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Nearly every position description for a vice president for advancement or chief advancement officer includes some reference to building a culture of philanthropy. No equivalent exists for marketing. As a result of this void, higher education marketing matures at a slower than acceptable rate, and too few institutions can claim that marketing is truly an organizational function.

Having previously led an integrated model that included development and alumni engagement along with marketing and communications as a vice chancellor, I find it helpful to compare and contrast these functions—whether it’s the valuable constituent-centered insight they can both bring to institutional strategic planning or the organizational design lessons that marketing can take from advancement.

Let’s start with position descriptions and profiles. Here are typical examples from vice president for advancement job descriptions, straight from recent and current searches.

  • Prioritize a culture of philanthropy that pervades the institution and all of its constituencies
  • Develop a culture of philanthropy for the whole enterprise
  • Enhance and sustain a culture of philanthropy on campus, guiding students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and administrators toward meaningful and transformative philanthropic participation and partnerships
  • Advances a culture of philanthropy within the organization
  • Build the best culture of engagement and philanthropy
  • Promote an institutional culture of philanthropy

CMO and marketing VP position descriptions, in comparison, reference internal “collaboration,” “partnerships” and “relationship-building”—all important, but insufficient and toward what larger, unified purpose? These stated needs fall short of a call to build an institutional culture. But a culture of what?

A Culture of Coherence

An institutional culture of coherence exists when a college or university collectively understands and is committed to the work of aligning the three E’s: experience, expression and expectation (brand). In other words, what is true about your institution through the experiences of students, what you say is true about your institution across your various communications and what others—the various constituencies who make up your external audiences—say and believe to be true about your institution are coherent. (For a deep dive into coherence in the context of higher education, I encourage you to read Coherence: How Telling the Truth Will Advance Your Cause [and Save the World] by Rick Bailey.)

A culture of coherence shares some essential characteristics with a culture of philanthropy because both reflect organizational culture and your institution’s attitude toward the respective functions of marketing and advancement. When advancement is not an organizational function, campus colleagues see this work only through the lens of solicitation (asking people for money). Similarly, when marketing is not an organizational function, colleagues view it only through the lens of promotion (getting the word out).

The ways campus colleagues perceive and describe your institution’s brand strategy often reveal whether a culture of coherence exists. When this culture is lacking, internal stakeholders will attach a marketing label, referring to the brand strategy as the “marketing campaign” or “marketing slogan.” They’re implying a promotional endeavor with sole responsibility residing in the marketing office, rather than an institutional ethos or spirit that is baked into everything an institution does and says.

When an institution has a culture of coherence, the work of aligning experience, expression and expectation is a shared responsibility. Faculty, staff and administrators understand why being coherent matters and how it builds trust with the audiences you wish to reach, influence and move to action. They know that coherent institutions attract students, talent and resources. And they recognize their own integral role as creators of the experience and carriers of the institution’s story. Furthermore, they value marketing as mission-aligned work that plays a leadership role across the three E’s.

Let’s be more explicit about the need to build an institutional culture of coherence, a greater purpose enabled by a more holistic understanding of marketing and enabled when campus colleagues feel vested in marketing. Building a culture of coherence will take time, but you must begin. If your institution will be searching for a CMO, the position description is a perfect starting point to put a stake in the ground and state these intentions.

Rob Zinkan is vice president for marketing leadership at RHB, a higher education consultancy founded in 1991. He joined RHB in 2019 after more than 20 years in higher education administration with senior positions in marketing and advancement. He also teaches graduate courses as an adjunct in strategic communications and higher education leadership.

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