Rodney Kirsch, Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations at Penn State University, is one of the consummate professionals in our field. Many thanks to Rod for participating in the “5 Questions” series. His perspective on the future of advancement and reflections on the Jerry Sandusky scandal are incredibly enlightening.
Some 17 years ago, I inherited a strong program at Penn State in both development and alumni relations. There’s been structural integration for several decades. The Executive Director of the Penn State Alumni Association reports both to me and to the Association’s volunteer president. The E.D. is a senior member of my team and participates in discussions with other senior staff.
An org chart alone, however, doesn’t win the day. Staff resources in areas like financial management, donor and member services, human resources, and information systems serve both Development and Alumni Relations. Staff, volunteers, trustees and academic leaders need to understand, appreciate and respect the work done in both alumni relations and development. This understanding requires constant education.
The constant engagement of our constituents via numerous and diverse avenues is terribly important to advancement success. Traditionally, the philanthropic cycle has been thought of the 4 “I’s” and an S–identify, inform, involve, invest and steward. Those phases of engagement need to be a responsibility embraced and undertaken by both alumni relations and development staff. The distinctions between “friend-raising” and “fundraising” are increasingly artificial and meaningless. Unquestionably, the vigorous engagement activities conducted by the Penn State Alumni Association and, its service to a membership of nearly 175,000 members, have had a strong role in fostering more than 72,000 alumni donors contributing $88 million this past year.
2. What is the future of alumni relations (particularly in the context of membership)?
No one has a crystal ball on the future of membership. Different pricing models and payment plans may emerge based on age or other demographics. Some large publics have abandoned the membership model and declared everyone a member. That’s okay as long as the host institution or an institutionally affiliated foundation provides replacement funds to sustain alumni relations at a high level. However, to forgo membership revenue without other replacement funds will ultimately lead to erosion in both alumni service and financial support of the institution. At Penn State, we continue to see modest incremental growth year to year in membership, but it is earned the old fashioned way. Our membership team has put tremendous ingenuity, energy and resources into driving revenue.
There will be a growing trend toward merging similar functions across alumni relations, development, and university marketing and communications. Competition for student tuition, state appropriations, private funds and federal grants will cause institutions to sharpen their overall message and institutional brand. Every office with a communications function will need to be on the same institutional page when representing our universities. In this increasingly competitive environment, every alumni relations program will be under the gun to demonstrate its value to the academic life of the institution and will be asked more directly what does success in an alumni relations program look like and how do we measure it?
3. Advancement continues to move to the forefront with higher education’s many changes and challenges. How is the role of VP for Advancement (or in your case, Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations) evolving?
It’s certainly more complex than it was 25 years ago when I began managing people and programs. It’s not only alumni programs which will need to measure their impact on institutions. Development will have to do the same. There has been tremendous growth, the doubling and tripling of staffs in 10-15 years or less, in many fundraising programs among public universities, but I predict that this growth in expenditures will slow or flatten. While Development will continue to provide a good return on investment, university foundation and governing boards will ask harder questions about ROI. How are those resources being applied? What metrics are we using for judge individual performance? Are we sorting out the weak performers? The pressures which face the current higher education business model, in general, will be even more pronounced in advancement where so much of what we do is indeed quite measurable year to year.
4. In reflecting on the Jerry Sandusky scandal, what lessons can other advancement colleagues take away from your experience? How did you strategically approach the process of communications and relationship-building (or perhaps re-building) with alumni and friends?
I am quite convinced that nothing could have adequately prepared us for the stunning and unprecedented series of events of November 2011–the arrest of a heretofore community hero and former coach on multiple charges of pedophilia, the indictment by the PA Attorney General of two high level university officials on perjury charges; the removal from office of a popular president; the dismissal of an iconic coach announced live on national television, and a media frenzy unlike any of us had ever witnessed–all within the first four days of the crisis. In the midst and aftermath of these events, the staff in alumni relations and development were on the front line, being asked many questions by volunteers and donors to which they had no answers. They performed heroically under tremendous adversity. I have never been more proud of a group of individuals.
To the extent possible, I was in frequent contact with the leaders of my team, several times a day early on, certainly weekly as time evolved. I held numerous town hall sessions for my staff. In retrospect, I think all of this internal contact was useful.
The first lesson–be aware of the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of your team. Offer professional services to address these various stresses.
The second lesson–you can’t communicate early or often enough during a crisis–we tried to refresh talking points often and provide updates whenever possible. The development team increased its personal contact rate with donors and prospects over the prior year.
The third lesson–stability is at a premium in turbulent times. Against the backdrop of tremendous change in leadership within the university, I pledged to our entire Division my intention to stay at Penn State. I knew quite clearly what my mission was for the foreseeable future–providing leadership, stability and guidance to a great university– and doing such to the best of my God-given ability.
5. Are there any other lessons learned during this process that have made you a better leader as a result?
Other lessons include:
Share both the good and bad news–you can’t just cherry pick for the media only the facts which make you look good.
Focus on your core mission and purpose–we couldn’t have been better served than having our $2 billion campaign focused on students–For the Future: The Campaign for Penn State Students. Donors responded to this message very positively.
Answer every inquiry, complaint and suggestion you receive–nothing upsets an already upset person more so than ignoring their viewpoint.
Be prepared to shelve projects–we delayed certain solicitations, but kept many events scheduled.
Rely on your instincts–most of the time they will serve you well.
And finally, never underestimate the resiliency which exists within our great universities and within the hearts of those who make up our extended university families–alumni, students, staff, faculty, parents. Adversity indeed can bring out the best of each individual and every institution.
I had the pleasure of working with Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans, earlier this year when he keynoted a CASE Indiana conference. (The next CASE Indiana conference is coming up November 1.) Dr. Kimbrough delivered an energetic and inspiring presentation then, and he has provided additional insight now as a special guest for my “5 Questions” series. (Congratulations to President Kimbrough, whose inauguration will take place tomorrow.)
Based on everything I’ve read about branding, to do it effectively it has to be authentic. I’ve seen lots of great marketing campaigns that don’t work. Cool logos, cool designs, but inauthentic. A friend of mine, Martin Thoma, who owns a firm in Little Rock, always talks about living your brand. That’s what we did at Philander Smith College in Little Rock. It was easy to live social justice as a United Methodist school (since the Methodists talk about social justice a lot), and being located one mile from Central High School where the Little Rock 9 integrated. Same for me. The whole idea of the hip hop president is really embracing a new way to be president, which includes active use of social media, unusual collaborations, and the whole “keep it real” (authenticity) that has been a hallmark of hip hop.
2. You’re not afraid to push the envelope. In your experiences, why do you think other institutions try to catch up with the status quo instead of inventing a new status quo?
People are afraid to fail. So it is always easier to pursue something once it has proved to be successful, rather than try something that no one has done or something not done well and failed. Higher education is notoriously conservative as well. There is an adage that says it is easier to change the course of history than it is to change a history course. We seem to create layers and layers of bureaucracy and overthink every decision instead of quickly studying an issue and start innovating. This explains why so many are on their heels with MOOCs, a disruptive technology that has the capacity to fundamentally change higher education.
3. At the CASE Indiana conference, you cited a story that only one-third of college students know who their institution’s president is. Why has it been so important and meaningful to you to make that connection for students?
Today’s students, despite all the social media “relationships” they have, need genuine relationships with adults. Many of my students come from single-parent homes and still want positive relationships with mature adults. I think everyone who works on a college campus has to be available for students who need guidance and support. I model it as the president, but I expect everyone who is emotionally able to do so to follow suit. I say emotionally able because there are plenty of adults working on campus that have their own issues they need to sort out, and they are in no position to mentor a student. But those of us who can need to do so, and students who need these relationships come from all kinds of backgrounds. I saw the same kind of need at Emory as I do at Dillard.
4. You have a track record of increasing alumni giving at your institutions. How have you strategically approached this issue to move the needle on alumni giving?
Alumni want to know the truth about what’s going on, and so I have always found time to get out in front of them. During my first year at Dillard I completed 17 alumni visits to cities all across the country. These were very well received because even though they’ve read letters from me, or seen email updates from alumni affairs, there is still a value in face-to-face communication, especially with our more mature alumni who want to “feel you out.” You can communicate in person in ways that are not translated electronically, and that helps to build the trust needed to engage alumni. It is definitely a best practice for me.
5. During this time of unprecedented change for higher education, what will be the difference for institutions that thrive in this environment?
Institutions that thrive will be the ones that become comfortable with change and actually create change of their own. They will be the ones that decide what they do well, authentically well, and then decide to be the best at doing it. I think once schools decide who they are, and then make a commitment to be that rather than try to chase after every new idea or fad, they will be successful.
The following is an article that I wrote for the September 2013 issue of CURRENTS magazine, published by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Taking the Lifelong View
Indiana University East smashed its silos, embraced student affairs, and made managing the engagement lifecycle a priority
I’m not a radical guy. Indiana University East, a 4,000-student regional commuter campus that’s part of the Indiana University system, is not a subversive place. But to many advancement professionals, the integrated advancement model we operate under sounds crazy. Why? Because we added student affairs, known at IU East as campus life, to our division.
Five years ago our institution was transitioning from a community college to a university that grants bachelor’s and selected master’s degrees. The chancellor and I saw this as an opportunity to reorganize advancement in a heretical and holistic way. We wanted to eliminate advancement silos and develop a common-sense structure that focuses on lifetime engagement and starts where our institutional relationships begin—with prospective and current students.
Before we restructured, communications and marketing was a separate unit from alumni relations and development. Today the four units in our division each communicate with a different target audience in the engagement lifecycle. The name of our division, External Affairs, was deliberately chosen to convey a broader focus than the term advancement, which people often view as synonymous with development. In addition to handling strategic communications and brand management, communications and marketing works closely with admissions to reach prospective students. Campus life, which includes student activities, student government, and clubs and organizations, focuses on current students. There’s no mistaking the audiences—or duties—of either the gift development or the alumni relations and campus events office.
Putting students first
How unconventional is our approach? Only 21 percent of communications and marketing offices rank current students among their top three audiences, according to CASE’s inaugural survey on communications and marketing trends, which was conducted in February and March 2013.
It’s all about the students is a motto of mine, one that I borrowed from fundraising legend Jerold Panas, author of The First 120 Days: What a New College President Must Do to Succeed and executive partner of Jerold Panas, Linzy & Partners. We must continually connect our work to students and constantly renew the passion and enthusiasm that originally drew us to the rewarding field of higher education. In his book, Panas recommends higher education leaders take this student-centered message to heart and keep it in mind every day. But how do you translate this notion into meaningful lifetime engagement?
At any institution, lifetime engagement is no one’s job, yet everyone’s job. When territory is undefined or divided—like the functional silos often found in higher education advancement—programs, activities, and people can fall through the cracks. Our division decided to take on this mission and align our units to shepherd audiences across the crucial transition points.
We view having a hands-on role in student communications as a competitive advantage. Communications and marketing coordinates all major student messaging—including web, social media, email, and print—and partners with other units on projects and activities. From this vantage point, we ensure a consistent voice and common vision in communicating with prospective and current students as well as groups in other stages of the lifecycle. We think this is more efficient, especially with a relatively small staff of 16, and certainly more effective. We don’t worry about inconsistent or duplicate messages because we know what our audiences are receiving.
Direct interactions with students help us better relate and connect their successes to alumni and donors. Being in touch with students also makes our work more enjoyable and rewarding because we feel more closely tied to the institution’s educational mission.
To maximize integration and collaboration across all phases of the lifecycle, from prospective students to donors, information sharing should be seamless. Data regarding a student’s participation in campus groups and activities, for example, should be shared with the alumni office; otherwise, alumni relations staff members will essentially be starting from scratch. I dislike phrases such as cradle to grave and cradle to endowment, but that’s the essence of this approach—a strategic method of developing strong relationships and managing them over a lifetime.
Let’s talk about customer service
Our division’s objective is straightforward: Advance IU East’s mission by enhancing the institution’s reputation, relationships, and resources. These three R’s define our work and help us focus on emphasizing outcomes over outputs. Instead of a communications staff member thinking about her job as simply churning out campus news articles, we try to place her work within the larger context of earning reputation-enhancing attention, which plays an important role in our efforts to strengthen relationships and attract resources. It’s the difference between being effective and being busy (and it’s very easy to be busy in this kind of organizational structure).
Ultimately, we are charged with increasing the flow of resources to the institution. We can influence this primarily through fundraising and enrollment, which include both student recruitment and retention. To paraphrase higher education retention expert Neal Raisman: Students who don’t graduate don’t become alumni. Yet, how many advancement shops discuss or try to participate in campus retention efforts? While many factors and departments influence retention, advancement shouldn’t ignore its important role in this complex issue, which is a priority on most campuses.
Our staff members sit on committees and participate in initiatives related to retention and completion. We regularly communicate with academic leaders and deans about these issues. We also encourage staff to get out of the office and actually talk to students and make them feel welcome on campus.
Creating more opportunities for campus engagement leads to increased student success. That’s how we view campus life, and our communications and marketing efforts play a key role. Our integrated approach to student communications ensures students receive information that’s relevant and timely. Effective internal communications is a critical part of the student experience, and we know that students’ campus experiences will influence whether they choose to give as alumni. In other words, customer service matters.
To more easily relate retention to our work, we often use terms such as experience marketing and customer service. We’re not the Ritz-Carlton or Zappos, but having a service standard keeps us focused on delivering on IU East’s brand promise and reinforces our division’s commitment to lifetime engagement. Our standard is: We want everyone with whom we interact, whether students or alumni, to be meaningfully engaged with the university for their lifetime. Stating this and sticking to it help us keep customer service top of mind, see the big picture, and create a culture that values lifetime engagement. Having this mindset shifts our perspective from thinking of people as admitted students or event attendees to viewing them as partners in a lifelong relationship with the university.
For example, when incoming students participate in our Facebook class groups, campus life can surmise who will likely be active on campus before they even move in. Similarly, we can determine which students will probably be highly involved as alumni and, therefore, possible alumni leadership and development prospects.
Culture may be the most important factor in developing an integrated advancement model around lifetime engagement. The four units within our division communicate constantly, and the directors meet weekly. Our physical offices are in close proximity within the same building. When we’re not meeting as an entire staff, people often sit in on other units’ staff meetings to discuss ways to work together on projects and activities. All these factors contribute to the seamless system we are cultivating.
In a structure where offices and audiences intentionally overlap, we encounter some gray areas about roles and responsibilities, which we address through a culture of open communication and collaboration. The dividing line between alumni relations and gift development is not always clear, but overall, these intersections are positive side effects that reflect our shared ownership of these areas.
Since our reorganization we have experienced significant gains in both student recruitment and retention. Enrollment has increased 85 percent in the past five years. The other part of the equation is fundraising. Our lifetime engagement model is still too young to directly attribute growth to it, but we’re seeing success. In the past fiscal year, our total number of donors hit a record high, and our faculty-staff giving rate reached 92 percent.
On the communications side, we’ve benefited from the strong partnerships we’ve developed with other units. Such relationships blossom when multiple offices not only work together but also think beyond the scope of their own work. Our annual spring concert for students, for example, is now a successful event for a variety of audiences. Communications and marketing worked with local media to promote the April 2013 concert—headlined by Neon Trees—and reinforce IU East’s status as a traditional four-year university. Campus life, which organizes the concert, worked with communications and marketing and admissions to make the concert a memorable event that would attract targeted prospective students, but they also turned it into a special occasion for newly admitted students, who were given VIP seating.
Our division’s structure may look different, but managing each stage of the engagement lifecycle in this manner is just common sense. Aligning the offices so that they work together as audiences progress through each phase is a worthwhile and practical investment. In fact, IU East is a model for the lifetime customer relationship management project Indiana University is implementing across its eight campuses. The project combines three separate information systems—one for prospective students, another for current students, and yet another for alumni and donors—into one CRM tool.
Getting beyond internal barriers
So by now you’re likely on board with our lifetime engagement model. But you’re also thinking I was fortunate to have the chancellor on my side from the get-go, which made dismantling and reorganizing long-standing silos much easier. Implementing this approach at many institutions may pose a challenge due to internal forces and institutional barriers related to support, structure, culture, or history, but you can begin with basic steps. Try to spur some cross-functional conversations. Invite a colleague to coffee. Ask peers who work outside your area (but who deal with audiences or projects that align with your office) to attend your staff meeting—or see if you can sit in on their staff meeting. You’ll be amazed by what can you learn about other units in these settings. When the institution’s mission is the focal point, finding common ground is easy.
Another suggestion is to support the work of other campus offices. Volunteer to help at another unit’s event. Look for ways to develop partnerships with other departments. We always try to place someone from our division on the search committee for open staff positions. It’s a great way to find out what’s happening on campus and learn about another department’s challenges and opportunities.
When peers at other institutions learn about my division’s structure, they frequently say, “We could never do that at my university.” People are often intimidated by drastic change. My advice is to start small and identify some mutually beneficial opportunities to collaborate. When you realize that you share more commonalities than differences, you can begin to break down barriers.
By thinking, acting, and communicating with lifetime engagement in mind, we make sure our audiences are the top priority and avoid an institution-centric mode of communicating and managing relationships. In advancement, Panas’ mantra rings true, but I would add one thing: “It’s all about the students, not the silos.”
We started something new in 2012 in our department. Each month we had a brown bag lunch to watch a TED Talk together. I assigned a month to each staff member, who would pick the video and lead the conversation afterward. Coming together around a TED Talk isn’t an original idea, but I have found the collective experience to be very worthwhile.
It is fascinating to see what videos people select and why. Sometimes the videos are directly related to our work; other times they are simply a reflection of someone’s passion and interests. The videos spark discussions that sometimes go in unexpected directions. We are working to implement a few ideas – a more formalized orientation for new professional staff and a “wolf wave” (our mascot is the Red Wolf) as a fun way to recognize exceptional customer service – that came from these discussions.
Most importantly, it’s a great way to get everyone around the same table in an informal yet meaningful way. In 2013, I plan to extend an open invite to faculty and staff outside of our department to join us.
Here are the TED Talks we watched together in 2012, selected by staff:
- Seth Godin: The tribes we lead
- Shawn Achor: The happiness advantage
- Neil Pasricha: The 3 A’s of awesome
- Susan Cain: The power of introverts
- Steve Jobs: How to live before you die
- John Wooden: Coaching for people, not points
- Drew Dudley: Leading with lollipops
- Charlie Todd: The shared experience of absurdity
- Mike Biddle: We can recycle plastic
- Derek Sivers: How to start a movement
- Shea Hembrey: How I became 100 artists
- Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story
Speaking of TED Talks, I am excited that our city is hosting its first-ever TEDx event, TEDxRichmond, on February 9.
Last month I attended the inaugural Ohio Student Affairs Conference at Wright State University in Dayton. As part of the conference, Rebeckah Hester (Indiana University East director of campus life) and I gave a presentation on breaking down silos to bridge student affairs and advancement through a shared vision of lifetime engagement.
My favorite presentation from the conference was “Management Boot Camp: Strategies for Increasing Management Effectiveness” by Dr. Marcia Venus, a Dayton-based organizational consultant. She referenced the work of James P. Eicher in comparing management to leadership:
Management is “the skills need to motivate people to act based on the performance of the organization both in terms of its operations and its financial well-being. It requires action based on present needs. Implicit with the focus on the present is that the manager functions effectively in an environment of some certainty – personal, financial, marketplace, and organizational.”
Leadership, in contrast, is “the skills needed to motivate people to act based on the growth and fulfillment of the mission of the organization, both in terms of its operations and its financial well-being. Leadership requires action based on future needs. Implicit in the focus on the future is that the leader functions effectively in an environment of some uncertainty – personal, financial, marketplace, and organizational.”
This comparison really made me think. I have mostly adhered to the Seth Godin philosophy that looks down on management as “making widgets” versus leadership which is about “creating change.” We aspire to be leaders, not managers; but these terms don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, isn’t leadership actually the delicate interplay of both management (focus on the present) and leadership (focus on the future)?
In The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, Steven Sample, president emeritus of USC, provides a dose of reality for those determined to spend their time as true leaders working on issues that really count. His 70/30 formula for leadership states that “under ideal conditions up to 30 percent of a leader’s time can be spent on really substantive matters, and no more than 70 percent of his time should be spent reacting to or presiding over trivial, routine or ephemeral matters.” Sample calls the surprising formula the difference between being president and doing president.
There is danger in new leaders delegating the small stuff, because it eventually becomes big stuff. The leader, in turn, becomes victim to a “dragon born of minutiae which could have easily been slain in its infancy.” Putting aside the most important and/or interesting work in order to address “the urgent (but often ephemeral) and sometimes trivial demands of others” can be frustrating, but is necessary to survive and maintain your effectiveness over the long haul. Sound advice from Sample.
On the flip side, he warns that the day-to-day things can easily begin to chip away at the precious time spent on substance. It requires enormous discipline to maintain the substantive component of your job (e.g., independent thinking, inspiring your followers) near the 30 percent level.
In our department, we like to say that “everything matters,” meaning that Advancement is the sum total of everything we do. We realize that there’s often not a clear distinction between the significant and the not-so-significant. Sometimes we manage; sometimes we lead; often we do both. I think this philosophy meshes well with the takeaways from Venus’ presentation and Sample’s book, which both gave me a more realistic outlook on leadership.
Larry Lauer, vice chancellor for government affairs at Texas Christian University, is one of the more thoughtful writers in our field. His blog reflects on lessons learned – about strategy, leadership, organizational process, and much more – over the course of 30 years in higher education.
I have enjoyed two of his CASE books, Competing for Students, Money and Reputation: Marketing the Academy in the 21st Century as well as Advancing Higher Education in Uncertain Times, and would recommend both. Larry, who also serves as distinguished professor of strategic communication in the graduate program at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, has a decorated career in higher ed, and I have always respected his outlook on the evolving profession of university advancement.
1. You are considered a pioneer in integrated marketing. What does integrated marketing look like and who benefits within the institution?
All areas, beyond a doubt: Integrated marketing has two parts: 1. Using several media platforms simultaneously to break though communication clutter and assault target markets. Research is used to determine the media of preference of each target market. 2. Using group process throughout the institution to get everyone on the same page with respect to brand identify, and motivate them to help to tell the same institutional story.
2. In these “uncertain times” for higher education, what are the unique challenges for advancement teams?
There are many: State funding cutbacks are causing a rethinking of core business parameters…including more emphasis on fund raising. Internationalization of the industry is bringing new foreign competition to the US for our students, our donor’s money and global reputation.
All this is bringing advancement front and center in institutions with greater opportunities for us, but also more pressure to perform.
3. I’ll sometimes hear advancement colleagues describe their relationships with deans/faculty as if they are on opposing teams. What advice would you give to help Advancement and Academics work in concert around the institution’s mission?
You must help them meet their goals first, and then help them see how yours are compatible with theirs. It led me to write my last book: Learning to Love the Politics (CASE Books), which deals with all the problems of getting institutional support for our work. That can take half or more of our time, and it’s a course we somehow never offer.
4. Why are silos more the rule than the exception in higher education (and specifically within advancement)?
Deans and many directors are often hired like presidents, with expectations to find good students, raise money, and put the program on the map. Additionally there often is an atmosphere of competition for budget support from central administration. All this leads to silos, and tendency to resist central advancement program’s influence. The answer is to help deans and directors meet their goals, while demonstrating how overall marketing and advancement supports those goals.
5. Circling back to integrated marketing, has the social web changed the face of integrated marketing?
Planning, integration processes, and internal politics all remain the same. Social media bring a whole new set of tactic tools, however, and they are potentially very powerful indeed. However, their use and impact is constantly changing, and it will be critical to monitor these changes carefully as we move our profession into the future. The management challenge will be determining which ones to invest staff time in maintaining, as a lot of time and resources can be wasted imagining good results that are not really influencing behavior.
This Friday Dr. Neal Raisman brings his expertise in the areas of academic customer service and student retention to Indianapolis to keynote the CASE Indiana spring conference. Two of Raisman’s books should be required reading of all advancement teams. I’ll review Embrace the Oxymoron: Customer Service in Higher Education here and later will review The Power of Retention.
I’ve described an integrated advancement model as advancing the mission of the institution by enhancing the university’s reputation, relationships, and resources. Ultimately, we are charged with increasing the flow of resources into the institution. Those vital resources come from two areas: enrollment (recruitment and retention) and fundraising.
As Raisman states, “There is a direct correlation between good customer service and enrollment success. Simply put, colleges that are student-centered and treat students as welcomed and respected customers, while making sure they get a great education, will have enrollment and retention success.”
The critical and complex area of student retention is too often overlooked in advancement shops. It seems so straightforward: students who drop out never become alumni and donors. Furthermore, the decision to become a donor (or not) starts before a student even comes to campus, so get involved in service from the beginning. Be a customer service advocate and lifetime engagement advocate on behalf of your entire institution.
The phrase “customer service” can be a dirty word to our faculty colleagues, much like “marketing” once was (and still may be among a few holdout traditionalists). Raisman explains, however, that academic customer service is not a surface level tactic; it’s a strategic approach to fulfilling the real expectations of students.
“Academic customer service means keeping the student at the center of the enterprise. It means treating students as clients, not simply as customers. It means enriching and engaging students intellectually, professionally, and personally as valuable and crucial individuals that the college wants to keep as clients. This is achieved through positive and edifying experiences for students, not necessarily by pandering to them, as some people fear customer service would mean.”
A key point here is that students are professional clients, not customers. The author’s parallel is a patient/doctor relationship. “Clients depend on the service provider to give an excellent service even if it includes some bad news or directions for change the client may not find pleasant, as when a doctor tells a patient to stop eating all sweets.” Forget the old business adage that the customer is always right.
Raisman outlines 13 principles of customer service in higher education:
- Students should be given courteous and concerned attention to their needs and valued as people.
- Students should come before personal or college-focused goals.
- The processes, rules, and regulations of higher education should be fully and actually student-centered.
- Be honest in all communications and do not patronize students.
- Students can never be an inconvenience.
- There must be a proper match between the product and the customer.
- Just because it was someone else who did something that would hurt a student does not relieve you of doing what is right.
- Students deserve an environment that is neat, bright, welcoming, and safe.
- Students are not really customers.
- The customer is not always right.
- Satisfaction is not the gauge of successful customer service in a college.
- Do not cheapen the product in the name of customer service. No pandering.
- To every problem there is more than one solution and they often are external rather than within academia.
We all work in higher education because of students and our belief in the transformative impact it can have on their lives. That’s the bottom line here. As Raisman says, “a customer-centered college cares about students and their success more than its own comfort and status quo.” Students are everybody’s job. There is no one at the college more important than the individual student. “The students must be the center of the mission and the purpose of the college or university.”
In 2010 Chas Grundy, a marketing and fundraising professional at the University of Notre Dame, told me about the book The Story Factor. Chas is a great colleague; he shares excellent content via Non-Profit Chas and grundyhome.com, and we both serve on the CASE Indiana board of directors. I took Chas’ recommendation and used this for our “directors’ book club” last spring semester.
Our team thought the book’s message rang true for our work in advancement. As author Annette Simmons notes, “People don’t want more information. They are up to their eyeballs in information. They want faith—faith in you, your goals, your success, in the story you tell.” Thanks to Chas for his guest post and review of The Story Factor, below.
Let me tell you a story. Years ago, my wife and I bought our first house. We had talked about it for several months and finally decided to start looking around. A few days later, we had done no more than drive past houses with signs outside when we saw one that we liked. We walked around the house, peering in the windows. There was no real estate agent and the owners weren’t living there. The lawn was brown and crackly from a hot summer’s worth of neglect. The house was empty. It needed some love.
But the house was nice enough. And it was in a neighborhood that evoked nostalgic memories. The other lawns were deep green and meticulously trimmed. The sidewalks and streetlights made everything feel safe and classic. We joked that the neighbors would be cooling pies on their window sills and baking us cookies to welcome us. We loved it and decided to buy the house.
We hadn’t even been inside. We didn’t even know what price they were asking. But we were already sold. (When it came to negotiating the purchase price, it made for a much more difficult process, but we did end up with the house.)
You may have heard the line, “people buy on emotion and justify with logic.” Today, it’s one of the most common themes in marketing, fundraising, public relations, sales, leadership, you name it: everything comes down to a story.
Annette Simmons is a storyteller. Of course, consults and writes and speaks, but in all of these things she tells stories. I recently shared her book The Story Factor – Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling with my colleagues as a way to help shape our approach to communicating.
The best part of The Story Factor isn’t the mechanics, the how-to, or the strategies of storytelling. It’s the stories she tells. Having collected hundreds of great stories over her career, Simmons uses them to teach readers how stories are an effective tool for changing hearts and minds.
Every chapter is laced with stories of all sorts, from fables to Jewish parables to personal stories from her own past or public speakers she’s heard. Some are emotional, others will get a chuckle. On their own, these stories would be enjoyable enough to read.
One of my favorite stories, one I’ve used when speaking with donors, is her tale of the Dead Sea and the “very much alive” Sea of Galilee. As she explains:
“The Dead Sea has no outlet. Both are fed by the same source but the Dead Sea can only receive an inward flow. The Sea of Galilee is alive only because what flows in can also flow out. For this man, the metaphor of the Sea of Galilee demonstrates his experience that for him, giving is a necessary function of thriving and feeling alive.” (p. 14)
But Simmons also does a wonderful job of connecting these stories to the mechanics of storytelling to help you learn how you can tell your stories. She launches the book with The Six Stories You Need to Know How to Tell and moves on through what makes up a story, how they can work where facts fail, and different styles of story. These parts can seem a bit slow, but it moves quickly as you find yourself leaping from story to story as you skim the denser text.
Then again, it seems she knows this danger. As she warns in the introduction, “Trying to break [stories] down into pieces is like cutting a kitten in half to in order to understand it. Half a kitten isn’t really half a kitten.”
This was the second time I’ve read The Story Factor with a group of colleagues, and I’ve given it as a gift to numerous others. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself adapting the stories for your own use. It’s not hard to see how these things work in fundraising, marketing, sales, or leadership contexts. We work to inspire, influence, and persuade every day.
As a person who loves both to hear and tell stories, I’d love to believe that I’m immune from their effects. But I know better. When we bought our second home, my wife and I were caught by the same trap – we fell in love with the house at first sight. We told ourselves a new story and sold ourselves.
Seth Godin offered some provocative words for higher ed in 2010 with “The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer).” I have always valued his perspective on leadership (Tribes book review) and challenging the status quo. Seth kindly agreed to participate in my ”5 questions” series, elaborating on his outlook for higher education and sharing his insights on university advancement and marketing. What are your thoughts?
1. It’s 2020. What does higher education look like at the end of this decade?
That will be about three years after the giant crash of education loans and the inability of the typical student to justify a full-fare education. It will also be a few years after most courses are available digitally–maybe not from your school, but calculus is calculus. At that point, schools will either be labels, brand names that connote something to a hiring manager, or they will be tribal organizers, institutions that create teams, connections and guilds. Just as being part of the Harvard Crimson or Lampoon is a connection you will carry around for life, some schools will deliver this on a larger scale.
I guess it’s fair to say that the business of higher education is going to change as much in the next decade as newspapers did in the prior one. And one more thing before I really get ranting: Higher education is vitally important to our future. It’s one of the best reasons to be a citizen, to be a person in our society. It has the potential to change lives and open doors. But we need to push in the right direction.
2. What are the interesting problems that higher education needs to solve?
The biggest one is: What’s it for?
Is higher education the thing you do before you become a college professor? Because that pyramid scheme is coming to an end… we don’t need any more Ph.D.s, do we?
Or is higher education the place rich kids go to become erudite? Not so many rich kids as there used to be.
Or is it a finishing school/trade school? Professors bridle at that.
One thing I hope we can agree on is that college should not continue to be advanced high school but with more binge drinking.
3. You’ve said most colleges and universities are “mass marketers.” What’s holding institutions back? Do they lack meaningful, compelling uniqueness; can they not tell their stories; or both?
I wouldn’t say “holding them back” because colleges have CHOSEN to be mass marketers, have chosen to sell above average education to above average masses of students. That’s what thousands of colleges have chosen to do, all at the same time. I get the brochures at my house daily. Switch the logos and there’s not a lot of difference.
If you reward the University president for fundraising, don’t be surprised that she’s in favor of a big football team and a plan to move up the US News rankings.
There are definitely unique schools out there, niche schools, schools that know who they want and what they want to deliver. But most institutions are institutions first, and lack the guts to say no, so they become mediocre.
4. What advice would you give to higher ed marketers, especially those looking to do things differently and create change within their institutions?
Marketing is first and foremost about what you sell, not how you sell it. So an institution that wants a different marketing footprint needs to have a different agenda, a different curriculum and needs to be less beholden to the accreditation folks. If there’s a crisis around the corner (and there is, draw any lines on any graph you choose), then doing what you’ve been doing is surely going to get you what you’ve been getting, no?
5. In terms of university advancement, how can we rethink traditional approaches and truly create “tribes” among our universities’ alumni and donors?
The question is: does the relationship start or end at graduation? Not just the relationship with the institution (give us money!) but with the other students? What does an alumni network that works actually look like?
My good friend went to Harvard Business School while I went to Stanford. I was struck by one huge difference: the first day of the first class, he and his classmates elected their alumni rep and organizer–two years before graduation. I don’t think we ever did.
Bonus Question: Do you see evidence of university Admissions teams and Advancement teams effectively “flipping the funnel?”
I think we see this a lot with the fundraisers at the big football schools, certainly. For admissions, I’m not seeing it. The alumni network is a huge source for the right sort of student selection and conversion, but generally, alumni are put to work as fake interviewers, contributing notes that aren’t actually read by the admission office…
Bonus Question: What should be on the reading list of higher ed leaders for 2012?
John Taylor Gatto, for sure. Loren Pope. My book Linchpin if I can be bold. Richard Feynman and Tim Wu’s The Master Switch too.
I don’t recall the who, what, when, or where. I just remember the response. Someone a few months ago asked me what I do at the university, and my eight-year-old daughter quickly piped up, “He just goes to meetings all day.” Ouch, the truth hurts.
Meetings do matter though. They are a must for effective coordination and important interaction with your staff to support their work. But most days include five or six – if not more – meetings, and it’s a constant challenge to find the time needed to do real work. Therefore, I made a New Year’s resolution to have fewer meetings (and fewer bad meetings).
Looking for inspiration, I read Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampalli, a manifesto challenging our traditional meeting culture. Mediocre meetings cripple our organization, the author laments, creating a culture of compromise (where game-changing ideas die) and killing our sense of urgency. We’ve all seen it happen…in the face of a pressing, difficult decision, someone calls a meeting instead of taking action.
Pittampalli dreams of a world of fewer meetings, where we would have more time for real work – the work that propels our organization forward. “Work that involves action, struggle, and effort. It’s that output that puts us closer to winning. If the mission could speak, it would constantly tell us, ‘get back to work.’”
His solution is the “modern meeting.” We have to change our mindset about meetings. They are not just another form of communication, but a “special instrument” or “sacred tool.” The modern meeting exists for one reason: to support decisions. That way “bold decisions happen often and quickly” and are converted into forward momentum.
The author outlines seven principals of modern meetings, and there is great content within each. The modern meeting:
- Supports a decision that has already been made.
- Starts on time, moves fast, and ends on schedule.
- Limits the number of attendees.
- Rejects the unprepared.
- Produces committed action plans.
- Refuses to be informational. Reading memos is mandatory.
- Works only alongside a culture of brainstorming.
Here are some of my takeaways to implement for the new year:
- Keep meetings as brief as possible. I have several regular meetings on the calendar for one hour; I’ve changed them to a half-hour. Get in, get out, get to work.
- Be more willing to decline a meeting if necessary. Request a meeting agenda in advance if it is not provided, and upon review, determine if I will really add value to the meeting. Let’s face it…we invite too many people to our meetings, particularly in academia.
- For my own meetings, recommit to ensuring that everyone goes in with a clear purpose and comes out with a clear action plan. What actions are we committing to, who is responsible for each action, and when will those actions be completed?
Regarding a clear purpose, Pittampalli says that modern meetings should center around two things: conflict and coordination.
Conflict: The relevant stakeholders can debate the decision, propose alternatives, suggest modifications, or have concerns addressed. The decision is ultimately resolved.
Coordination: If a decision demands complex collaboration from different people, teams or departments, stakeholders can convene to coordinate an action plan.
Once again, the modern meeting convenes to support the decision, not to make the decision. “After all, decisions are the job of the individual.” This avoids the trap of “over-planning” and “never-ending due diligence.” If you need input pre-decision, you should get it via one-on-one conversations.
Can you lead the emergence of a new meeting culture at your institution? By the time Katherine turns nine, perhaps “He just goes to meetings all day” will be transformed into “He creates change, and when he goes to meetings, they’re awesome!”