As the dust settles on the tumult of the last few years, one trend appears consistent: leadership reshuffling is underway.

Current college/university presidents, C-suite leaders, boards, and supporters all have a role in catalyzing the significant leadership reshuffling ahead. This article offers six actionable strategies and steps to maintain strong fundraising efforts during a leadership transition in higher education.

The Challenge—and Opportunity—of Leadership Transition in Higher Education

Many higher education institutions remain pressured to keep students, staff, and supporters engaged while navigating senior leadership transitions and post-pandemic fundraising challenges, adapting to lean staff capacity, facing an enrollment cliff, and addressing the urgent needs of students, research, and faculty. These and other trends converge on the nation’s campuses, presenting leadership challenges like no other moment in recent history.

In an average pre-pandemic year, US higher education saw about 10% of campus leaders retire, 10% move to another institution, and 10% leave academia altogether. Predictions indicate that those numbers will rise, with presidents, deans, and provosts having the highest likelihood of turnover among top-level administrators. Similarly, 2023 survey data from the American Council on Education (ACE) affirms a horizon of change: over half (55%) of presidents indicated that they plan to step down from their current presidency within the next five years. One in four (25%) presidents anticipated stepping down within the next year or two, and 30% intend to do so in the next three to five years.

With this data in mind, it seems clear that many institutions may experience leadership transitions more frequently than in the past. In fact, since 2006, the average presidency has been 2.6 years shorter; academia’s top leaders now remain in their role for an average of just 5.9 years.

In an already stretched sector, a leadership transition can seem overwhelming. However, when navigated wisely, it is a unique opportunity to build new momentum and energy toward primary fundraising efforts. Turnover also presents a significant opportunity for US higher education to improve racial and gender diversity in its leadership ranks, a reality already evidenced by several recent appointments.

1. Assess the Donor Landscape

Before the transition occurs, the advancement department must assess the current state of key donor relationships and fundraising initiatives. This assessment sets the stage for aligned communication and prioritized prospect engagement, ensuring all relationships transition smoothly.

2. Develop a Transition Plan (and Then Collaborate)

A comprehensive transition plan crucially maintains fundraising momentum and minimizes disruptions. A plan should outline action steps for the fundraising department during the transition, prospect engagement plans, and key communications schedule. Each task should include clear timelines and goals. Transitions can be a fluid process, so it’s essential for this plan to be flexible and the team nimble to manage inevitable adjustments. Regularly tracking transition benchmarks and maintaining annual fundraising goals will help identify areas that require additional support or change.

Open and transparent communication is vital during a leadership transition in higher education. An outgoing leader should be engaged regularly for transition planning insights,  to document institutional knowledge, and to keep the team informed.

3. Consider the Message

How will the community react to the news of this transition? How can the team convey stability and a bright future with authenticity? If a leader is well-regarded in the community, a transition can honor an outgoing leader, motivating prospects to consider making a gift to recognize this legacy. Conversely, a new leader can offer a fresh perspective and an opportunity to connect with new donors under a recharged strategy and message. When crafting your message, it will be important to leverage other institutional leaders and those closest to your organization (for example, board members, trustees, and other main insiders). 

A transition like this inevitably becomes an engagement touchpoint with your donors. Ask yourself, “How can we seize this opportunity to convey urgency and momentum for our institution’s needs?”

4. Engage Constituents in a Tiered Fashion

It can seem overwhelming to consider all the layers of communication needed when planning a leadership transition in higher education. A phased approach to communication can make this more manageable. Setting communication tiers determines the who, what, when, and how of donor-personalized communication. It is important to consider who from your donor base, versus a member of the advancement team, should hear directly from leadership before a public announcement. When considering communications with board members and trustees, you can engage them as recipients of crucial communication and partners in strategy, messaging, and even as communicators.

Personalized outreach will show key constituents that they are necessary to your institution’s community and that you value their partnerships and insights during this critical transition. These touchpoints present an opportunity for cultivation and stewardship and act as a starting point in transitioning critical relationships to the advancement team. When personalized outreach is not possible, the team should consider what broader methods or channels are possible ahead of a formal announcement and press release.

During a transition, many engagement opportunities will emerge. Town halls, search committees, and task forces can intentionally involve a diverse group of individuals in the process. As a fundraising leader, you can ensure that this group represents your institution’s many facets, aligns with your goals for donor development, and fosters inclusivity and diversity in your engagement efforts.

5. Involve the Outgoing Leader

The departing leader likely has a significant legacy and a deep connection to the institution. Exploring opportunities to foster a lasting impact through their continued engagement is paramount. One avenue to consider is inviting them to make a legacy gift to honor their contributions to the institution’s advancement. Additionally, exploring ways this leader can remain formally engaged is essential, such as through mentorship or consultancy for the new president. Long-term possibilities could include offering a structured emeritus position, involving them in the Board, or seeking regular support as an advocate in fundraising and at events. Former leaders are pivotal in shaping an institution’s legacy and can be vital champions for a cause.

6. Support the Incoming Leader

It is crucial to provide support and resources to the incoming leader while staying flexible and giving space for the inevitable unpredictability of transition. The team should prepare comprehensive onboarding materials, consider internal introductions to the advancement team, and provide ample opportunities for listening and learning. Encouraging a collaborative and inclusive environment will help the incoming leader build rapport quickly and model successful change management during a period of uncertainty for staff.

Leadership transition in higher education poses significant fundraising challenges. However, these challenges can be transformed through precise planning and proactive measures into opportunities for revitalized momentum and meaningful donor engagement.

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