Strategic Ops

The Operations team supports and facilitates the work of staff in Advancement. The team also executes on projects led by other units. But that’s not all. A mature Operations team pursues its own strategic goals that are aligned with the mission.

What might these goals be?

Operations can lead through informing Development performance. Data, reporting, and analysis contribute to the success of fundraising programs. Consistent data and clear reporting help our organization understand where we are in relation to our goals and guide decision-making. At a more fundamental level, Ops can work with Development to redefine fundraising programs for more effective goal-setting and performance measurement.

Operations can lead through enriching supporter relationships. Advancement seeks to align the interests and passions of people in our external constituency with opportunities to support and participate in the mission of the university. This alignment occurs at all levels – from early-stage engagement of alumni to custom cultivation strategies for prospective principal gift donors.

At the early end of this alignment spectrum, Operations delivers solid data on individual constituents, clear performance metrics, and effective outward-facing digital engagement platforms. In this way, Ops work can drive performance of the Engagement (alumni relations) team.

At the latter end of the alignment spectrum, Operations can lead the enablement of effective relationship management, which relies on shared information and coordination of effort across multiple units and multiple offices across the institution.

Operations develops tools and processes — a natural area for leadership. We can maximize the return to the institution on the investment made in Advancement by pursuing efficiencies that reduce cost, implementing process changes and new tools that increase effectiveness, and providing staff supports that enable them to make best use of the tools and technologies we have.

Return on Investment is expressed in dollars, but many of the most important factors relating to ROI are non-financial. Because the majority of the Advancement budget is salary and the cost of turnover to any organization is high, improvement in this area is measurable as ROI. Operations not only participates in promoting staff development and growth, it can lead here, too. Pursuing the growth and development of people, ensuring equity, diversity, and inclusiveness, enhancing employee satisfaction and retention – these and other “people” factors fuel overall success.

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.

The dysfunction behind “being at the table”

People fight to be at the table – any table where they think decisions are being made. Having fifteen people in the room is usually a bad idea, but cutting people out causes distress.

If we feel the need to keep an ear to the ground all the time, it’s a sign we don’t know what the strategy is. The fight to be present is a dysfunctional defensive posture. We aren’t there to contribute; we are just advance scouts, eyes and ears alert for new ideas and projects that will make fresh demands.

For all of us to arrive at the same destination, we need only to agree on the time and the place, and go our own ways with maps in hand. We do not need to travel in packs.

9 questions about university strategic direction and your next campaign

1. How long ago did your institution last develop a new strategic direction or strategic plan? Less than seven years ago?

2. Is it likely to radically change? Or does it just need to evolve?

3. Will the priorities of your next comprehensive campaign be determined by the institution’s strategic planning process?

4. If yes, what would it take to explicitly reframe the purpose of strategic planning as setting priorities for the next campaign?

5. How would that stated motivation shape the planning process?

6. Can we ask, “What investments are required in the next seven years to realize our strategy and fulfill our mission?” Can we ask, “What partnerships with stakeholders can we pursue so together we can do the things we want to do for students, in the community, for society?”

7. Might the entire institution “own” the campaign as a result, not just Advancement?

8. Might engaging external stakeholders in strategic planning be elevated in importance?

9. How do you feel about Advancement helping to guide the strategic planning process and not only participating?

If your university’s current strategic document includes some variant of “raise more money” as a goal, then consider whether that is really a goal, or a means to realizing goals.

(These questions are inspired by the book chapter, “Strategy as the Foundation for Advancement”, by Darrow Zeidenstein, in the 2019 book, “Advancing Higher Education: New Strategies for Fundraising, Philanthropy, and Engagement”, edited by Michael J. Worth and Matthew T. Lambert, published by Rowman & Littlefield. I recommend it.)

Talking about where your university is going

If you have the chance to be involved in conversations about strategic planning for your institution, don’t miss the opportunity. The strategic direction will influence what your department does, not least because the priorities in your next campaign might depend on it. What better way to understand it and live it than to have contributed in some small way?

I recently participated in discussion circles convened by our acting president, a step toward developing the new strategic direction. Participants had a choice of which group to join, and I gravitated toward one table discussing the purpose of the institution and its role in society, and a second table discussing the student experience.

I haven’t been in a classroom or library in many years, I do not interact frequently with students, and I do not regularly grapple with our institution’s purpose. But I discovered I have a lot of questions about universities, and I enjoyed hearing the diverse perspectives of people from across the institution. It was time well-spent away from the desk.

At the first table, a co-participant talked about the difference between educating students for work and education them for “life.” This got me thinking about how well universities foster the development of students’ inner lives.

We no doubt do a great job promoting and enabling conversation and connection – group work and collaborative working spaces abound, as they should. But do students have time and space for study and solitary reflection, for consolidating their learning, for building a self? Is residence a place where a student can study? Is the library still a quiet place for reading and writing?

If recent graduates seem to have high expectations for compensation and rapid career advancement, offering their hard-earned degree as evidence, have universities been complicit in implying that university, although expensive, is an investment that is meant to quickly pay off monetarily? Have we unintentionally contributed to fostering a relationship mainly characterized as transactional? What does that bode for their lives as alumni? Will the societal mission of the institution matter to them? Is the expense of education and its perceived transactional nature detrimental to a sense of play and being adventuresome in learning? Is making mistakes now too expensive? Are the stakes so high that the pressure is contributing to students’ mental health issues?

My point is not that I had awesome questions, but that I was stimulated to have so many questions. You will wonder about different things.

“What is a university for?” and “What do students believe university is for?” might not sound like Advancement questions, but now I think they are.

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.

I would scan the environment, but there’s too much of it

For months I snatched tempting bits from the flowing river. A story on donor-advised funds, a white paper on the future of higher education, and so on. The piles of magazines and white papers grew, as did my open browser tabs and saved files.

I couldn’t keep up. I got so tired of seeing the same article about Generation Z uppermost on the stack of paper on my floor that I turned the whole stack upside down. I was on continual environmental-scan mode, and it wasn’t doing me any good.

What direction would we pursue if we had a clear view of the dominant trends, the rising opportunities, the threats on the horizon? Awareness of the external context – the world as it is, and how it is moving – is often missing from strategic planning, which ends up exclusively focused on our internal workings.

But, but. All the current ideas and trends in philanthropy, marketing, technology, engagement, wealth, population, higher education – come at us from all directions.

Just as I struggle with how to consume and process information as a person, I struggle with how we deal with it as an organization. There must be a way to make it coherent and feed it into the process.

I don’t have an answer.