Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Depth of Impact

There is no shortage of hard-working professionals in the field of advancement. They hold themselves to high standards and seek to do more each year with same, or even fewer resources. Those are very laudable traits but increasing the volume of activity does not always achieve a greater depth of impact.

To make my point let’s look at events, which, for many advancement operations, consume the largest portion of staff hours expended each year and the largest chunk of the operating budget. That means events, if improperly conceived and executed, could be the single greatest drain on our human and financial resources and the largest barrier to greater productivity. To ensure that is not the case, I recommend the following steps:

Zero-base your calendar. Over the summer, or whenever you can find the time, look at your entire calendar of events. If you are like most institutions you will find they have accreted over time with little strategic rhyme or reason and are being perpetuated in the name of tradition or through insidious, unchallenged inertia. To determine which events should be discontinued, ask if they deliver a message to an important constituency, or deepen their understanding of your institution, or move them to a more specific commitment to it. For instance, you may have a number of fun events, such as alumni evenings at a professional athletic events that are generally well-attended but don’t really deliver, deepen or move anything or anyone. That is often borne out when you look at the volunteer or giving record of those who have attended those events over the past few years. On the other hand, your scholarship dinner may not have been as well-attended but, when you check the records, has proven to deepen the connections and commitments of those in regular attendance. It’s not how many attend it what they do afterward.

Storyboard your events. It’s a technique used in filmmaking where by the creators sketch out each scene and lay them side by side to ensure that one flows to the next and that each advances the plot. What’s the plot of your year-long calendar of events? What institutional story do they tell? Who do they engage? Does each event advance the plot, deepened the story line, and move the audience from engagement to engrossment to whole-hearted captivation? Does your institution have a dramatic story to tell and is each event move the audience through that story, chapter by chapter?

Personalize your events. Do you use one invitation for everyone or do you segment the intended audience by affinities so that you can invite each group in such a way to make each feel as if there is a special reason for being there? For instance, if you want to make a reunion more successful, you could invite couples who met and, perhaps, married on campus to come back for a marriage vow renewal service. Or generations of the same choral group back for sing-along or performance. Or intergeneration intramurals (the Boomers vs. the Gen-Xers). Or former members of the student newspaper to engage in a discussion about the state of journalism in the virtual world. You get my point. The more targeted the invitation, the more each invitee feels a reason for, a tug to, come back and the higher your attendance will be. In the case of smaller events, like a salon event for 20 VIPs to preview of a new initiative, call or visit each person beforehand to help them understand the relevance of the event of the importance of their being there. Show them how the event will not be same without them. A week in advance, call and ask if they would share some ice-breaker information – their favorite quote, their proudest accomplishment, what gives them the greatest hope and the greatest pause. This will remind them of the event and show that there is an interest in them as individuals. Share the icebreaker information with your senior officers so they can use them as conversation starters as they circulate among guests.

Deepen every event by employing the power of ritual. Have an official welcoming ritual for an alumni reunion – ask them to gather outside the front gates to campus at an appointed hour and ceremonially reopen them with the alma mater playing. Have the president there to welcome them as they come through. Then take them to first event and have them walk through a receiving line of the long-serving faculty. In these subtle but thoughtful ways you can show them the importance you place on their presence. Ritual has a powerful effect in underscoring the importance of an activity and making the participants feel valued.

It’s not about doing more; it’s about having a greater impact with what you do. It doesn’t have to take more time or money; in fact it could even take less.

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