Change Versus Stability: 10 Steps to Consider

By Bill Crouch and Mike Carter

Development professionals are often confronted with a series of questions when evaluating fund raising strategies.

“Do we keep just doing what we have been doing, since it has generated some success?” 

 “Do we need to change or add new techniques and activities to our calendar?”

“Have we become too single-focused or redundant?”

“Are we keeping-up with needs and demands of the institution or has fundraising stagnated?”

“Bottom line:  Do we have an office weighted toward maintainers or visionaries?”

Often an easy answer to these questions is “we are doing ok and don’t need to make changes for change sake.”   “Yes, we are doing alright.”  “Maybe we could do better but given all the constraints we are doing about as well as possible.”

 When we hear questions and responses such as these, we are reminded of the major point in Jim Collins (2001) classic management book, Good to Great.   His treatise is that the greatest enemy of being great is the complacent satisfaction with being good!

These questions are very real and while they can be voiced in a variety of ways, they represent the recognition of an underlying question that should be in the minds of the leadership.  “Can we do better?” This question abounds from trustees to staff to donors. When it is voiced, often the “circular question and response pattern” begins to surface and force more honest and proactive answers to the above questions.

In many ways these questions addressing how effective or ineffective a given office or staff can be addressed through strategic planning and assessment strategies.   We encourage every development staff to lead the entire office through strategic planning and rigorous assessment bi-annually or more often if giving is lagging.

We know how it feels to be caught by the desire to be safe by relying on past success versus attempting new strategies.  We know that certain “stumbling blocks” can arise as you debate future directions for the staff and office.

We suggest the following steps be considered if you are trying to decide on whether to play it safe with past strategies and/or be creative by implementing new approaches. While we know that every step might not apply to all development offices, these steps can help to keep a staff from missing a vital part of successful fundraising.

1. Institution Mission

Make sure everyone “really” understands the mission of the institution. We are amazed at how many employees don’t really know or fully understand what the institution is trying to accomplish. While this sounds rather elementary, testing your staff for mission awareness just may enlighten more than you realize.

2. Assess Strategic Plans

Assess institutional strategic plans over and against your office plans…do they align with one another, or do some gaps appear. Checking to make sure that coherent planning is in place can avoid some future embarrassment. It can also help to mobilize everyone in the same direction.

3. Share your Plans

Meet and share your plans with key institutional leaders, let them have input, and allow them to become stakeholders in your quest to raise money and increase institutional resources. A rule of thumb is that it is better to involve more than less, because everyone is connected to various circles of influence. You want your efforts to be known by people who can make a difference.

4. Identify Action Steps

Identify action steps and assign responsibility for each step to staff. Accountability is key to action plans becoming effective results. Having a frequently assessed accountability plan in place can save time and raise more money from various fronts.

5. Assess techniques

Assess what techniques for donor relations have worked and which ones have not.  Don’t keep making the same series of mistakes, learn from situations that have not gone as well as one expected. Refine approaches and techniques to fit your unique situation.

6. Staff Accountability

Make sure staff are accountable through periodic assessment reports.   If someone is not accomplishing an action step, then action needs to be taken to make sure that action step can be accomplished. Remember time is money and staff will not find new resources laying under their desks. Staff must be able to connect effectively with donors whether these be corporate, foundations, or individuals.

7. Keep Donors Informed

Keep your donor base informed of recent success.  This means that staff and stakeholders alike must speak from the same narrative.  Remember, people give to success, not to failure.

8. Celebrate

Celebration of success is highly encouraged.  These occasions can create new momentum and open doors that may have been closed in the past.

9. Be Flexible

Be flexible when new opportunities and relationships present themselves. Don’t turn away a potential donor because their interest is not exactly in your strategic plan.  Also, don’t accept gifts which can have additional expense and consequences which can be troublesome and far reaching. Write your planning documents to accommodate the unforeseen opportunities that may present themselves. Take advantage of the unforeseen and use it to the institution’s advantage after a careful vetting process. Too many institutions have turned away key donors because it was not in their plan, hence decades may need to pass before hurt feelings are repaired. Most donors will understand if you have to decline a gift due to the additional expense and complications. We suggest you be flexible and vet carefully so as to bring a “win-win” situation to all concerned.

10. Say Thank You

Say “thank you” at every step of the process. Every relationship can lead to a new relationship that can bring resources to your institution.  Thank the staff, thank the stakeholders, and most certainly thank the donors in meaningful ways which allows them to know how special they are in the life of the institution.

In conclusion, we are reminded of the words of one of our mentors, Dr. E. Bruce Heilman (2008), who has been recognized as one of higher education’s for-most leaders in philanthropy. Often he would be asked, “how much time do you spend on raising money?”  He would respond, “I spend all my time raising money!”  The point Dr. Heilman was making is that with every contact a development or advancement professional has, it becomes an opportunity to secure needed resources for the institution or the cause at hand. Dr. Heilman believed in rigorous planning and assessment, but he was flexible, yet careful when unexpected opportunities presented themselves. He was always about thanking others whether they gave or not!   We have found his advice and example to serve us well as we have led multiple campaigns in our respective universities. 

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