As part of Careers in Student Affairs Month, we have invited individuals from different ACPA entities to share their unique perspectives on the field through Career Spotlight Q&A pages. We hope these will be a valuable resource for individuals considering work or graduate school in student affairs and higher education. This submission is from Michael Bumbry, representing the Standing Committee for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Awareness. For more information on the Standing Committee's work, please visit their webpage.
Why did you choose a career in student affairs?
Like so many others, I chose student affairs because of a passion to help and serve others. I had the privilege of having wonderful faculty and staff mentors who supported my academic, social, and personal development. Once I discovered the profession, it was a no-brainer as to what I would dedicate my career to. Although every individual student experience is unique, I partly chose student affairs because I wanted to provide the same mentorship and guidance that was given to me. In addition, student affairs (and higher education) careers offer such a rich and diverse menu of options. One doesn’t have to be in one particular functional area for their entire career. As a millennial and someone who views himself as a generalist, a career in higher education affords the opportunity to do a number of different things without having to leave the college setting. For these reasons and many more, I know that joining the profession was one of the best decisions of my life.
Why did you choose your particular functional area?
I have worked in residence life, the office of the vice president for student development, and now annual giving. Until my transition to fundraising and development in 2014, I had a very prescriptive career in student affairs. I was a traditional college aged student who went directly into a student affairs program, served as a resident director in my assistantship, continued my residence life career for three years in my first professional role post graduate school. I chose and stayed with residence life because it was where I felt I could make the most impact on students. Residence life is such a comprehensive functional area, that one is bound to get a myriad of experiences the eclipse its basic competencies.
Although residence life is not the first (or even fourth) choice of many wonderful student affairs professionals, I believe it is a great way to learn and develop key skills such as supervision, facilities, assessment, and risk management. These skills are so critical to advancing one’s career in student affairs and higher education in general. It was that mindset that led me to residence life. The transition to the other functional areas was intentional transitions that complemented my doctoral work. My current role in development is a major departure from student affairs primarily because I work mostly with alumni. However, the leadership, team building, volunteer management, and event planning experiences I held in previous roles are competencies that I use daily in my current position in annual giving. The relationship between student affairs and university advancement is continuing to become more apparent across both areas on campuses across the country. The opportunity to couple my doctoral work with professional experiences that support my dissertation and a genuine interest to expand my professional portfolio are reasons why I chose development.
What does a typical work week look like in your particular functional area?
Similar to student affairs, university advancement does not have a typical week because there are ongoing changes that impact our response to each situation. As a member of the class reunions team at the University of Chicago, I spend most of my time on volunteer management. Specifically, I work with alumni to meet various participation, attendance, and fundraising goals that the institution and I have set. I work with nine different classes that span a decade. Similar to college students at various stages in their four (or six) year experience, my alumni volunteers are at various personal and professional stages in their life that influences their availability, interests, and opinions about the University. Outside of volunteer management, I see my primary role as an ambassador for the University of Chicago. This means learning as much as I can about updates across the University that may appeal to alumni. Again, this can be difficult to predict because each person has a unique experience. However, staying on top of University news and sharing those updates is an effective way to build relationships with alumni. And in the business of advancement, relationship building is the first step to soliciting and successfully securing a gift for the University and advance the mission.
What is the most rewarding part of your job, and what is the most challenging part?
The most rewarding part of my job is working with alumni who really love their alma mater and are willing to work hard in making it an even stronger institution for future generations. As a long-term volunteer for my own alma mater, Elon University, I know firsthand how difficult it is to balance academic, professional and personal commitments while also volunteering for an alumni board or affinity group. Therefore, it has been very enjoyable and educational to be on the other side of things and work with alumni who love their alma mater as much as I love my own.
The best part about working in development is also one of the most challenging parts of working in development: the unpredictability of people. Although student affairs have tangible objectives, clear outcomes, and are increasingly demonstrating the value of our work through assessment efforts, development is 100% driven by quantitative goals that gift officers are tied to for the entire fiscal year. The combination of unpredictability and the pressure to meet various dollar, participation and attendance goals was initially intimidating as a new advancement professional. However, despite only being in development for 6 months, I have already learned so much about what goals into creating fundraising goals that are ambitious but realistic. Furthermore, I have applied proven techniques from my colleagues as well as the recommendations from alumni giving literature to inform my work with alumni.
What is your top piece of advice for individuals considering a career in your functional area?
Higher education will no doubt increasingly rely on private giving from non-tuition sources. Therefore, university advancement professionals will become even more part of the university wide conversation on how to best support, retain, and graduate students. This lends to a mutually beneficial relationship between student affairs and advancement professionals. I would advise someone interested in a career in university advancement to research the current literature on private giving to higher education, including alumni giving. Understanding the current and projected future landscape of higher education will be critical to an individual’s approach and ultimate success in this career. I have already benefited in my current role from the knowledge I gained during my doctoral program. A new professional does not necessarily need to enroll in a doctorate program, but doing simple research and reviewing the literature would be very helpful in the short and long term.
In addition, similar to student affairs, I would recommend speaking with individuals who currently work in university advancement to learn how development works at their institution. There are differences across institution types in terms of programming, approaches, alumni demographics, and much more, so I would suggest that aspiring development professionals conduct outreach with staff at multiple institutions to learn more about the profession.
In your opinion, what are the top three attributes needed to be successful in your field?
The ability to ask for money- the number one reason why alumni do not give to their alma mater is because they are not asked. In order to be a successful development professional, one has to be comfortable with asking for money. Although there are loyal and committed alumni who give annually to their alma mater regardless of who visits them, being informed and engaged with alumni builds a relationship with them so that the development professional can ask for even more, ultimately maximizing the gift.
Personality- Although being a development officer does not require the most extroverted person, it does require the ability to authentically engage with others in a meaningful way. When it comes to philanthropic interests, there are also several options for alumni to choose. A successful development officer must be able to make the case in a sensible, concrete way that illustrates the potential impact that gift will make towards the institution’s purpose. This is the case whether the gift officer is soliciting a $20,000 gift or a gift of $50 because the smaller gifts tend to develop into larger ones. Ultimately, development is driven by the relationship between the gift officer and the alumnus/a. As such, the former must be willing to invest the time and effort to cultivate relationships with alumni if they want to be successful.
Persistence- In most cases, development officers will hear “no” more than “yes” from alumni. Yet, persistence and positivity are great attributes to have because it encourages development officers to stay motivated in meeting the end of fiscal year goals. Student affairs professionals generally have these traits in their blood because of the complexities and politics of the work. Therefore, student affairs professionals would do well in this area of development given their general can-do attitude.
What do you believe will be the key trends, issues, and challenges in your functional area in 10 years?
I think that the number one challenge for advancement officers, not just development officers, will be the diversification of the student body which means a more diverse alumni body. Although more diverse student and alumni bodies are great things for the future of higher education, research has found that institutions are not well equipped to meet the needs and interests of diverse groups of alumni. This coupled with the lack of racial/ethnic minorities in advancement professional roles (only 9% according to CASE in 2014) highlights the need for increased attention to how advancement professionals engage and solicit alumni of all backgrounds. Given the importance of diversity and inclusion in student affairs and the significant relationships that student affairs professionals have with students, I think that senior administrators will continue to see the increased value of student affairs and advancement partnerships. These partnerships are mutually beneficial, particularly for leveraging support for student affairs programs that attract diverse donors. It is also helpful for advancement professionals in building an understanding of alumni donor interests and further cultivating relationships.
What additional resources would you recommend to a new professional in your functional area?
There is a growing list of resources to support aspiring and current advancement professionals in higher education. In terms of professional associations, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) provide ongoing professional development opportunities around the world and online. There are also regional and specialized conferences that are more accessible, affordable, and relative to unique interests. Other associations also host conferences dedicated to development officers who work in student affairs divisions. They may also have student affairs fundraising and external relations knowledge communities that provide resources and leadership opportunities. The Chronicle of Philanthropy is also a quick, effective, and affordable way to stay connected to philanthropic news across higher education and other non-profits, and informs professionals about best practices and future trends. Finally, I would recommend anything that Dr. Mary Beth Gasman (University of Pennsylvania) or Dr. Noah Drezner (Teachers College at Columbia University) has written, as their research focuses on alumni giving from diverse populations and history of development from traditionally underrepresented groups. I have learned so much from their work, which has inspired me to commit my doctoral dissertation to alumni giving among underrepresented people as well.