One of the themes that emerged that was highly correlated with success was the reported institutional perception and approach to the concept of risk. This was also closely related to delegation and trust.

The programmes with the highest engagement on digital have tended to both allow and explore risk in two different ways: reputational, and structural.


By “reputational risk”, I refer to two key practices:

  • “delegating” communication
  • “delegating” messaging

I have put “delegating” in inverted commas, because I do not necessarily mean formal delegation through an established management hierarchy, but instead allowing others to take on the voice of the institution – even if they neither represent it nor are trained or qualified to do so.

Communication is about the channel, and messaging is about the content. Delegating the channel means allowing others to speak as if they speak for the organisation. Delegating the messaging means allowing others to set the content – and sometimes even the agenda behind that content – that the organisation produces.

As I explained in an earlier section, digital allows people to talk to people in a truly distributed manner.

If communication is delegated, far more people can spread the message – in their own words – to a much wider audience. For example, consider the difference between a university Facebook account posting an article about climate change, and 200 of the university’s researchers and undergraduates posting the same article on their respective Facebook accounts, with a short personal comment from them on why. This model allows for a decentralized model of communication.

If messaging is delegated, far more people can create their own sub-groups and networks through which others can communicate. If a student, researcher, or even a member of the alumni network can individually create and distribute content as if they are an equal partner in the institution’s communication strategy, we move closed to the truly distributed model of communication.

Naturally, allowing either or both of these to happen is a substantial risk for an organisation to take. Many have not, and are extremely reticent to. To achieve each of these and still reap the benefits, whilst minimizing risk, requires an appetite for occasional failure, coupled with extremely strong institutional purpose and identity, that will outlast and temporary fall-out from the delegation back-firing. I cover this in a later section on Strategy, Structure and Purpose.

The recommendations here are clear. Cross-cutting the question of purpose – for a later section – institutions should invest in establishing a simple set of guidelines, and start experimenting with delegated communication and delegated messaging. Delegated communication can be achieved with social ambassador programmes, and messaging by allowing the audience to generate and publish content within the brand of the institution (with varying degrees of moderation!).

Comfort in delegation can only be achieved by delegating.


By “structural risk”, I mean creating an organisational structure and ethos that allows individuals to make decisions with higher risk-return payoffs, over time, than simply maintaining the status quo.

There is no question that by simply doing what was done last year, we will likely generate similar results, and this is unlikely to get us fired or replaced. However, it will also lead to stagnation and eventual failure, though this can take years – even decades – to be obvious.

Institutions that create a culture where individuals have the authority and agency to take new and innovative approaches inevitably see more success. They also, unsurprisingly, see more failure. But the nature of failure in an encouraging environment is such that if it is OK to fail, people tend to be open about it, learn from it, and do better next time. In a less encouraging environment, not only will fewer risks be taken, but when failure does emerge, it will get hidden – and in some cases even built into future programmes simply to hide the original failure.

A good – and very high profile – example of this is Stanford’s recent decision to end its telephone fundraising campaign. There is substantial risk to doing so. It’s likely that even with a substantial digital campaign, it could take years – even decades – to recover the lost revenue from the phone campaign. But Stanford is clearly not only open to the team making this bold call, but also celebrates it – the team is speaking about their decision at most major conferences and in a series of sector webinars and have been doing this for some time.

Ultimately, encouraging and fostering a risk-taking culture appears to be about two things:

  • removing short-term goals
  • removing micro-management

These are heavily studied management topics. But for a start, I would encourage organisations to set a far smaller number of much bolder objectives for their programmes, with much longer term agendas. It’s immensely demotivating to spend a year working for a 0.1% improvement in the participation of alumni in giving.

I would also encourage organisations to engage with entrepreneurial students, researchers, and alumni – as well as the wider innovation communities around them – in designing both their engagement solutions and their corporate structure.

Finally, I would recommend strongly that participation be removed from the metrics by which institutions are ranked, in the US, and significantly discourage its adoption as a metric in the UK or wider international markets. It drives institutions to pursue short-term, but suboptimal, programmes.

Read on for Conflict.