most cases, the consultants will work hand-in-hand with in-house staff, which means someone should be made available to provide consultants with the resources and information to execute a project.

The Question of Culture in Outsourcing

Culture is an important consideration in outsourcing decisions. Every institution of higher education has its own culture, which encompasses all the qualities that surround the academic experience, from the architecture to athletics, from the music scene to the ice cream. Decades after graduation, culture is often what alumni savor most about their alma maters. The full-time staff of the advancement department, which often includes numerous alumni, is fully steeped in that culture.

Just because an institution possesses a unique culture, however, doesn’t mean that key functions can’t be outsourced. In fact, bringing consultants aboard allows colleges and universities to concentrate on the things that have the most to do with their core identity—education and research.

Naturally, consultants might have less familiarity with the customs and traditions of the institution, but what they do offer is a fresh perspective. They know what works at other institutions. They understand all the facets of a successful development operation. Over time, development consultants might even enrich a college or university’s culture of philanthropy, thus allowing it to dream bigger for its students.

The outcome of these partnerships goes beyond a more useful alumni database or a better-designed capital campaign. It fortifies the leadership and the structure of fundraising capabilities, the very things that an institution needs to thrive.

Strong infrastructure, leadership, and systems are essential to any organization’s success. Get in touch with Orr Group today to understand how we can help your nonprofit maintain stability and continuity.

Stephen K. Orr

Steve Orr is the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Orr Group. Steve draws from his investment banking and finance background to bring a problem-solving approach, a focus on metrics, and an outcomes-driven perspective to the nonprofit sector.

Amanda Nelson

Amanda Nelson is a Vice President at Orr Group. Amanda has 15 years of professional fundraising experience with a background in higher education and provides nonprofits with expertise in development and strategy implementation to drive growth.

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