The purpose of the university, ripped from the headlines

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. has surpassed that of the pandemic of a hundred years ago. The world has vaccines and superior technology and communications, but it is evident that science and technology cannot help people who lack a sense of living together or any feeling of responsibility for others’ well-being. The pandemic of the wilfully unvaccinated is upon us.

Current events such as the pandemic can help us grasp the purpose of today’s university. It is far from obvious. I hope I am not being grandiose if I suggest a few principles that might lead to defining a purpose. These four principles interrelate and can lead to varying statements of purpose, different for each institution.

The first principle addresses the question, “What can we trust?” This first principle relates to truth.

The purpose of education is not “critical thinking,” if by that we mean merely questioning and challenging. Every anti-vaxxer (or climate-change skeptic) is a critical thinker, weighing “evidence” to support their conviction that the truth is being hidden from us by powerful forces.

The university can’t let students go with the idea that everything must be doubted, without also instilling the idea that there are truths in which we can trust. Critical thinking is not just about what we reject; it has to be about what we embrace.

That does not mean indoctrinating students in what we take to be true. It is about setting up and protecting the space within each student to do the inner work of deciding what is deserving of trust.

This suggests the second principle, which addresses the question, “What truths from others’ experience can we embrace?” This second principle relates to justice.

In connection with the pandemic, I am thinking of Indigenous people and people of colour who have their own reasons for mistrust and hesitancy. They are not in the same class as anti-vaxxers who are lost in a cloud of ignorance and fake news.

So when we talk about “truth,” we have to ask, “whose truth?” I’m not saying all things are equal; I’m saying that truth often has an inside and an outside. What I see on the outside may look different from what you see on the inside. Representation in lecture hall seats is good; representation in front of the class is even better.

Related to trust, truth, and justice is the third principle, which addresses the question, “What is our responsibility to others?” This third principle concerns a public purpose.

In the days following the insurrection by the mob at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, viewers were shown many disturbing videos. I was struck not only by the anger, stupidity, and violence but by the resemblance of many the insurrectionists to normal-looking folks who could be my neighbours – except that they all seemed so lost. They were angry and mistrustful, with nothing to hold onto: No help to expect from anyone, no help to give to anyone, and no real common cause.

My neighbours and I are fortunate to live in a region that has mostly had very low COVID case counts, and health services have not been severely impacted. Geography, good leadership, and luck are factors, but I prefer to think it’s because we all wore masks, stayed home, and got vaccinated – to protect each other, not just ourselves. To some that makes us sheep, but we’re more like a forest: When the hard winds blow, the trees in a healthy forest lean on each other and all survive.

A public purpose recognizes that there is such a thing as the common good. If, as the cliché has it, the university develops the leaders of tomorrow, then this principle suggests leadership is defined as a role devoted to service.

The fourth principle addresses the question, “How can truth, justice, and the common good endure?” The fourth principle is conservation.

In some places, something as simple as wearing a mask or getting vaccinated is a political statement, so one can imagine that embracing “truth, justice, and common good” will invite controversy and opposition. The university isn’t going to carry the day on its own, or anytime soon.

Fortunately, the university is in it for the long haul. These principles might seem liberal in nature, but they endure and are advanced in the embrace of an institution that is essentially conservative, in the best sense of that word.

Higher education addresses itself to all aspects of the individual human in society, but the “universe” in “university” does not suggest we should be all things. As the university expands to include more and more, we risk losing sight of what’s at the core. The conservative, enduring, focused institution is the opposite of the jittery, twitching institution enamoured with the example of big tech or the world of disruption, start-ups, or what-have-you.

If sculpting a statue is, as they say, chipping away all the marble that is not the statue, then the pandemic might help us chip away at everything around the university that isn’t the university.

Credentialing leading to employment, driving the regional economy, developing commercial application for research – these all have their place in the case for the existence of a university, but I have to wonder if these can be delivered in other ways, more directly and more cheaply. Not that they don’t belong in the university, but an institution that limits itself to these functions will slowly wither in a world that craves more.

What the world craves is an antidote to hate, ignorance, isolationism, nationalism, racism – a vaccine you might say, a positive formulation of purpose for an institution with the power to inspire the purpose of a life – many lives.

Skin in the game: Measure your success by results, not by activities

If the objectives and tactics in our plan are tied to strategy, we have made it partway. Now we need to track progress. Despite our best efforts, this is where drafting a plan for Operations can fall down. In the past, I have counted each completed project as a success, and the tally of projects completed as our metric – and this was a mistake.

If Operations completes all of its planned tasks and Advancement doesn’t improve, are we successful? – No.

Our initiatives may be grounded in strategy, but that does not mean that delivering the initiatives is the same as delivering results. When we focus on activities and deliverables, we forget that these initiatives are supposed to show benefits and impact. We forget the “why”.

The activities – the things we want to do – are outputs. Success isn’t about outputs; it’s about outcomes.

Instead, for each of our objectives we can try asking two questions, and base our metrics on the answers:

  1. Who is the user/consumer of our work?
  2. What behavioural changes would we expect to see?

Let’s say one of our priority projects is to improve pipeline management processes in the CRM, under an overall objective of improving frontline user adoption. The measure of success should not be a checkmark, “done!”. We need to identify who we’re targeting (fundraisers and other frontline staff), and what we want them to do (use CRM more often and more effectively). Then we must quantitatively measure that behaviour to the extent that we can (logins, records created or touched, movement of prospects and proposals, user satisfaction), against a baseline.

This sounds sensible, but it runs against a strong impulse to set only goals we can control. We know we can deliver an improvement to the process, but we shy away from defining success as improved fundraiser adoption. Why? Because we control our own activities, but we don’t control fundraiser behaviour.

Similarly, we can improve the online giving experience, but we resist defining success as increased giving. Because we don’t control donor behaviour.

And yet, these are exactly the outcomes we need to track. After all, the front line measures success by results, not activity – so why should it be any different for Operations?

Goals should be aligned not only from top to bottom, but across the organization. That means your planning process should not only emphasize clear ties to overall strategy, it should reflect interdependencies among teams. Each unit in Advancement has different activities but works towards shared results. In order to achieve alignment, our goals must be part of an ongoing conversation with other units. And we must check in and share stories of progress.

It seems clear to me that measurement must continue long after the project is complete. Delivering on a project isn’t necessarily going to show up in our measurable outcomes right away. An initiative that aims to improve user adoption of the CRM can take months to bring about an effect. This is OK – the reason we continue to measure even when the project is complete is in order to learn. If the key result hasn’t improved, then we have to ask WHY. What we learn will carry us into the next iteration of planning.

This approach to success metrics has been suggested to me by the concept of OKRs, which stands for Objectives and Key Results. In this scheme, which has its origins at Google and other tech companies, an Objective is a qualitative description of what we want to achieve and Key Results are quantitative metrics we will use to measure our progress toward the Objective. There are two to five Key Results per Objective; having more than one Key Result allows us to counterbalance the influence of any single metric holding too much sway. For example, we may have an objective to delight our donors – but not at any cost.

The distinction between “OKR” and the more familiar “KPI” seems so subtle that I’m not sure we need a new acronym. What we need is to ask the right questions of our objectives – which will lead us to the right metrics.

(If you’d like to learn more about OKRs, however, I encourage you to search for the work of Felipe Castro, and this article from Harvard Business Review: “Use OKRs to Set Goals for Teams, Not Individuals,” by Jeff Gothelf, 17 Dec 2020.)

Is it time to foment a language revolution?

Years ago when I managed our Phonathon program, our calling software presented student callers with “prospect” records. We used scripts, but I encouraged our more experienced callers to regard them as guides only. For the rest I said, “Please, if you go off-script, do not ever say the word ‘prospect’ during a conversation!”

Whatever the giving level, there’s an external and an internal language, and it’s about time we brought them together. Because the internal language is making us feel like liars when we communicate about what matters.

Acquisition, prospect, moves management … There will always be shop talk and lingo which of course we keep separate from how we communicate with supporters. There’s an economy of language at play: “Prospect” can be shorthand for “prospective donor,” which is inoffensive.

But I worry that the terms we use create a divide in the mind of a frontline staff member who is most effective when bringing their genuine self to the conversation but carries in the back of their mind an entirely different understanding of what the objective is – based on the language of the profession, reinforced by operational processes. The cognitive dissonance is a hindrance.

How can we expect frontline staff to believe in what they talk about with donors if in the back of their mind they are under the influence of some alien calculus?

As an Operations leader I feel our processes and systems – including the calling software I trained callers on a decade ago – are perpetuating an unhelpful mental divide. What if we used the same language internally as we do with our supporters?

Energy for work and life: To light a fire, strike a match

A map will guide you where you want to go and signs will point the way. Like maps, plans and to-do lists help you focus, but you need a means of travel. Along with reminders of what to do, you require a steady supply of fuel that enables you to do it.

What is this fuel?

“Motivation” comes readily to mind, but that’s not it. I am motivated, in that my intentions are good, I believe in what I’m doing, and I have a plan. For focusing on priorities, my spirit is willing – but some days the flesh is weak.

“Drive” is good, but a little dramatic. Do I want to be driven? I am reminded of an expression of my late grandfather’s: Go at your work with an all-day stroke. I prefer, like he did, a controlled slow burn for the long haul.

“Inspiration?” Also good, but fleeting. Inspiration comes and goes; it has an accidental quality.

I have settled on a term that is ordinary but apt: “energy.” It is energy that powers concentration and focus, energy that overcomes procrastination and distraction. Energy gets me started; energy keeps me going.

Energy can be fleeting, too, right? Sometimes it seems as inconstant as inspiration. You wake up on the wrong side of the bed and you have a crappy day. We would like energy to be more reliable.

Fortunately, we do have some control over it.

Over time, I’ve made some discoveries about energy that at first surprised me. I had assumed the most important thing was to take breaks and get rest. The best way to have energy for work, I thought, was to conserve it. That’s not wrong, but I noticed that certain activities both used energy and generated it as well.

Remember your grade school chemistry: To start a reaction, you need to add energy. You might desire the heat and light of a campfire, but nothing will happen until you apply a lit match.

I settled on twelve behaviours or habits that energize me, and I keep this list handy. Any are a good substitute for what drains me of energy: social media, television, etc. The behaviours are specific and tailored to my own interests, but they relate to these themes:

  • engaging in creative activities outside work
  • reading (real books)
  • organization and planning (eg. bullet journaling)
  • exercise and movement
  • meal planning and diet
  • quiet reflection
  • paying attention to the needs of others (a.k.a. acts of kindness)

These themes are conventional. My steady-as-she-goes grandfather could have come up with them. It’s not hard to imagine others: Socializing, family, travel, sports … What I like is the radical notion that the energy source fuelling life and work is something each of us can create.

Benchmark with purpose

Have you ever benchmarked against your university fundraising peers? Did you find it easy or hard? If you found it easy, you may have done it wrong.

Alright, maybe your Advancement shop benchmarked only for general information; that’s one thing. If you benchmarked for insights to act on – to inform decisions about staffing or performance expectations or institutional funding for Advancement – that’s something else. The comparisons had better be valid.

Getting apples-to-apples, as the cliché has it, is surprisingly hard work. You should be clear what you want out of it before you commit.

Our department reports to the university on the return of investment made in Advancement. It’s a handsome return, exceeding most things that go by the name “investment.” It would be strange if it wasn’t. But a positive return, even a handsome one, could be produced by a department that is underperforming, and performance issues should be addressed before the university considers additional investment. ROI alone lacks context – benchmarking provides context in the form of confidence in our performance in relation to our peers.

It was a journey. It took four years to get to the point where we felt assured of the comparability of the numbers. Here are some things I learned along the way.

First, having the right comparator group is essential. The credibility of the exercise hangs on it.

Second, work with an external facilitator. Universities used to have to initiate their own partnerships, but today a number of consulting firms and organizations are doing excellent work in this area. Benchmarking is valid only when the partners provide data that is prepared roughly the same way. It takes years of effort to align on definitions; do-it-yourself initiatives can’t be sustained long enough to yield value.

Third, don’t spread limited time and resources over multiple benchmarking efforts. Better to pick one group and stick with that group. (Unless you’ve got a lot of capacity.) The work of assembling the data falls to my team; when a new invitation to benchmark comes in, we look at it, but most of the time we decline to participate.

Fourth, nominate one person to own it, even if several people are involved. A director of finance will provide expenditure data, human resources will provide FTE counts by function, development reporting will provide fundraising totals – but one person, possibly an analyst with strong knowledge of the business, should be responsible for keeping an eye on annual deadlines and monitoring the quality of the submitted data.

One clear owner will also be better able to engage with his or her counterparts among the benchmark partners to ensure consistency in data definitions and processes. These conversations are more efficient when each partner sends only one or two knowledgeable people to the table.

And finally: This is important, and worth extra effort. The goal is having data that is comparable across institutions. The ROI calculation is very sensitive to how we count, both on the fundraising side and the expenditure side. Discrepancies among peer schools may be footnoted, but leadership is not reading footnotes. Multiple asterisks on everything degrades the value of the exercise.

Alert leaders to sources of variability that will affect the integrity of decisions – and work with your peers and the vendor/organization to make it better.

Tell your team’s journey story, and plot it in advance

Managers and leaders spend their days in a state of mild to medium dissatisfaction. The status quo is rarely acceptable, there’s always a hill to climb, there’s always a distant horizon and a finger pointing “there.” Societal trends, shifts in priorities, leadership and staff changes, the imperative to evolve and grow the team – all rule out the option to stand still.

Some restlessness is healthy and necessary. But radiating dissatisfaction can wear your team down over the long term, if they feel their best is never good enough.

Sometimes you have to pause and appreciate what has been achieved. Recognizing and naming progress provides that sense of forward momentum that fuels the energy to keep going. Setbacks and reversals are like downturns in the stock market: Zoom out far enough, and they appear as minor blips in a larger story of growth.

I sometimes get to appreciate this larger story when I give a conference presentation. Sharing the story of our team’s journey with others is a source of energy-giving gratitude for me.

But journey stories don’t take their shape only in retrospect: They can be built into planning. Operations projects that are carefully scoped and defined as discrete packages of work with end dates are set up to be celebrated, simply because it’s possible to recognize when they’re done. (Even if a Phase Two waits in the wings.) Projects that are not scoped, or poorly scoped, will pursue various directions and never reach any kind of satisfying end that you can plant a flag on.

Looking back cantilevers your ambitious looking-forward. Celebrate it, and plan for it.

Strategy as music and prayer

The power of a statement lives in its proper expression. If a thing cannot be said so it speaks to the heart, then it isn’t true, beautiful, or worth saying. “The thing set down in words is not therefore affirmed,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It must affirm itself or no forms of grammar and no verisimilitude can give evidence; and no array of arguments.”

Strategy is language. It should read well, therefore it should be written well. Strategy should be bold, inspiring, simple on the surface but exploding variform in the minds of readers.

Words come from nature. Many words, the best words, have etymologies that trace to real things – rocks, trees, wind – and our brains are wired to respond physically. This gives language its power.

Writing has its roots in accounting – squiggles for fixing information so it stays. It loves abstract nouns. Language, though, has its roots in oral storytelling. Verbs drive it. Its close kin is music. We write as accountants most of the time, but some occasions call us to sing.

On those occasions, there is no arbitrary choice – there is one best way to say a thing that is worth saying. The task is not to make small ideas sound grand, but to make grand ideas real through their proper expression. Writing is hard.

Inspiring writing is concise. Concision is not summarizing; it is a natural property of powerful statements.

And where do powerful statements come from?

I recently attended a (virtual) senior leadership retreat focused on university strategic planning. The second day of the session was led by members of the African Nova Scotian Advisory Council, comprised of community leaders, including some university staff and faculty. We started the day with a prayer. During this prayer the pastor referred to God as “the Divine Strategist.”

This image struck me with force.

Whatever your beliefs, the idea of a divine strategist implies something above and outside of ourselves and our immediate concerns, like the sun that warms us but also warms everyone else.

Above and outside our immediate concerns – even all our concerns added together. Sound strategy is only partly based on asking everyone what they think. Each person sees the university through their own lens: the mandate of their office, the realities of their work, the guiding principles of their profession or discipline, and their lived experience. The complex layering of these beams of light makes a university in the moment.  We need these beams shining every which way.

But we also need a beacon. A beacon is not for the moment; it is for the future. It shows what we are not but what we may become.

People should have their voices heard. But people also want to recognize themselves in a vision they did not make, in words that stir the limbs. They want to say “Amen!”

Going mobile doesn’t always mean going paperless

It started as an experiment. One notebook and a pen. Seven notebooks later, the bullet journal is one of my essential work tools. My method is now so stripped-down I’m not sure it’s still legit Bullet Journaling (capital B, capital J). Numbered pages, two indexes (one for “people,” one for “subjects), and a few symbols (dots for to-do items, circles or dashes for information) – and that’s it.

My method is simple. Still, someone once said to me, “I don’t have time to do that.” I understand. It takes time to transcribe meeting notes, next actions, and ideas into a notebook, and then index the content, and then migrate content to the next notebook.

Here are some things I don’t have time for.

I don’t have time to look for scraps of notes either paper or digital. I don’t have time to wrack my brain to recall past discussions, issues raised, decisions made. I have no time for backtracking, missing connections between things, and thinking, doing, and saying the same things over and over.

Indexed journaling saves me from that. It enables me to advance the conversation instead of going over the same ground. It helps me make connections among disparate ideas or events. Pen and paper take my eyes off the all-consuming screen. And it frees me from needing a physical office for days at a time – two notebooks and a laptop and I can work anywhere.

Focus on what matters: Pour your attention into buckets

Some days it’s one interruption after another. Your interruptions are interrupted. And some days you let it happen: Everyone gets a hearing, and email is your to-do list. You guard your purse, but you squander what’s really precious: your energy and attention.

I’m guilty. I think we all are, at times. It’s hard to keep the main thing the main thing.

I once received advice on focus from someone who is very good at focus. Think of the most important activities you engage in, he said, and create a mental bucket for each. Each bucket is a non-urgent but important arena of activity that creates value and contributes to success in the long run. There might be three buckets on your list, or four, or five. Probably not more than five.

Now picture pouring your energy and attention into those buckets, he said. Keep that list in front of you as a daily guide. The list will not banish the fog of the urgent, but its light will sometimes cut through.

My list has four buckets which have remained stable for two years now. The buckets are People, Process, Leadership, and Strategy. Within each bucket, I have one to three focus areas. In the People bucket, for example, I have “grow the team”, “develop talent”, and “build relationships.”

Within each focus area, I have one to four activities. Here I get more specific about what I mean by “grow the team,” and so on. These activities change – I revise the list every few months to keep it current.

The particulars of my list are not important; you’ll have your own buckets, areas of focus, and activities.

Your buckets and areas of focus do not replace documented strategies and plans. Buckets are more personal; they embrace these externalities and relate them to how you spend your personal resources. Your focus areas will also include matters of ongoing importance that tend to be absent from timebound, project-oriented plans.

The list will seem obvious when you create it, but even the obvious becomes obscured when fatigue lures you toward distraction or when people are trying to interest you in minor fires here and there.  Fatigue and fires are real and unavoidable. But when you have energy on tap, fill the important buckets first.

The front line doesn’t understand Operations … Does it matter?

The Operations team deals with technical issues, difficult vendors, software downtime, data complexity, tight timelines, and high work volumes. These challenges affect the work of our colleagues on the front line, in development and engagement. Whether our colleagues really understand these challenges is another matter.

Should they?

If you work in Operations and find yourself feeling that your front-line colleagues don’t appreciate the issues you face, then ask yourself this question: Do you appreciate the challenges faced by your front-line colleagues?

We want our colleagues to recognize that operational realities exist. Lack of understanding can lead to unnecessary risk and unreasonable expectations. But I’m not sure it’s deep understanding we should aim for. We should try to build credibility and trust in ourselves instead.

Bad things happen when an organization ignores operational realities, it’s true. The way to prevent bad things is not to educate the whole organization on the fine points of risk, but to speak to risk from a strong base of credibility and trustworthiness. This applies not only to Advancement Operations but other offices – legal, audit, procurement – that advise on risk.

Trust is built when Advancement’s support function demonstrates that it really gets what the organization is trying to accomplish and knows how the world looks through the eyes of fundraisers and alumni officers.

It’s important that Ops staff internalize departmental strategy – that they be able to connect their daily work to the goals of advancement. And there’s a more personal element: Each of us should feel a little of what it’s like to be a fundraiser.

Sometimes I wonder if we should be sending Ops team members to conferences for development and alumni relations instead of advancement services. Would a change in perspective lead to stronger partnerships?

We can start by listening to understand the business end of advancement – not just react to what we might think of as its whims. Being responsive instead of reactive will help build a relationship that will remain friendly when the next disruptive technical issue comes along, or when a project is forecast to not be completed for another six months, or when a serious risk is flagged.

This responsibility for lens-shifting is not reciprocal.

It is more important than the Ops employee shift to accommodate her perspective to that of the fundraiser, than it is for the fundraiser to return the favour. The Ops employee looks through the fundraiser lens in order to provide more effective support and to build credibility and trust. There is no clear benefit in asking a fundraiser to see things through an operations lens.

A driver needs to learn how to drive the car; she doesn’t need to know what’s going under the hood. (Fine if she does, of course.) But no driver would trust a mechanic who has no knowledge of what it’s like behind the wheel.