Measuring engagement can answer crucial questions, with a little more work

Measuring alumni and constituent engagement is no longer a new thing. Many Advancement shops do it. Not all of them have settled on a solid key performance indicator, or set of KPIs.

We are still evolving on this front. After measuring consistently for five or six years, now it’s time to consolidate what we’ve learned and align the tool with a new operating model for engagement.

A lot of work got us this far. We laboured over the specific components of engagement (giving, event attendance, volunteering, accepting visits, and other things) and how to weight them. We created a score for each individual, and developed some aggregate reporting.

The work was good, but now we need to understand the significance of our metrics and how they can spur action. More work lies ahead.

What questions to ask of our metrics? A few thoughts:

How deep? How successful are we from year to year in engaging the maximum number of people who were available to be engaged? What is the ratio of engaged to engageable? By engageable I mean all constituents who are contactable and genuinely available to us this year. The exact definition is arbitrary. If a person who graduated 15 years ago has never had any meaningful interaction with us, they are probably not “available”. Including them will dilute the KPI with people beyond the reach of our communication and programs. I suggest a ratio rather than a percentage of engageable; if someone not considered engageable does come to us, we can count them on the left side of the ratio without needing to add them to the right side as well.

How good? How successful are we in engaging who we want to engage? To what extent did we involve loyal donors, engaged alumni, major gift prospects, people with bequest intentions, influential community members, and other preferred, high-value constituencies? This measure of quality can be used to evaluate events, especially when eschewing large social shindigs in favour of smaller, higher-octane gatherings. Quality, not quantity – even in the all-digital era.

How effective? How successful are we in moving people in numbers from one stage of engagement to the next? We need to know what engagement looks like at each stage in order to properly locate individuals.

Getting to these answers requires us to move on from “what’s in and what’s out.” We need to define “engageable,” decide who’s in our favoured constituency, and figure out how to quantify our engagement pipeline goals.

Beware this work-from-home truism that isn’t true

You may have heard this one. “Working from home is bad for extroverts, great for introverts.” This was never true, and as time goes on its untruth becomes ever clearer.

All people need and desire connection with others, including introverts. All people need quiet time to process their encounters, including extroverts (although they might not enjoy it as much).

When the workforce emerges from this pandemic, organizations will face a new expectation that work arrangements be flexible. Whatever the pros and cons, we should not fear that our teams will split into in-office extroverts and stay-at-home introverts. That’s not how it works.

Different people at different times manage their energy differently. That’s all. It has little to do with desiring either stimulation or isolation as a default mode. Beyond figuring out how to work well together, the introvert-extrovert scale is a red herring that doesn’t have much bearing on anything essential.

For my early morning walk before work, I often choose the same wooded path. I sometimes meet a man and his dog who share my routine. The man is middle-aged and bald, and his dog is a poodle, I think, with fur of light maple. The dog’s name is Sadie. I know this only because this morning she chose to hate me, and the man had to restrain her on a short leash. We exchanged curt greetings and moved on.

None of us were pleased to meet on the path. That’s fine. There are plenty of other paths in the neighbourhood. We can each choose a way that suits our mood.

Employee engagement across all sectors is low, we’re told. What would be the result if we gave everyone the freedom to choose?

Finding meaning and purpose in the all-team Ops meeting

Meetings. Nothing revolutionary or innovative there! Yet, our shop has little or no history of gathering as a whole team. Maybe it’s because such meetings are expensive. Everyone leaves their station and work grinds to a halt. Bodies fill the boardroom and the round of “updates” begins. Not everything shared is of interest, and no decisions are made. Conscientious staff members may find this stressful.

We’re all familiar with the regular meeting that happens for its own sake. And yet: Not meeting has always felt like a lack. The regular meeting of any team should reinforce a sense of the team’s cohesion and unity of purpose. This is especially true of Operations, which risks being perceived (within and without) as a miscellany of services and functions.

When virtual work introduced a new convenience to the large-team meeting, the time seemed right to make a start. We’ve been moved to figure out what we want out of it.

Our team’s unified purpose is to facilitate opportunities for people to meaningfully engage with the institution’s teaching, research, and community mission. The front line builds and advances relationships – our team provides the tools to allow them to do that. That could be data, could be a CRM, a report, or a mobile phone. No matter one’s role, the work in some way enables or facilitates carrying out the Advancement mission.

Each team member knows what enabling and facilitating looks like from their own perspective. They may be less aware of how others enable and facilitate. That’s my goal for these meetings: To help everyone get a sense of the range of ways Operations drives the mission.

First, each team manager speaks very briefly about a few current highlights. Not the full range of what everyone’s working on. Just what’s looming large now, with an emphasis on work that directly supports front-line success.

Second, one team member gives a short presentation on any aspect of their work, ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. The topic can be anything. It doesn’t have to relate to everyone (or anyone) else’s work. Given the diversity of the team this isn’t possible anyway. The only requirement is that it provides a concrete example of how Operations supports fundraising, alumni and constituent engagement, marketing, donor relations, or communications.

The aim is not cross-pollination or collaboration, which already happens. Rather, I hope it provides a little inspiration.

If your team meets for the sake of meeting, if you’re stuck in the rut of “that’s what we’ve always done,” then consider going on hiatus for July and August, reformulate your purpose for meeting, and reconvene fresh in the fall.

Adapting the Bullet Journal, for managers and leaders

Information, ideas, and tasks fly at us continuously. They flow out of meetings and out of our own heads. Capturing the flow with the help of paper-based or electronic tools helps us externalize information, which unburdens the memory of clutter and frees the mind for focused thinking.

Notebooks, paper files, electronic files, email – I’ve used them all, and they all share the same drawback: Retrieval. Record as much as you like, the exercise is pointless if you can’t put your hands on information when you need it.

Since last year I’ve been using the Bullet Journal method. I had been aware of bullet journaling for years, but it always seemed faddish, too fussy, too neat-freaky. A colleague’s example convinced me to read a book about it and adopt it wholesale; now I find it a natural extension of the notetaking methods I’ve always used, and a mindful way to manage the flow.

The essentials of the method can be described in ten minutes. I won’t go into them here; there are plenty of videos, a website, and the book. (1) I only want to talk about the power of easy retrieval. I have improvised on the basic idea to suit the reality of a manager or leader facing a different conversation, a different issue, every few minutes.

A bullet journal requires an index and page numbers. The index is no more than a list of topics and the page numbers you’ll find them on, but it’s the key to retrieval. The topics are the tasks, ideas, and other notes recorded in bullet form – an accumulation of the flow that washes over us every day.

The original bullet journal method relies heavily on the idea of Collections. A Collection is a page, or a pair of facing pages, dedicated to a single topic – think of a large project that generates a lot of tasks and notes that are more convenient to keep together.

I have mostly dispensed with Collections, because they were page hogs. New projects would turn out to generate fewer notes than I anticipated, and I would use up notebooks too quickly, forcing more frequent and time-consuming migrations. (Again, I leave it to you to know what is meant by “migration,” another powerful central concept. In a nutshell, migration refers to transferring relevant or unfinished business from a full notebook to a blank new one, a useful process of review and winnowing.)

In place of Collections, I note down everything as it comes, without trying to gather related notes together. Instead I rely on two specialized indexes, one called People and one called Subjects.

Without a doubt the biggest generator of information, ideas, and next actions is meetings. Whatever your capture method, at the head of your notes from any meeting are three critical pieces of information: When you met, who you met with, and what you talked about. Date, people, subject.

In a bullet journal, the date is taken care of because the flow is (more or less) captured in sequence. In my modified method, People and Subject each get their own index. I set aside two facing pages for each index. An entry in the People Index might look like this:

Paul: 10, 12, 28-9, (3:36), 58, 42

A page number in parentheses indicates a reference to a previous notebook (each notebook is numbered), should I need to go back that far. There’s no need for the page references to be in order.

A sample entry in the Subject Index looks the same:

Online giving: 22, 16, 80

The People Index is most useful when you’ve met with one person to talk about multiple things – check-ins with direct reports or other regular one-on-ones. The Subjects Index is most useful when you’ve met with multiple people at once about a single thing. The same meeting can be noted in both indexes, for example when you’ve met about online giving as a group, and later discuss online giving during a one-on-one.

I try not to write too much. I take rough notes during meetings and then transfer to the bullet journal only concise highlights, key things to remember, and next actions. If I wrote directly into the journal I’d end up with a mess and use up too many pages. I can fit a month or two into a single notebook of about 100 pages.

For this to work, you have to keep the indexes up to date. I will either index as I go, or I’ll let a few days go by and then catch up. When I’m done indexing a page for people and subjects, I write “P/S” at the inner top of the page, near the gutter, so I know where to continue from. I mark the outer ear of the index pages themselves with a colour Sharpie, red for People and blue for Subjects, so I can quickly flip to either one.

If this seems too fussy or too much work, then compare with keeping it all in files or, worse, in your head. In my current notebook I’ve got entries for about 20 people and more than 50 subjects. Either index is expandable and flexible. The Subjects list fits on two facing pages, and although it’s not in alphabetical order, it’s not hard to quickly find what I’m looking for on a quick scan. True, relevant bits of a project will end up scattered here and there throughout my notebooks, but the index keeps them more readily accessible than having them stuck unseen in a paper file in a drawer, or an elusive Word document hidden somewhere in the folder tree on the shared network drive.

A notebook won’t completely eliminate the need for files containing more detail (although it comes remarkably close). Nor will a notebook direct how you spend your most precious resources: energy and attention. You need other tools for that. But it does feel liberating to carry around your entire current work world in a notebook or two. Give it a try.

1. “The Bullet Journal Method,” by Ryder Carroll. See https://bulletjournal.com/

When to stop procrastinating

Some time ago, after a lot of dithering, I decided to participate in a leadership development program. I had delayed and delayed before finally committing. I was on unfamiliar ground; all I knew I was looking for something personally challenging, immersive, and experiential. I wanted to come out changed.

The stakes seemed high. I would not sign up for anything until I knew exactly what I was getting out of it.

Then I read this quote from Meno: “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”

The quote was in a piece by Rebecca Solnit. “The things we want are transformative,” she writes, “and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?”

From time to time, I make a list of things I’m avoiding, and why. Sometimes there are good reasons for procrastinating; sometimes I just need to get my shit together. Other times, I see I’m waiting for knowledge of the unknowable future, a future that could in fact be changed in unpredictable ways by what I’m thinking of doing. Then I have to picture myself in a year or three, and ask if that future self would regret not having acted, even if things didn’t turn out as I’d hoped. If the answer is yes, then it’s time to go in blind.

Willingly going in blind is like being lost and feeling okay with it. When you are lost, Solnit writes, “the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.” However it feels, sometimes we need to start there.

Positive new-normal won’t just happen, it has to be invented

Earlier this year, I wrote that COVID-19 has accomplished what decades of scientific warnings have not: A dramatic curtailment in carbon emissions. The curtailment is temporary, but what’s encouraging is how quickly the status quo can change. Yes, we are capable of adjusting our mindsets and behaviours.

Alas, I forgot to add that this change has been forced. The underlying culture has not evolved. When the weight of the pandemic is lifted, human behaviour will bounce back like a coiled spring.

Same goes for any positive effects on universities and the workplace. There’s a lot of excited talk about work-from-home as the new normal, for example, but despite all the undeniable benefits, it’s a mistake to assume this will come about naturally.

Deep change is cultural change. If we want to retain anything positive from this crisis, it will require both direction from above and the active involvement of staff. Until administrative and operational staff are involved in working on these underpinnings, hope and talk will be forgotten as the dominant culture reasserts itself.

I suggest asking a few challenge questions. I admit these are heavy with process, policy, and tools. Hardly the stuff of inspiration, and having these things won’t cause change. But lacking them will certainly hinder it.

  • Is a telework policy being drafted, or revised, based on the assumption that work-from-home is normal? Are we planning to deal with the most challenging aspects of remote work (hiring and onboarding, performance management, alignment on objectives)? Are private-sector examples being studied for lessons?
  • Can we give everyone the tools to be mobile? Are meeting rooms equipped to serve a blend of on-site and remote attendees? Are work-at-home systems secure? Are employees trained to protect personal information?
  • Do we know how to maximize the return on staff travel, tightening criteria for approval, based on an assumption that the default engagement from now on will be digital?
  • Are we thinking about how to retool the measurement of engagement and meaningful cultivation activities in the digital world?
  • Are we adopting new tools and processes to move paper-based approvals to secure electronic signatures?
  • If there’s really a new spirit of pan-campus cooperation now, is it translating into something that will last, such as a university-wide data governance framework?

This disruption feels long because it’s unfamiliar and because we’re still in it. It’s hard to see it as temporary and fleeting. In truth, without taking deliberate action on the underpinnings of positive change, the disruption won’t last nearly long enough to make a difference.

Work-from-home productivity requires more than uninterrupted focus

If each person on my team had a dollar for every time I stuck my head in their office for “one quick question,” they’d be set up for retirement. That would be pre-COVID, of course. Work-from-home means fewer interruptions (from the boss, if not from the kids), and that has some people feeling they and their teams are more productive now than they were in the office.

No doubt people are finding themselves better able to focus, better able to control how their discretionary time is used. Anyone who suffered in the high-traffic areas of open-plan offices is probably better off.

But how are we defining “productive”? Hovering over the inbox and leaving no email unanswered? Busy does not equal productive.

I feel we’ve done a good job in our shop along most dimensions of WFH. If I had to pick an area for improvement, it would be setting expectations and goals, and reviewing them regularly.

Cal Newport, writing recently in the New Yorker, says in the modern office, supervisors provide clear goals and leave employees alone to figure out how to accomplish them. This hands-off approach is appropriate for complex and creative office work, he says. Ambiguity and fluidity aren’t necessarily drawbacks, as long as they are balanced by continuous, informal course-correction. It’s this informal communication we’ve lost in the COVID era. (1)

These days, I’m much less likely to do the virtual equivalent of popping in. Not to overestimate the value of my unannounced visits, but these interruptions that contributed to distraction in the office were also the vehicle for a lot of clarification. The interruptions served a purpose, one we should replicate if employees are going to apply their newfound focus productively.

What was once informal (though disruptive) has not been effectively replaced by informal online interaction, which tends to require planning and a certain deliberateness. We have to be more deliberate not just about what we do, but how we do it, Newport writes. As organizations consider extending work-from-home into the future, beyond COVID, it is important that we diagnose these issues.

Newport suggests that our loosely-run organizations adopt some of the project planning tools of software developers, which provide transparency across the whole team as well as removing a lot of the ambiguity around which tasks have been assigned to whom.

“More structure, more clarity, less haphazardness,” he says.

Talk to your team and each individual about your, and their, expectations. Set goals and measures of success to ensure accountability. Regularly review goals and progress. Continuously reclarify at the team and individual level to maintain focus, and modify as needed to ensure progress is actually being made and that team members are engaged.

Remote work carries the promise of focus, but it will remain only a promise unless we ensure people are given a relatively small number of things to work on at a time and are able to go deep on them with a clear sense of direction.

  1. Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed,” by Cal Newport, The New Yorker, 26 May 2020

Mind like water

Every morning, in place of my commute, I go for a long walk. I call it my sanity walk. My way takes me by a small lake. One day, the lake was a perfect mirror, reproducing perfect copies of trees, houses, a dock, and the cloudless sky of thousand-piece-puzzle blue. I took pictures with my phone.

I’ve been around the lake enough times to know that this beautiful stillness is very rare.

My mind, like the lake, is rarely still. Near constant wind disturbs the surface, and my anxious thoughts cloud my brain in a fog of useless, directionless energy like static. Walking allows me to disengage my mind from its thoughts.

Letting go of thoughts is something I feel physically in my head, like a fist relaxing its grip. Then I realize where I am, like a driver on a boring highway emerging from a reverie. My eyes and ears open. I notice the street ahead, and the houses. I notice the rooftops covered with white squares, each shingle outlined with a dusting of snow. I hear a distant garbage truck, starting and stopping. I hear a scratching nearby, a bird rummaging in the dead leaves under some trees. I notice the children’s playground equipment wound with yellow caution tape.

I notice a Nova Scotia flag hung from the railing of someone’s front step. Across the street, I see a length of Nova Scotia tartan hanging from the branch of a tree in a front yard. And there’s another flag, pinned to the wall of a house, encircled by a string of Christmas lights in the shape of a heart.

This is Nova Scotia, a small province where nearly everyone can trace a connection to a victim. Confined to our houses, we are denied the ability to gather as we normally would, and our sadness knows no bounds.

April in Nova Scotia can be pleasant but is just as likely to be windy, wet, and cold. We are serious about insulating our houses. Tiny leaks around windows and doors add up. Someone once told me the total area of dozens of small leaks could be the size of a basketball.

Imagine a hole that big in the wall of your house. You wouldn’t put up with that for long in a cold climate.

The wind that disturbs our minds sneaks in via many little holes: CNN, CBC, Facebook, Twitter. Words have power. A steady drumbeat of certain words – kill, gun, shooter – exhausts and confuses us.

We should feel sad. We should also stay informed. But be careful how you take in the noise of the world. It should be in ways and at times of your choosing, not via alerts and notifications and buzzes and ringtones.

The surface of the water will calm if it’s not disturbed. We can’t always keep the wind out, but we can at least stop inviting it in.

Our resilience in this moment is not a product of sudden changes in routine we adopt now, but of habits of mind we have acquired over years. But now is as good a time as any to re-examine what we let into our skulls.

From the lake, I return to my desk better able to lead and to serve. I do not have a still mind, and I never will. My brain hums with anxiety at the best of times. A calm mind is not a goal to achieve, but a lifetime habit, a gentle discipline that never ends. It enables me, us, to stand and face the wind.

Pivoting to hope

Tigers living in the Bronx Zoo have been found to have COVID-19. I read that news on my phone late at night and asked myself, “Wait, you mean cats can get this?”

Is it helpful that, minutes before going to bed, my last thought of the day is that our neighbours’ roaming cats could be spreading the virus from house to house?

No, it’s not helpful.

The news has a seductive quality. Keeping up on developments feels necessary, even responsible, but the tiger story convinced me that it’s corrosive as well. From now on, I will tune in to the public health updates and do my best to tune out the rest.

Or at least tune in to the positive. The curve is flattening, even descending, in some countries and regions. This is not reason to become lax, but is evidence that this crisis won’t last.

It may be time to start talking about that with our teams. To this point, I’ve been stressing that we are in this for the long haul, because I wanted people to act quickly to make their home workstations comfortable and safe, and not to hoard (and, potentially, lose) their vacation days.

Some of us have family members who are in danger. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s genuine anxiety. For the rest of us, it’s time to devote some mindshare to the post-COVID future. When I get a chance to do so, it’s a welcome relief.

So implement your new CRM, plan for your next campaign, pursue professional development for you and your team, talk with donors about their dreams, work on strategy – and push on.

Since this thing began, we have been absorbing the idea that the way ahead is uncertain. Well, everything has always been uncertain, hasn’t it? What is certain is that this will end. How we think and behave now will decide whether we arrive on the other side exhausted and depleted, or invigorated and ready.

When the novelty of work-from-home wears off

Our sector is undergoing a massive work-from-home experiment. The experiment is universal, but for our sector the change is especially dramatic. Whenever some of us get a chance to think (between one videoconference and the next), our minds turn to what this might mean for the future of the office.

No question, work-from-home is technically possible. A few weeks in, it is clear that cloud-based software and videoconferencing are passing the test. If there’s a drawback with remote work, it isn’t the tools.

However: consider what the current experiment means for its human subjects.

Everyone has moved offsite in a matter of days. People are now socially isolated, without normal supports. They may be forced to be productive in limited space shared with children, parents, roommates, and spouses who may also be working from home. Distance is impeding asking questions, sharing information, and getting to know others. On top of that there’s worry about an unrelenting crisis with personal, local, and global effects, with no end in sight.

If this work-from-home experiment were a real experiment, it would be ruled unethical.

The pandemic will subside, and with it, the need to isolate and the general anxiety that wakes us at 3 a.m. (However, if people weren’t already somewhat anxious before the crisis, they weren’t paying attention.)

Other effects remain to be discovered.

Remote work might be normal in the private sector, but I question whether it translates perfectly to mission-driven organizations. A mission-driven organization requires inspirational leadership and engagement around shared purpose, not just hitting numerical targets. To say that the higher education and non-profit sectors need to get with the times and embrace private-sector models of work would be classic bizplaining.

We should also recognize that the likelihood of having adequate home-office space breaks along the line of income and reporting level. Implemented poorly, across-the-board work-from-home would impose disproportionate costs on lower-income workers. Implemented fairly, work-from-home might be costly for organizations.

Certainly, the best thing for our students would be to be back in classrooms and labs. The common campus experience levels the field somewhat for students from different economic backgrounds. More fundamentally, a university without physical proximity is not really a university. An experience based on engagement with the world balanced with an encounter with the self does not translate to digital. I am not convinced this is opening a new era for learning.

It may, however, be a new era for administrative offices. I’m intrigued about the possibilities of more flexible work arrangements that benefit people and organizations. Employees skip the commute while organizations free up some space – it sounds win-win.

We may be still be blind to the downsides, though. Let’s get through this first, and take careful notes.