Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Core of Advancement

I received a wonderful note last week from a reader named Tina that inspired the following:

If I were building an advancement operation from scratch, where would I start? Which positions would I hire first? It’s easy. The support staff. Here’s why.

The support staff represents the core set of skills that an operation needs to function. They constitute the talent set that amplifies and focuses the talents of everyone else in the operation. They orient, train, equip and assist the professional staff. Without them, even the most capable, highly educated or well paid workers will fall short of their potential. Without their organizational skills, advancement professionals would not be able to effectively engage, or respond quickly and accurately to questions, concerns and requests from their most important external constituents.

Indeed support staff constiute the first line of constituent relations. They are the first voice a constituent hears when calling in. They are the last set of eyes to review important, sensitive documents before they a presented to external VIPs. They attend to supporters’ sensitivities like making sure name tags are spelled correctly so feelings won’t be hurt or egos bruised. They keep a keen and caring eye on event details to ensure they are executed with style and grace.

When I reflect on my own career, I realize how many of the successes attributed to me were made possible or facilitated by my assistants. I remember Claire coming into my office asking gently, “Are you sure you want to say this?” while pointing out more than one error in a document I had reviewed over and over, and thought flawless. And then there was Terry who was so diligent and conscientious in preparing budgets and reports, and making sure I didn’t run afoul of university procedures. And Marie who could charm the angriest of callers and turn them into pussycats by the time she transferred them to me. And Pat who could juggle, sort, retain and retrieve enormous amounts of information, always putting the necessary facts and figures at my finger tips the instant I needed them. And Jan who never had a bad mood much less a bad day, and put every office visitor at ease, and made my visually mundane presentations sparkle and shine. And Sonya, who made my travel so effortless and comfortable, allowing me to grab an itinerary on the run with the comfort of knowing that everything would be there -- the tickets, the research reports, the schedules, the arrangments, and when I got there, to find she had found a nice place for me to stay or eat welll within our budget. And then Marie again who could get me an appointment with the busiest prospects or toughest customers by establishing a wonderful rapport with their assistants.

And, yet, that wasn’t even the beginning of what they did for me. They supported me in many ways that went well, well beyond their job descriptions, well beyond anything I had a right to expect. They complimented and supported my strengths and compensated for my shortcomings and weaknesses. They remained loyal even in rocky times, deflecting the mean-spiritedness of others with a smile, knowing when to react firmly and when to chalk up a harsh word to the fact that a good person was having a bad day.

Which brings me to my last point; good support staff do more than create an organizational framework or provide a set of services that boost productivity and bring out the best in others. Often, they are most responsible for creating and maintaining something that is of vast importance that we give far too little thought to -- keeping an operation on an even emotional keel. They are the nurturers of young talent, the salvers of senstitive egos, the harmonizers and the peacekeepers. Because they win the confidence of their bosses and conduct themselves with professional constraint in difficult situations, they have the credibility to tell their supervisors when they might have been too harsh, overlooked an important contribution, or failed to have communicated a critical point. They ensure that the boss hears the truth and doesn’t become isolated in his own reality. They are often the most centered, grounded and common sensical people in the operation. They are, in many ways, the heart and soul of an operation.

If we had indeed to start an advancement operation from scratch, their essentiality would be far more evident. But because we inherit them when we move into an operation, because they make so much possible and support us in selfless ways, we tend to take them for granted. Because we learn so much from them, we sometimes fail to make sure that they have opportunities to learn and grow. Because they seem to know where everything is, we sometimes fail to keep them informed about where the operaton is going.

Tina, a support staffer, said it would be wonderful if there was professional training for advancement support staff. I can think of nothing more valuable to building and sustaining a model advancement office. I would be happy to work with support staff and senior advancement officers to develop modules and see if I can find a provider if you will let me know if this is of interest and value to you. Share this with kindred spirits and see if we can generate some viral marketing around this topic. You can leave a confidential comment on this blog or write me privately at

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

New Capabilities

A few blog posts ago, I opined that the most important technologies in advancement would be those that allow institutions to better listen and respond to their constituents. I saw demonstration of such a technology earlier this week. Here’s how it works.

Let’s say you’re in the planning stages of a campaign and your trying to determine how internal aspirations map against external interests so you can set realistic, attainable fund raising goals. You get a bunch of people in a virtual room -- 100 faculty, 100 alumni from different generations, 100 major donors or whatever configuration works best for you -- all looking at the same decision-mapping information on their computer screens. The moderator proposes an agenda and invites reaction to it. You can allow the various groups to view the reactions of others, making it possible, for instance, for the alumni to see the reactions of their fellow alumni and of the faculty and donors, or you can arrange it so they can only see the reaction of their peers, while only you compare and contrast the reactions of the various groups, noting the most significant gaps and the greatest commonalities.

Once the agenda is formed, options can be teed up for discussion, including fund-raising emphases, communication strategies or organizational challenges. Participants are invited to make suggestions in each area, see all the suggestions made, then vote on the subset they find most attractive, then vote on the priority order of those options. Within a matter of seconds, the tallies -- presented literally, in graph or table form -- can be seen. In a ninety-minute session, hundreds of participants can weigh in on matters of import, watch how their opinions stack up against others, and how the general “will of the community” emerges, option by option, topic by topic.

Participants will be complimented to be involved in a substantive, consequential discussion, and better informed and wiser for having been exposed to views of other constituents. You will receive large amounts of invaluable information immediately and very insightful analyses of the voting patterns, and what they say about each constituent group’s proclivities, within a matter of days. The data, when interpreted though the lens of experience and intuition, can produce breakthroughs into new levels of understanding, both between institutional leaders their constituents, and between various constituent groups. Conducting a series of these 90 minute sessions over several months would involve and therefore cultivate larger numbers, and yield more current, valuable information for a fraction of the costs of traditional feasibility studies. Conducting these sessions once or twice a year would allow to monitor progress against the first discussion and to keep many more stakeholders on board.

This same technology can be used to weigh the depth and impact of a campus controversy, to see if it is reaching crisis proportions, how it is being interpreted by internal and external constituencies, where communication is breaking down and which messages are having the greatest resonance with which stakeholders. This “real time” decision-making tool can help administrators respond according the depth of feeling experienced in different ways by different constituents, and thereby avoid under or over-reaction.

This tool is no substitute for face-to-face interaction but a cost-effective way to augment and amplify finite human and financial resources. In these times, when our resources and those of our constituents are so constrained, threatening to erode our ability to communicate and build a stronger sense of community, these are indeed welcome innovations.

P.S. Here are my thoughts on engaging the Board in your campaign:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Generating New Donors

There are essentially three ways of generating new donors:

  1. To nurture them from within through significant and sustained interaction with your institution. The student-to-alumni experience would be a classic example of this approach. This is the best way to build a solid, sustained base of support but it requires time and care. The largest gifts to higher learning generally come from long-term loyal donors or quintessential insiders such as long-serving board members. Many institutions fail to pay adequate attention to the long-term, loyal donors who give modest amounts annually. Yet these are the donors most likely to leave the largest estate gifts with the fewest restrictions. Parents and grateful patients are other examples of donors who are nurtured from within
  2. To draw them to your organization through the strength of your ideas or unique capabilities. In the “Imagine What’s Next” campaign I ran at UCSD, 98 percent of the support came from non-alumni and 91 percent came from .8 percent of the donor base. The ability of the faculty to generate cutting edge knowledge that was relevant to a burgeoning high tech economy made it possible to attract very significant gifts from foresightful philanthropists. They had no nostalgic or emotional connection to the institution but a great respect for its scientific and technological achievements and its still greater potential. Large gifts were given to realize emerging capabilities in engineering, oncology, pharmaceutical sciences, neuroscience, oceanography and business. Independent philanthropists, entrepreneurs and companies often give on the strength of an idea or unique capability.
  3. To convince them that your institution is a cost-efficient delivery system for their ideas, values or animating passions. Whether it is a determination to abate disease, alleviate suffering, expand opportunity, open scientific or technological frontiers, or overcome economic disparities, there are many philanthropists who have already decided where they intend to make a difference. There’s no point in putting other philanthropic concepts or proposals in front of them. There are not interested in what they can do for your institution but what your institution can do for them. And, yet, if your institution shares the same passion, a powerful philanthropic partnership can be formed. Independent philanthropists, entrepreneurs and foundations are among those who give to institutions who they believe will be the most productive purveyors of their ideas.

But here’s the larger point: without an institutional commitment to sustaining emotional connections over time, to producing bold concepts, or to collaborating with issue-driven philanthropists, fund raisers have little hope of generating legions of new donors. It’s not the presence or persistence of fund raising staff in the field alone, but the institutional commitments that they are allowed to broker. Institutions committed to all three will attract and retain the best fund raisers, and the combination of all those factors will lead to the best fund raising results. Period.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Response to a Young Professional

I received a poignant note from a young colleague who said his last few years at work have been difficult. His former boss and mentor left because of health issues and was replaced by “an inexperienced interim head.” He and his new boss, he said, “do not see eye to eye on most issues.”

“Anyway,” he wrote, “I was hoping you could do an inspirational piece for the young people out there. We could use some optimism. Can you comment on the job market out there? How can we use our knowledge of technology to help us be successful at what we do, and when is using technology appropriate or not appropriate? It seems as though everything is handled electronically these days, and I was hoping you could comment on its cancerous effect on relationships. “

I am deeply complimented, and feel most fortunate, to receive such a note. I will do my best to be helpful.

First of all, this young professional is far from alone. At my conferences I hear often about dispiriting working environments -- about bosses who do not do what they demand from others, the application of mindless performance metrics that belie a stated commitment to relationship building, high performance expectations unaccompanied by vision, direction, content and other forms of support, or the absence of priority setting so that people are always being asked to do more or please yet another claimant. At some point in our careers, most of us will encounter these kinds of conditions, if not worse.

So, what do we do? Let me share advice I received early in my career that proved invaluable. I had been complaining to a mentor about the glaring deficiencies of my boss. He listened with patience, expressed his empathy and then said, “But this situation presents you with a great opportunity, if you become what your boss is not.” In the nicest possible way, he told not just to complain but to manifest the qualities I saw lacking in my boss. In so doing, he said, I would come to be, and be seen as, a leader. It was a profound piece of advice, one that allowed me to grow and succeed. While we may never fully compensate for the weaknesses of a particularly poor boss, and may even engender the boss’ envy or ire for trying, it is nonetheless a good strategy for character and career building. You will always have the comfort of knowing you tried to contribute what was missing and many will appreciate your efforts.

In the face of frustration, we can be tempted to leave. We don’t want to labor on where our talents are wasted. Each of us has an obligation to seek the highest and best use of our abilities. But we don’t want to take a new job just to get out of the old one. Our eagerness to get out may blind us to what we’re getting into. We may move only to find ourselves in a very similar place. I have made that mistake. And we must be realistic. We’re in a stalled economy. We can’t expect to see a raft of opportunities in advancement open up any time soon, maybe for three or four years. The best strategy, then, is to develop and pursue our own growth plan.

Think of your growth plan as two-pronged. One part should focus on the development of your core skills, as if you are preparing for a greater opportunity even if that opportunity is not in immediate sight. But believe that opportunity will come if you continue to prepare. It will. Good work is never for naught. That which is undervalued in one place or time may prove of great worth at another time and place. The second part should be the pursuit of kindred spirits. If you just gripe and grouse, you will fall in with grumps and grouches. Good luck growing there. But if you share your ideas of what can, might or should be, you will find yourself increasingly in community with constructive, forward-looking souls. When I was young, I thought myself completely peculiar and kept my deepest beliefs to myself. With a little seasoning, I found the courage to give them voice and was met with enthusiastic affirmation from many who had been harboring similar feelings and thinking themselves alone. I came to realize I would never learn to truly listen, and thereby understand others, if I did not first share my soul. A leader, be it in thought or deed, must display courage to encourage others.

And, finally, I would urge young professionals to focus on content development but adjust to the ever-changing channels of communication. I have been praised for my writing and speaking skills but I’m sharing this with you on a blog, a channel of communication that did not exist when I began my career. And, my voice can be heard on webcasts, webinars and vodcasts -- all relatively new vehicles. But the reasons that others avail themselves of my words, in whatever form they take, is because of the content and delivery, not the particular technology employed.

Technology facilitates dissemination. We live in a world where the speed of dissemination outstrips our capacity for content origination and creative germination. We have ever more television channels but not much more worth seeing. We have more access to knowledge but we use technology to skip over the surface of much of it, much like the frenetic tourist who rushes from country to country to say he’s been there but gains no real insight into the people or culture along the way.

All societies throughout time place the greatest value on the rarest elements. It is no wonder, then, that in a world of mass communication and rapid dissemination, of pseudo personalization, that we now place the greatest value in having our calls answered by a real person or being thanked with a hand-written note. And, does it not stand to reason, therefore, that the most successful organizations, in good time and bad, will the those that deliver the greatest value to their clients, customers and constituents? Yes, each new wave of technology turns our heads and causes us to think that it is the answer unto itself. But the nourishing of minds and the touching of hearts will always require genuine depth of thought and feeling. The real answer to creating greater value will always arise out of authentic expression, assiduous effort, and genuine commitment to building a stronger human family.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the most successful technologies in past decade, and some of the most rapidly growing companies, have been those that allow us to better communicate on an inter-personal level, and those that make it possible for us build and sustain relationships across the globe. For institutions and the professionals responsible for the relationships with the market place, the most important emerging technologies and companies will be those that allow them to track the buying and affiliating behaviors of their customers and constituents; in short, to listen and respond. Too many institutions have lost touch; the consequent disillusionment has been noted in poll after poll. A majority of Americans have come to see the majority of institutions as bloated and moated. Crisis looms for those that fail to listen while great opportunity awaits those that do. Vehicles and channels of communication that have been used by institutions to promote their virtues, or to solicit, must be converted into systems that receive, not just transmit; to elicit the opinions and promote the well-being of those that support them.

So, to this young professional I say don’t be discouraged. Focus on delivering content to your job that arises naturally and uniquely from the content of your character. Build and guard your own brand. Be consistent and considerate. Never be complicit in anything mediocre or mean. Plan for a better day and believe it will come. It will. The course of any single career never runs smooth throughout, but who speak from and listen with their heart, who value and develop the abilities of others, who are grateful and giving, will not go unnoticed or unappreciated. They will achieve the most satisfying of successes, of spending more of their days working with good people toward good causes.