Don’t Neglect Professional Development

As a fundraising consultant, too often I see organizations that don’t budget enough—or anything—for the professional development of their development professionals. Given that upwards of 75% of advancement budgets fund personnel, it’s strange that we wouldn’t strategize to maximize skills where it matters most.

Leaders: Develop a Plan

Begin by making professional development a top priority. Then budget to make it happen. I know the biggest reason we don’t train our professionals is a perceived lack of funds. Second, professional development seems expensive. But missing the mark here is analogous to buying a house and neglecting to insure it because the mortgage is so high there is nothing left for insurance.

There is a wide world of high quality professional development resources offered by nonprofit and proprietary providers focusing on nearly every professional niche and skill level. Use your skills as a leader to find and use the resources that will allow your shop to excel.

Make the creation of an annual professional development plan an intrinsic part of the annual performance review. And I think you will agree, it would be nice to have a few more carrots in our managerial arsenal.

Professionals: Ask for Education

Development professionals should research the educational and training options that exist and the costs that apply. Not every option requires extensive travel. Some excellent providers, like The Fund Raising School at Indiana University, offer sessions in different cities around the country. Even if you have to travel, it may not be a long distance.

Ask for what you need. Raises can be costly, promotions out of reach in a small shop, but professional development can benefit everyone, every year. Do your research and make the case. Be persuasive. Let your boss know that investing in you now will mean more dollars on the horizon.

Be Strategic About Your Choices

Annual conferences are a no-brainer. They offer an attendee-centered menu that allows a lot of latitude for professionals at different levels on the career ladder. Week-long intensives can be transformational. A fundraising 101 course is essential for people who are new to development.

Intensives on personal cultivation, solicitation, and prospect management are essential to professionals moving up the philanthropic ladder. We need to know how to manage our own psychology to excel in a field that is, as I say in my book, sales transformed by mission.

Successful professionals need theory, education and training. Think about the difference in these terms. Without theory you can’t plan. Without education you can’t apply what you know. Without training you can’t exercise the precise muscle needed to win the day.

Personalize It

Professionals who enter the profession with a graduate degree in philanthropy arrive on the stage with a unique set of opportunities and needs as opposed to someone who transfers into development mid-career from another field. And that law degree doesn’t mean its holder understands fundraising.

If you offer that individual with the law degree theory, education, and training related specifically to planned giving as it exists in the real world, for real people with real needs, desires, and capacity, then you’ve got an appealing package.

Regardless of our origins and starting points, there are many models for success in development. A wide variety of backgrounds can inform the practice and a wide variety of personality types can achieve career success.

But here’s the deal: almost no one arrives at the profession fully formed. Those who think they are beyond benefitting from professional development may be suffering from a blind spot big enough to drive a truck through.

And senior-level professional development can be supremely rewarding. I say this as a past (and future) participant. As you consider the options, think about getting out from behind your computer to engage person-to- person with fellow participants, facilitators, teachers and students. So much of the magic is in peer-to-peer interactions!

So, don’t sell yourself short. Don’t sell your staff short. Educate and train, educate and train, repeatedly, throughout the arc of every career.

It takes just two things—commitment and belief—to get everyone in your shop onboard and learning.  ▪

[This article originally appeared at February 2018]

A Note on Digital Strategies For Alumni Engagement

Here’s a  note of mine as published in a recent online post from Causeview, the giving apps company.  Read the entire post here:


Unfocused messaging and an over-reliance on social media as the primary engagement tool can combine to give alumni shops the feeling that they are doing much while accomplishing little.

As a better first step, I would propose greater exploitation of an earlier format, the monthly blast email “mini-magazine.” Combine strong photos with a compelling editorial voice that reveals college breakthroughs, powerful stories of student engagement and alumni achievement, together with a section on alumni milestones (with photos) and you have a package that possesses a greater chance of being opened.  Count clicks and time spent per page for engagement metrics. You can repurpose the copy on Facebook, and tweet the photos to tighten up your social media brand.

Do We Do What We Say We Do? Cognitive bias in the boardroom

A big part of my job as a consultant is discerning the big picture in things. Working with boards, two big picture factors play an outsize role in diminished governance outcomes. The first is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is, you will remember, the tendency to seek out, favor and recall information that confirms existing beliefs. As such, it is a prime component of erratic inductive reasoning.

The second is what I call normative bias. That is a bias to favor the assumption that current and future events will tend to preserve and confirm the status quo. That tomorrow will look like today. That students in the next decade will face the same challenges as students in this decade.

That is, if you can’t see change, it most likely isn’t happening. Or, that the world leans toward stasis rather than change. And this factor is particularly applicable as a component of considering some localized issue at hand where the big picture is easily obscured by the demands of the moment. Think of it as the error of assuming past stock market winners will be future winners. Think of it as viewing any given infrastructure as immutable and not prone to degradation or obsolescence.

Together, these two biases lead good boards astray. They lead board to ignore threats and opportunities in the interest of preserving the status quo. On the face of it there might seem to be nothing wrong with such conservatism of governance. I do not discredit the term “conservatism” here in the least. The role of a governing board is to govern an organization in trust for the greater community in the service of a relatively immutable mission. That is as it should be. Reckless—and feckless—board governance is anathema to the continuity of a needed service.

But confirmation bias, especially collective confirmation bias, or groupthink, is endemic to board culture and decision-making. It begins with overbroad notions of collegiality, of knowing “one’s place,” of not rocking the boat; there are so many ways American idioms express the concept—precisely because it is so commonplace.

Confirmation bias tells us that since we serve an organization that does good work, the evidence tells us that we’re doing good work. Statistics are quoted, testimonials are heard, anecdotal evidence is convincing…or…the statics are not germane, the testimonials are pure emotionalism, and the evidence not actually evidence. What we are hearing in such a scenario is confirmation bias at work.

Confirmation bias gets in the way of realizing that we are underserving entire sectors of the community, that we are training for the wrong jobs, that we are not tracking our former enrollees (all too often inaccurate to call them graduates) for outcomes; all of these circumstances are serious business, but in the face of challenging notions, studies show convincingly that confirmation bias is invincible unless countered.

And what of normative bias? Normative bias says that change that happens slowly isn’t happening. Global climate change might be the poster child for this one. But it happens at every intersection of personal and collective experience. Baby boomers are not aging. Suburbs are not growing more diverse. College tuitions are not becoming unaffordable. White collar jobs are not disappearing.

In the rear view mirror, it all seems so obvious. Half of all Americans worked in agriculture in 1890. Forty percent of Americans worked in high quality manufacturing jobs in 1950. So we see titanic forces are obscured in the slowness of their conquest. It happens all around us every day, in nearly every neighborhood, but all to often we don’t know what we’ve got—or don’t have—‘til it’s gone.

When you pair confirmation and normative biases, the errors of inductive reasoning can be compounded to an astonishing degree. We develop an entire sector, let’s say the community college sector, that tells itself and the world that it is the go-to choice for job retraining and access to education for the underserved.

Yet we see that millions of jobs go unfilled every year in regions where un- or underemployed workers are legion and the community college sector has a strong presence.

The educational-industrial complex, to put an ironic twist on it, has not done a good job of providing meaningful retraining for the good jobs that actually exist. Why? Because we so busy doing a good job that we didn’t have room, time, or resources to do the job that needed to be done?

Boards need to ask themselves one question: do we do what we say we do? And they need to demand answers that are backed up by rigorous empirical methods that are as free of cognitive bias as possible.

Do we do what we say we do? That is the question. Let’s start there.


10 Things Colleges Need to Know About Alumni Relations

Think of alumni relations as a close cousin of fundraising. Two-year colleges often have under-resourced, rudimentary programs that lack the focus of their four-year counterparts. And if your fundraising program is under-resourced, it’s hard to invest much in alumni relations. But invest we should. And we should remember that alumni relations is a separate cost center from development, one that should not be reflected in your cost-of-fundraising reports like the IRS form 990 or your audit.

Here are some reasons to invest in alumni relations:

  1.  Alumni are a resource of the educational mission of the college.  Their relation to the institution comprises interactions that transcend the fundraising program.
  1.  The college needs to offer multiple, coordinated entry points for interactions with alumni, coordinated by a specialist reporting to the VP of Advancement.
  1. The college needs to promote interaction with the alumni so that they remain informed about the educational activities of the college and can serve as ambassadors of the college in ways that benefit enrollment management, career placement, and other core activities of the college even before we see their cultivation as a future resource of the fundraising program.
  1. Alumni often want to maintain a relationship with the college directly via their academic department, as with professors, or coaches, and don’t want to be perceived primarily as donor prospects. I believe this is particularly true for alumni in their 20s and 30s.
  1. Young alumni as a group cost the fundraising program money to stay in touch with them during the twenty-year period it takes for them to become significant donors.  A balanced, professional alumni relations program will undertake that challenge based on a rationale that is more encompassing than the Annual Fund dollar value of each class of alumni.
  1. Tracking contact information for alumni often exceeds the data management capacity of a fundraising office, requiring significant integration with the data management capacities of the college. This is the most intractable issue facing community colleges today because the effort is under-resourced and not seen as an institutional priority. Even so, much more can be done by most colleges to keep track of alumni, including mailing to them at least twice a year and using NCOA protocols.
  1. A primary way to remain in touch with alumni is a college magazine, backed up by a strong online program for alumni contact.  The editorial content of these reflects the entire college and therefore must be managed to reflect the interests of the college, while at the same time viewing editorial through the lens of Alumni relations and development.
  1.  With younger alumni, their relationship to the college may benefit the college in ways that pertain more closely to marketing than fundraising.
  1. Alumni benefit the college directly by:
  • Providing expert advice and guidance to the university’s leadership
  • Providing case study material, guest lectures, equipment or similar to enhance teaching
  • Supporting student recruitment
  • Providing careers advice, mentoring, placements, internships to students
  • Acting as positive role models to current students

[Source for #9 (condensed):]

These activities reflect the degree to which the alumni relations program must be managed by the college to provide systemic, comprehensive management of the aggregate and individual relationships with alumni to benefit the college as a whole.

  1.  Colleges often provide services or benefits to alumni, both tangible and intangible, that reflect interactions with the entire college, including athletics, academics, placement, and advancement.  An advisory team that reflects the life and values of the college should assist in oversight of these benefits.

Conclusion:  it’s never too soon to invest in alumni relations.