Advancement birds of a feather must flock together

Cardinals are frequent visitors to my neighbourhood. Male cardinals are bright red, but I know them mainly by their distinctive calls. They are hard to spot because they stay so high up in the trees.

That may be changing. A few days ago, I was in the middle of an email when a cardinal landed right outside my window, less than two feet from the ground. As human activity on my street has lessened, birds are coming down to ground level more often.

Or maybe it’s because I’m at home that I notice birds. Maybe I’m just better at noticing, period.

I notice other things. It seems the birds of the Advancement flock are also exploring their changed neighbourhoods. But the experience has not been the same for everyone.

When this crisis hit, frontline staff suddenly found themselves with calendars cleared of travel and events. Never ones to sit on their hands, they turned to tackling neglected to-do lists, or reading the huge volume of quality content on philanthropy and engagement in times of crisis, or becoming thoughtful and far-thinking.

This reflective hiatus for frontline staff will be brief, and in fact it may already be over. Conversations with alumni and donors must resume – different venue, different topics – and priorities for annual appeals are shifting toward direct aid for students in distress.

For support and operations staff, the experience has been quite different.

The rush to get everyone set up for working from home is over. We’ve discovered that the tools and technology were already there, like a safety net, waiting for us to arrive. (Our friends in the private sector could have told us that.) A few venerable business processes have been swept aside, temporarily, to suit the new reality. As a result, the physical move wasn’t as painful as we might have predicted.

What now? Operations staff never had empty calendars. The meeting load has in fact gone up: Leaders and managers are communicating with their teams remotely while the need for collaborative project work goes on. The opportunity for reflection never happened. We are busy just keeping up.

Temporarily, then, half the flock is on the ground exploring new territory, and half is still up in the trees.

The volume of meetings should abate, and a kind of normalcy will return. It will be a different normal, however: Advancement shops are gearing up for engaging with committed supporters during what will be a protracted health and economic crisis. What does a “face-to-face” visit mean now? How do we shift to rich digital experiences in place of events? How do we measure meaningful engagement? What processes need to be retooled, not just temporarily, but for all time?

The descriptive phrase I hear from colleagues is “business as unusual.” In such times our most important task is keeping the flock together.

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