Prior to March 2020, if asked to create a list of the most helpful qualities for advancement professionals to possess, one might include the following traits:
- A passion for the mission;
- A willingness to invite gifts;
- High personal and professional integrity;
- The ability to meet and exceed goals;
- A team-orientation.
If an advancement professional showcased attributes like these, there was every expectation that their success would be assured.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, however, came a new paradigm for work and, indeed, living. Almost overnight, teams of advancement professionals who worked closely together in-person were now connected via Zoom or MS Teams and working from home. Gone were in-person meetings with donors. Even the simplest of tasks became more cumbersome.
With face-to-face interactions removed, whole teams experienced a decrease in productivity. Some advancement professionals struggled with feelings of disconnection from their teammates. Others felt paralyzed and experienced mounting pressure to meet donor engagement goals, gift invitation goals, and other performance metrics. “How,” some wondered aloud, “can our work continue without in-person interactions?”
And yet others thrived.
Other advancement leaders pivoted seamlessly to video conferencing and engaged their teams in fun activities such as “coffee meetings,” or “virtual happy hours,” to keep team-wide engagement high. Some gift officers quickly summoned the creativity to adopt video conferencing as a way to engage donors. They showcased a great deal of professional flexibility in re-assessing performance metrics to include new ways to count donor engagement activities. And, they responded with authentic care for the donors and constituents which only served to further cement strong and trusting relationships.
Even during the most trying of circumstances, then, some advancement professionals and teams thrived.
As it turns out, the pandemic has taught us (or reminded us!) of a few attributes which are critical to advancement success but that, prior to March 2020 were not highlighted often. Specifically, the pandemic forced us to acknowledge that the best advancement professionals and teams generously employ the following 3 characteristics:
- Shape Shifting. They can adapt flexibly and effectively to a variety of circumstances. It has been said for decades that the best advancement professionals are social “chameleons” – meaning that they can ‘get along’ with everyone. But the pandemic taught us that this characterization does not quite go far enough. We have learned that the best advancement professionals and teams can do more than change their color to match the situation, they can completely shape-shift if need be! The best advancement teams and professionals can change their fundamental ways of conducting the work and continue to get results. Much more than “chameleons”, the best advancement professionals are far more like water with the ability to fill the role, no matter the contours of the circumstances.
- Creative Initiative. How do you make a discovery visit with a donor when in-person interactions are no longer possible? How do you engage alumni or other constituents when traditional events are not possible? You use video conferencing to invite people to a strategic focus group, or to conduct a brief survey on donor or constituent experiences, or to invite people to a virtual book club discussion with a well-known author. The most creative advancement professionals initiated new ways to do old work. Taking the time (and being willing!) to brainstorm new and innovative approaches to all advancement tasks and activities were hallmarks of the most successful teams and individuals during the last 18 months.
- Curious About Others. The most effective advancement teams are populated with professionals who are genuinely curious about others. You may recall the early days of the pandemic and how some gift officers struggled to engage with donors, even when using video conferencing tools. “We are in the middle of a global crisis, it feels insensitive to talk with donors about our institutional needs today.” Fundamentally, these advancement professionals were not hampered by the lack of in-person interaction. Instead, they stumbled during those early days because they didn’t have the mindset and/or skillset of simply and authentically finding out how others were fairing during the trying early days. They were more focused on a misunderstanding of the work without realizing that good advancement always starts with learning about and understanding the donor. In those early weeks of the pandemic, the very best gift officers intuitively understood that the best activity was to simply reach out and ask, “how are you doing with everything we are experiencing?”
Whatever comes in the weeks, months, (or, unfortunately, years) of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is clear: our world generally, and our advancement work specifically, has forever changed. And, it will be those organizations and institutions who seek out, attract, and retain the advancement professionals with high-degrees of flexibility, creative initiative, and genuine curiosity about others that will find the most success engaging donors, working as teams, and meeting mission-based goals.
This article was originally published in our December 2021 Gonser Gerber E-Bulletin. To learn more about our Bulletin, or to subscribe to our mailing list, visit our website https://www.gonsergerber.com/services/institute/bulletin/.