Sage Advice From a Seasoned Communicator
Integrity and character come first — plain and simple.
That’s the bottom line shared by my friend Marc Whitt, a higher education advancement communications veteran, in his new book, “PR Lessons Learned Along the Way.”
“If, in our work, people can’t trust who we are and what we claim to be, then we lose the ballgame,” Marc told me.
Thus, began our conversation about advancement and his book.
Our integrity and character are the DNA of who we are Marc shared. It takes years to build a solid reputation but just moments to lose it, so it’s crucial we remember that whether we are on the clock or off, we represent our institutions.
One of the biggest challenges in fundraising is to get fundraising professionals out from behind the desk. It can be the same for public relations.
“It’s not a desk relationship; it’s public relations,” Marc said, citing the importance of meeting with media professionals, community leaders and people at your institution who can be sources for stories, connections and other information.
Marc pointed to the importance of tenure in the advancement sector. Thirty years ago, when he got his start, professionals were expected to work their way up.
“Now it seems like you start out high and you do a sidestep… there is no stair-stepping,” he said. “Regardless of what area in advancement you are in, it takes time for people to know and trust you.”
“There is a lot of merit to trying to have a good healthy tenure,” he said.
A proper understanding of the relationship between communications and fundraising is also important. They go hand in hand, Marc shared, but communications leaders too often are trained in the transactional and have neither experience nor understanding of fundraising relationship-building.
Marc told me about an early mentor, his first boss.
“He wisely told me it was very important to understand the basics of fundraising,” he said. “The philanthropy side is a significant area that PR people need to have a good understanding of. We need to do a better job of bringing our communications and development officers together.”
Marc believes that advancement professionals need to embrace social media as an important relationship-building resource.
“When social media started making its foray into our work and the public, you heard it described much more in terms of social networking,” he said. “I’ve noticed that over the last two to three years, you don’t hear as much about social networking as you do about social media.
“True social media is an incredible tool,” he said. “It can aid in so many ways in relationship-building.”
Marc believes that too many people get caught up in seeing the number of followers they have go up, acting more like “people catchers” than “people engagers.” Used correctly — to engage rather than to simply gather — social media can be one of the most important resources in a fundraisers toolkit when it comes to engagement and relationship-building.
Marc also has some basic advice for advancement professionals looking to grow in their effectiveness, their relationships and their careers: Be a sponge.
“Rather than coming in and being quick to come up with the plans, they need to take time to be able to observe the institution,” he said. “They need to reach out and sit down with people who have invested their careers there — listen and learn about the hits and misses.”
“It’s a PR position,” he said. “You need to sit down with donors. And if you’re in a fundraising capacity, you need to sit down with community leadership, media and others — just to get a good feel.”
Regular readers of Bedrocks & Beacons know I’m suspicious of professionals selling their wisdom — whether it be via a monthly subscription, webinar, consulting or a book — when their bio is light on in-the-trenches experience.
Marc is front and center with his 30 years of successful experience in higher education plus extensive involvement with the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.
He’s what my father would have called “the real deal.”
“PR Lessons Learned Along the Way” is ranked by BookAuthority as the No. 1 Best New PR Book to Read in 2020, one of the Best 100 PR Books of All Time (No. 12) and one of the Best 6 PR Books for Beginners (No. 2). It’s targeted to higher education and nonprofit public relations professionals, but it’s a must-read for anyone in advancement work and in a nonprofit leadership role.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.