"Institutional advancement" is the euphemism for the collected professions of fundraisers, communicators, and alumni specialists in education. In 2011, an interesting discussion with my colleague Philip Lehman led us to wonder: could there be such a thing as "advancement theory"?
If it could exist, how might we characterize it for others to build on?
Complexity and Unifying Theories
In her book Complexity: A Guided Tour, Melanie Mitchell explores whether her own field, called "complexity science," might benefit from synthesizing its varied threads. Complexity theory has its roots in chaos theory, theoretical physics, and abstract math. So...not much connection to alumni relations or fundraising. However, her exploration of complexity's framework made me ponder a systematic look into advancement.
Mitchell asks, is it worth seeking "general principles or a 'unified theory' covering all complex systems?" I wonder, are there structured ideas within advancement rigorous enough to be considered "theories"? If so, should we gather, evaluate, and organize those ideas in relation to each other?
[What is the "stuff" of advancement? What are its building blocks?]
Mitchell points out that some sciences are almost ready for unification, others are not. Physics for example is "conceptually way ahead." It is 2,000 years old, and has identified the two kinds of "stuff" that things are made of (energy and matter). Physics has related energy and matter to each other (E=mc2), and has unified three of the supposed four forces of nature. Complexity, on the other hand, hasn't identified anything in its realm comparable to forces or "stuff."
There are steps to evolving a theory and using it. First you have to articulate the theories, and account for their conceptual building blocks. Then you can establish the likely relationships among these building blocks, so the model describes the way the discipline behaves in the real world. Then and only then can you start to unify related theories into an overarching description of an entire branch of knowledge (or practice).
Advancement: Hardly Scientific
What is the "stuff" of advancement – its building blocks? The practice of fundraising, communications, and alumni relations? We need specific, detailed descriptions of what our work includes.
A first step would be to articulate common advancement principles that apply to all institutions. Further description of these principles would then follow, with practitioners trading, and improving on generalizations that grow from specific instances that represent the underlying principles.
This is how highly structured fields prune and shape their theoretical foundations. Can advancement do this? Should we bother? Or is advancement too unstructured, too diverse, and too unscientific to be crafted into a conceptual framework that would be of any use?
JT Forbes at Indiana University and other members of the Council of Alumni Association Executives have drafted some definitions and descriptions that get alumni relations started in this direction.
I've written more about that here:
Leave a comment – complex, chaotic, unstructured, or otherwise.
Photograph of a complex structure in Singapore by Andy Shaindlin.