Early thoughts toward an Advancement Operations maturity model

A maturity model provides a qualitative assessment of where your group sits in relation to some ideal pinnacle of evolution. I suppose the people who come up with these models are business school academics and committees of senior professionals. I’m not aware that anyone’s developed such a thing for the field of Advancement Operations, so allow me to pretend to be smarter than I am – and propose one.

When I do a search on “operations maturity model,” the two dominant themes I see in the results are IT and process. IT is wide of the mark for us. “Process” is closer.

Yet a process focus is still too limited. In process-based models, maturity entails evolving from ad-hoc activities to development of repeatable processes, on up through levels of better definition of processes until one reaches the top level, where processes are optimized.

This is an industrial definition of maturity, where the ultimate goal for operations is efficiency. In a mission-driven organization, efficiency is desirable, but not as desirable as the overall effectiveness of the organization. We can be efficient at doing the wrong things.

Advancement isn’t a factory. Advancement needs all teams, including the so-called back office, to help separate the right things from the wrong things. That’s strategy. The maturity model must take into account a capacity to be involved at a strategic level.

Process is fine, but we must have the people. That’s the missing ingredient.

So here we go – my stab at a four-level Advancement Operations Maturity Model:

Level 1: People are task-driven order-takers with basic skills. Processes are ad hoc and undocumented. Service is by ticket, first-in-first-out, with limited sense of relative importance. The team is characterized by inertia, exhibiting blind adherence to customary practices that are misconstrued as rules.

Level 2: Some skilled problem-solvers have been brought on. The team has developed an ethos of customer service and increased responsiveness to needs, with some prioritization. Still largely reactive, driven by frontline requests, sometimes lacking context. Increased documentation and standardization of processes.

Level 3: Operations staff are tactical partners, involved early on in Advancement initiatives, not just in the final execution. Engagement and fundraising objectives to be achieved are known, leading to more creative solutions. Process improvement is embraced as an ongoing imperative.

Level 4: Operations is a strategic partner, with involvement in shaping Advancement direction. The team’s thinking is forward-looking, characterized by proactive identification of opportunities, leading Advancement in new directions. The team has a comprehensive view of the organization. Ops knows where it fits in advancing the institutional mission.

Note that efficiency increases as the team moves up the ladder, but simple efficiency is overtaken by flexibility. Some things are too important to routinize. The ability to tell the difference is a matter of judgment, which is a property of high-quality, well-developed, empowered people.

As well, as we climb the levels, people’s view rises to take in more and more of the road ahead. We use this metaphor a lot when talking about BI and analytics maturity, but as we’ve seen, teams such as Gift Compliance can be forward-looking.

Level 1 teams are order-takers, which does not imply that Level 4 teams are order-givers. An ethos of responsive customer service, once gained, should be retained. Ops can be a strategic partner while still primarily playing a support role.

The difference is in outlook, an evolution from understanding the WHAT to understanding and embracing the WHY.

Innovation rewrites the rules for collaboration across teams

An ongoing upheaval in the way people give and engage requires us to find innovative approaches. The question is, who should do the innovating? Operations is better known for policies, process, and compliance than creativity and smashing things, while other teams have great ideas but err when making decisions related to technology.

Dysfunction occurs when one team has its foot on the gas and the other has its foot on the brake. Two adverse results seem likely: 1) Ops gets its way, and slows down good ideas or kills them completely, or 2) Ops doesn’t get its way, and projects plow ahead without regard for process, compliance, or risk.

Either way, innovation fails in the long run.

In the past I’ve been attracted to the notion of a “skunk works” team, separate and liberated from all the rules and cautious incremental improvement that hinders innovation. Small, disruptive teams have done wonders for some corporations; Lockheed coined the term skunk works and achieved success with it back when the company was an aircraft manufacturer.

In more recent times, however, corporations have found skunk works teams produce great, one-time ideas but not continuous, company-wide innovation and execution. These days, when everything is being disrupted, organizations need to execute on the core basics and keep inventing new products and approaches.

I’m not sure it’s true that innovation must be defined as entrepreneurial disruption smashing an Industrial-Age mindset concerned with efficiency, standardization, and process. This might be true of whole industries or monster-sized corporations forced to reinvent themselves. It’s a bad way to think of the work of our relatively small Advancement teams.

We can align our mindsets better than that. Would it not be ideal if the two forces were integrated and part of the way the organization runs? The answer for Advancement might be to adopt new rules for collaboration across teams.

For investments in engagement technologies, for example, would it make sense to form a small team made of equal parts marketing, engagement, and operations and give it ownership of that ecosystem? Given a clear mandate to execute on Advancement’s well-defined strategy, such a team could enjoy the creative autonomy of a skunk works to innovate over the long term.

Working with academic leaders

Advancement Operations participates in the university mission beyond supporting our development, engagement, and marketing colleagues. We work with others across the university, which sometimes includes academic deans.

Understandably, deans are more likely to spend time with development and engagement leaders than they are to be interested in matters of processing gifts or managing alumni and donor data. Before we seek access or a seat at the table, we need to be clear about what deans ought to care about and why.

Advancement Operations serves academic divisions (in Canada, “faculties”) in direct ways. We manage the records and information of their alumni and donors, generate invitation lists for their events, facilitate the spending of gifts in accordance with donor intent, provide intelligence via reporting and benchmarking – and so on. When academic leaders are unaware of all that Advancement does, the result can be duplication of functions and undesirable behaviours that put the institution at risk.

To my mind, this is not quite enough reason to seek direct and regular access to deans. Clear policy and good working relationships with administrative staff reporting to the dean can go a long way. As well, Advancement colleagues who do meet with deans should be quite capable of conveying the general nature of operational supports that benefit academic units. To help them, I provide a one-page summary of these supports.

A larger concern is the quality of the relationship between Advancement and the academy. We can accomplish more together when there is trust in the professionalism and sophistication of the advancement organization, of which Operations is an integral part. It’s being able to show that decisions are based on evidence, that relationships with alumni and supporters are managed effectively, that donors are connected with relevant opportunities.

Perhaps the Operations story can be delivered directly to new deans and then refreshed once a year. Whichever way we seek to engage with academic leaders, it’s best to keep it relevant to their needs, and especially to the needs of the Advancement relationship.

(Thank you to Kevin Kardasz of University of Ottawa, Chris Armitage of Trent University, and Sarah Clarke of Carleton University for their thoughts.)

Breakfast, strategy, and you

Picture yourself standing with your team in your Operations kitchen, ready to work. As you roll up your sleeves, your gaze takes in pots, gadgets, and ingredients – enough to make almost anything.

Someone pops their head in and shouts, “Eggs!”

Startled, you turn and ask, “What?”

“Eggs,” says the visitor. “We just need eggs. You’re the cook, figure it out.”

“Um, I have questions,” you stammer. But your colleague has already left.

You’ve just been handed a project. It’s called eggs. You’re vaguely aware there’s an initiative called “breakfast” but not sure if this is related. And you are completely unaware of the overall strategy, which is “wholesome nourishment.”

Do you hand over raw eggs, or prepare eggs benedict dripping in hollandaise sauce with a side of fried potatoes? Either way you’re not aligned with the strategy. Had you been better informed, you might have come up with basic poached eggs. Had you known the big picture you could have integrated eggs with another project called “multigrain toast.”

You can plead with your marketing, engagement, and development colleagues to involve you earlier in their tactics. But better if you are a partner in strategy. As a partner you neither take orders nor dictate the menu. Rather you hold yourself accountable for understanding the strategy and contributing to its development.

Every tool or process or dashboard your team delivers is a vehicle for realizing strategy. It’s that simple. And that hard.

Back office, step forward

The shipping containers were parked alongside each other in a lot. I passed them one day on my way to work: About a dozen plain white boxes, each one discreetly labeled “Cirque du Soleil.”

The spectacle of the circus is delivered to us in anonymous, dull packages. If all the containers arrived in town on time, hardly anyone would know. If even one was delayed, very likely the show could not go on.

The logistics behind Cirque reminded me of Advancement Operations: Invisible when functioning well, a disaster otherwise.

How then, given its importance, do we talk about this team? In a hurry, I might refer to us as the “back office.” People seem to know what that means. Unfortunately, some of those people have in mind a typing pool out of the 1950s; lose a button-pusher or two and it’s no big deal.

Given more time, I might enumerate gift processing, compliance, prospect management, records management, data integrity, reporting and analytics, applications and systems, and more. To my audience, though, these are so many white containers in a row, many discrete functions in search of a unifying purpose.

I have to talk about the show that must go on.

Advancement Operations provides tools, services, and information that enable the interests and passions of individuals to be aligned with our university’s mission to educate students, advance the frontiers of knowledge through research, and effect societal change. We deliver impact on this mission through facilitating the initiating, sustaining, and advancing of relationships.

This is a deliberate echo of the overall Advancement purpose. It’s not succinct but it’s accurate. It’s not a vision statement puffed with adjectives. It’s a statement of what our team actually does. Everyone working in Operations should be able to see their role in it.

If Operations meets and exceeds its goals and targets, and this does not lead to the front line succeeding as well, then Operations has the wrong targets. The magic of Cirque du Soleil doesn’t happen only under the lights.