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

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