I am an advancement leader with years of experience and a very large network of colleagues.
For years, I have been exchanging ideas with colleagues and journaling about my advancement experiences and relationships in hardbound journals that I have come to refer to as my “Playbooks.” I have pulled these books off the shelf many a time pre-pandemic to recall how I handled a situation, to reflect on a sweet exchange with a colleague, read an insightful donor story or to recall the structure of a challenging combination principal gift. With almost 30 years of advancement experience I can honestly say none of “the plays” in my playbooks have prepared me for leadership during a pandemic.
This year has been one of the most difficult of all times for people all across the country and indeed the globe.
As I thought about what to write in this blog, I wondered how leaders led during the 1918 pandemic. And so, as any good researcher does, I googled it! I found an article from the June 2020 issue of Forbes entitled 3 Leadership Lessons from the 1918 Flu Pandemic written by David Gasparyan. According to Gasparyan, during the 1918 pandemic, leaders clearly defined threats, didn’t rely on outdated solutions, and continually refined approaches. Isn’t this what we in advancement find ourselves doing now?
Throughout the pandemic, as leaders we are in perpetual threat assessment mode—evaluating new, pandemic caused scholarship and financial aid needs of students; shrinking budgets; salary and hiring freezes; gift discussions that have slowed down or, come to a screeching halt; high performers on our teams who are suddenly not performing by no fault of their own. The work required and expected of advancement leaders now is more demanding than ever in most of our lifetimes. And it is different, foreign work in some cases. There are no early morning coffee meetings or dinners with our donors. There are no face-to-face team meetings to get the team pumped up before a week of productive donor visits. And as we approach the calendar year end, a time when donor engagement is often at its peak, I am reminded that there are no Florida swings, trips to the West Coast, East Coast, Gulf Coast or any coast to visit donors! And yet, in the midst of these many threats, we are finding new, innovative ways to accomplish this very important work of leading in higher education advancement.
As I think about no longer relying on outdated advancement solutions, I am reminded of a virtual presentation I did pre-pandemic in January 2020. I was asked to present “The Future of Advancement” to a group of diverse advancement professionals from higher education, social services and various other non-profit sectors. One of my topics was the virtual donor visit. I had been testing virtual donor visits for the past several years and had shared it with many colleagues. Most thought it was a crazy idea. But even before the pandemic, I had begun viewing the virtual visit as a way to “see” prospects and donors at a lower cost earlier in the engagement cycle — and with the greater ROI that university CFOs were already expecting from advancement shops.
Little did I know when I presented in January that the future would become the now. I don’t think the days of “the road warrior” are coming back. I believe that post pandemic, we will see continued days of being “Zoom warriors.”
I also see much more reliance on outsourced solutions and consulting partner relationships.
I don’t just make this statement as a Senior Consultant at Washburn & McGoldrick.
Over the past several months of discussions with other leaders what they worry about as they fall asleep, the answer I get most often is connected to staffing – either being understaffed or needing more experienced staff than their budgets allow. Many of these leaders are coming up with very creative ways of cobbling together solutions such as outsourced alumni engagement, annual giving officers and grant writing services (which isn’t so new but getting renewed attention.) At Washburn & McGoldrick we are certainly engaged in some of these creative conversations in helping our clients work through these and other new emerging issues.
Leaders during these trying times are also recognizing they need to renew their emphasis on self-care. Personally, to be the best leader I can be, I have always believed I must eat well, exercise well, and go to annual routine doctors’ appointments. If/when I feel ill with a cold, flu or sore throat, I stay home without exception. Why? Because we are setting the good example for the teams we lead to follow. More than ever we must lead in this way (especially staying home if sick). Not doing so has the potential to take out your entire team if, by unfortunate circumstances your undiagnosed illness ends up actually being COVID-19. Even if as leaders, we feel we are handling the associated stress of the pandemic well, trust me when I tell you many members of your teams, even if they don’t vocalize it, ARE NOT OK. They worry about shifting successfully to the new and innovative ways in of working with donors, about not meeting their metrics and goals, and about caring for their school-aged children and aging family members. Even in environments where the advancement workforce is 100% remote, some are worried about catching COVID-19. I don’t have any old playbooks with solutions to these new issues; we are writing new playbooks day by day.
At various points during each day, in the midst of constant Zoom, Teams and other virtual meetings, I take a few minutes to think about the history we are making at this time as we lead advancement teams during a worldwide pandemic.
I feel very fortunate to be an advancement leader during this extraordinary year, when we are expected to lead teams virtually, to raise major and principal level gifts virtually, to steward donors virtually and to stay calm under the many pressures and negative impacts of COVID-19 on higher education and higher education advancement.
Here’s why I feel fortunate.
We are part of a special cohort of advancement and other higher education leaders who will be able to say to future generations that we were trailblazers during this historic and challenging period in our history.
We are leading teams, launching fundraising initiatives and successfully concluding significant campaigns in the midst of a global pandemic.
Most importantly, we are finding new ways to reach and connect with our alumni and to close gifts from donors who share our passion for education.
We are writing new playbooks on how to lead successfully during a pandemic, and I am grateful for the opportunity (and the writer’s cramps)!