Sunday, April 18, 2010

Evaluating A Development Operation

Let’s pretend we’re development detectives. Our job is to audit and assess the development operation at Theoretical University. We arrive on campus and begin conducting a series of interviews with academic, administrative and advancement leaders. A divide soon emerges. The president believes the development operation isn’t capitalizing on the institution’s potential while the folks in development claim to be working night and day and doing as well as can be expected under the circumstances.

Where do we go next? Do we:

Start amassing and crunching internal data on various aspects of development performance so we can see if the staff is being properly measured, motivated and evaluated?

Collect external data from Theoretical U’s peer group, asking each to submit performance data by category (major gifts, special gifts, annual giving, planned giving, etc.) or by donor group (alumni, parents, corporations, foundations, friends, etc.) or by performance criteria (how many prospect in each development officer’s portfolio, how many required prospect calls, how many solicitations, dollar goals, etc.) or by return-on-investment criteria (how much is spent on development vs. how much is raised by it) so we can see how Theoretical U compares to “best practice”?

Conduct market research, if it does not exist, to determine how Theoretical U is viewed by current and prospective donors?

The last choice is the right answer. We conduct market research. Why? Well, what’s more predictive of fund raising potential than the relationship between Theoretical U and its current and prospective supporters? If there is not a widespread affinity with, an affection for, or an understanding of Theoretical U’s vision, mission, and goals, the raising of funds will prove quite difficult and expensive.

What’s the point of comparing the fund raising tactics of Theoretical U to those of its peers if it isn’t well connected to its key constituents? If I invited a hundred family members and friends to a party and five came, would I create a peer group of party hosts of a similar age, height and weight to see how many invitations they sent, how far in advance, using which key words and for a party on which day? Or would I check in with my family and friends to see if I had gone too long without communicating, or grown distant, or said something unfortunate, or failed to listen?

So, the market research we conduct for Theoretical U is a way of checking in with family and friends. It will help reveal why its fund raising is falling short of expectations or if those expectations are unrealistic. If the results show residual affection for the place and a broad understanding of its goals, we need to take a closer look at development operations. If there is residual affection but the goals are not understood, we need to question the efficacy of institutional communications. If there are no goals or they are neither well-developed or well-articulated, we need to counsel the president. If there is a lack or significant loss of affection for the institution, we need to counsel the president and the board that something dramatic needs to be done, that the institution needs to engage in a deep self-study, and announce that is has listened to its key constituents, searched its soul, internalized its shortcomings, and set itself on a path of radical reform.

But make no mistake about it, what the philanthropic market most wants to know is “what’s the president’s vision” and “what is the school trying to achieve?” Those are the questions that greet most development officers when they pay their calls on prospects, particularly on first visits. Without a compelling response, the second visit is harder to get, no matter how capable the development officer. Yet, according to a recent proprietary poll, a preponderance of advancement leaders, when asked how their academic leaders could be more helpful to them, said, “formulate or better articulate a vision.”

A lack of vision, or a poorly articulated or weakly documented one, therefore, constitutes a great strategic weakness in and of itself. But a president’s inability or unwillingness to project a vision may also mask a reluctance to restructure or make other difficult decisions. In some cases, administrations may have insufficient revenue to cover existing commitments but instead of righting the budget they task the development operation with making up the difference. Rather than acknowledge the inherent weakness of this case, they demand greater performance from their fund raisers. But, the harder a vision-challenged institution drives its development staff to ask more prospects for more money without a compelling case, the more disenchanted or alienated its prospects become. This eventually leads to the loss of development staff, particularly high achievers, in a field where turnover is already too high. Their replacements will tend to be weaker because the most talented fund raisers will find better opportunities. Key constituents will become increasingly dismayed by the turnover and less likely to engage with less impressive staff. And the gulf between institutional expectation and staff performance will continue to widen.

Successful fund raising institutions, on the other hand, display a higher rate of cohesion between the president and the advancement operation and greater sense of shared enterprise among other academic and administrative leaders. With more of their senior officers in the market interacting with donors and prospects, these institutions are better able to pick up on, and respond to, questions about vision and direction. When many senior leaders and faculty work actively to listen and establish greater mutuality with their key constituents, the development staff is more apt to be seen as empowered liaisons and relationship brokers, which enhances their effectiveness and improves their retention.

I am not saying that some fund raisers don’t need prodding. Those who make endless excuses for not engaging prospects are probably in the wrong field. Others may be capable but in need of more structure and discipline. But, when fund raising is faltering for ill-defined reasons, it is illogical to conclude that the entire problem resides with the entire advancement operation. In every operation there is the classic bell curve distribution of human talent, with a relative small number of extraordinary achievers on one end, the great middle composed of “willing workers” who require the right measure of love and discipline, and a small number of low achievers on the other end that need to be told to measure up or leave. But, if the whole operation is under-achieving, it can only be attributable to a deeper flaw in the system or culture.

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