Monday, December 5, 2011

A One-Question Advancement Assessment

Could you accurately assess the health of advancement culture and predict the probability of its success if you had never stepped foot in the organization before and could ask only one question of one person? I think so.

The one person I would ask is the president or CEO and one question would be, “What does it take for an advancement operation to reach and sustain peak performance? “ If the CEO described the keys to success largely in terms of short-term, aggressive fundraising conducted almost entirely or exclusively by the development staff, I would know the organization was well under potential. In addition, I could predict that operation had, or was about to, experience a loss of productivity and a high rate of staff turnover.

The red flags in that CEOs answer include making “advancement” synonymous with “fundraising,” divorcing him/herself from the keys to success, and the failure to relate the activity to a collective drive toward specific institutional goals. Moreover, that CEOs answer does not address the building of a long-term funding pipeline much less the community of understanding that feeds it. This CEO seems to think aggressive fundraising is self-sustaining; it is not.

The CEOs depiction is utterly predictive of present and future advancement functioning because operations shape their strategies and tactics to comport with CEO expectations. CEO expectations over time become cultural assumptions. The longer the CEO serves, the more rigid those assumptions become. If the assumptions are reductive or self-limiting, advancement will be relegated to the role of a hand-off function. In this scenario, the attitude from the top is expressed, in so many words, as, “It’s your job ask for the money. Don’t bother me with that vision and mission silliness. And don’t expect us to support aspects of your operation that aren’t about asking for money or directly facilitative of it. “ In higher education, the relative prevalence of this attitude has contributed to an 18-year decline in alumni participation which, in turn, has left many institutions with shallow prospects pools and diminished chances of securing the support they desire.

When ask-obsessed advancement operations begin to falter, the culture concludes quite falsely, “We must not be asking enough!” They then require their advancement staff to conform to more rigorous asking metrics, which turns off donors, leads to gift-accounting mischief and the loss of conscientious staff. There is little one can do to turnaround this kind of situation, short of getting a new CEO who is resilient and patient enough to nudge the culture in a different direction.

If, on the other hand, a CEO with a more expansive, long-term view of advancement creates a clear sense of mission, and fosters a collective sense of commitment to it, much is possible. In this scenario, CEOs lead by example, making sure they do not ask of others what they are not willing to do themselves. Even if there is a lack of tactical or technical mastery, these operations can perform at a high levels because they draw and retain talented professionals who can speak with natural conviction about the organization they represent. That rubs off on donors. And, problems within those organizations can be readily fixed because the search for, and implementation of lasting, long-term solutions is not constrained by self-limiting assumptions. Further, these operations are often highly innovative because the CEO is open to broad ways of thinking.

In human psychology, this phenomenon is called self-fulfilling prophecy. We achieve what we think we can. We go only as far as our assumptions will allow us. The fewer the assumptions and the more we believe in larger possibilities, the more we achieve.

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