The role of strategy, structure and purpose is clearly paramount. This is an enormous topic area, and this section will remain a work in progress for some time to come.

Strategy and Purpose

Organizational strategy is a fractal problem, and this is rarely more complex than in higher education institutions. Their role in the world covers a vast range of different and myriad purposes – from cutting edge research, as employers, as cultural centres, and as institutions responsible for the development of future generations into the citizens of our future.

Decades of research have been done into strategy development in large and complex organizations. Most of the frameworks developed ultimately have a few things in common. There must be a timeframe for a strategy, and there must be a clear, globally understood objective of some kind. With these in place, team leaders across all the different divisions can begin to address their component of that shared objective, and build resourcing and plans appropriately to deliver to it, as well as to be able to evaluate performance against it.

This is particularly pertinent in the fundraising space. The vast majority of giving to higher education institutions is from high net worths, trusts, foundations and corporates. All of these want to understand the strategic timeframe and objective of the organization, so they know that their gift will have the desired impact, and will be looked after appropriately. They also want to be told that story about how the organization sees itself in the future, and what it’s going to do to get there. Colleagues at More Partnership regularly encounter this challenge when assessing organizations for major fundraising campaigns – rapidly, the conversation ends up at the very top of the organization and the question being asked is one of mission or purpose. Until organizations can state their mission/purpose and the timescale they have for delivering against it, campaigns stall, as teams are unable to communicate with funders, and unable to plan appropriately for the timeline. When this happens, all delivery becomes short-term and incremental, focused not on delivering to a clear, shared objective, but instead focused on performing a little better than last year with the same set of rough inputs. Aspiration suffers, innovation suffers, turnover increases, and both fundraising and engagement stagnate.

From the point of view of senior leadership, setting a clear purpose and a timeframe for a strategy is the single most powerful thing you can do to free your development and alumni teams to deliver.

From the point of view of a leader in the development or alumni relations space, pressuring your senior leadership to do this is the most impactful thing you can do. With it, you’ll have the outline within which to build your own plans.

The reason I emphasize the above here is that of those I interviewed on my research, only one person was able to immediately, without hesitation, communicate why the organization existed, and what its goals were for achieving that mission. This is either a failure of leadership in creating this purpose and timeframe, or more likely a failure to communicate and reinforce the message internally throughout the planning and review process. All staff need to know what this is, or the entire organization suffers.

Structure and Goals

This is another massive area of organizational research, and again, I am loathe to repeat decades of others’ work here. Suffice it to say that there are some really clear problems affecting digital delivery in this space:

  • As professionals in the space, we are speaking to one audience, but at present, we are speaking with many voices (marketing, recruitment, fundraising, events, etc ad infinitum). This confuses the audience when it comes to their own identity with respect to the organization. If you speak to someone like they are a potential donor, they do not expect you to them treat them as a potential future distance learning student. A unifying underlying purpose that is communicated and reinforced allows all communication to be underpinned with the reason for that ask. If an organization is trying to alleviate global poverty through its work, and this is is absolutely clear in all communications, then any ask – for money, new students, event attendance, mentoring, etc – can leverage that purpose to explain why this specific ask matters. That wider context means disparate voices and messages have an underpinning framework, allowing the recipient to clearly identify their identity as part of the whole.
  • Digital capacity is both scattered across the organizations randomly, but authority is centralized. Capacity is rarely if ever developed strategically; it tends to emerge where experts happen to exist. However, authority to act upon that expertise is not decentralized the same way, and so almost all activity on digital is mediated or tempered through centralized control structures such as a corporate communications office, marketing office, or even website team. This is hugely unhelpful, as it means that the best people are often on the edges but unempowered to act. This is demotivating and results in ultimately suboptimal performance and delivery, very slow turnaround times on relevant and new engagement opportunities, and often these frustrations lead to high staff turnover.
  • Goals almost always conflict, and in particular, in this space, they conflict with respect to who “owns” the relationship with alumni, and what the purpose of it is. Alumni relations teams tend to think it’s about a systemic investment in engagement, which might ultimately lead to better overall outcomes for the institution. Fundraising teams tend to think it is all about the money. This is further complicated by having external Alumni Associations with often separate legal and governance structures, whose primary set of stakeholders are the alumni themselves. When teams have different goals, specific only to their particular team and metric, and not specific to a wider outcome, there will always be friction that slows down almost everyone, resulting in slower, less engaging, and less bold digital presence.

On these points, there are clear recommendations that are hard to deliver but essential to start delivering:

  • Make sure senior leadership has created, communicated, and reinforced a strategic timeframe and a purpose/mission. As a team member, do everything in your power to make this happen. It’ll make your job and your life infinitely better.
  • Don’t build a machine out of people. Don’t divide and conquer goals across multiple teams before you’ve understood what the unifying goal actually is. It is my belief that alumni relations and annual giving are one and the same, because they speak to essentially the same audience today. It is also my belief that as institutions make more of an impact on the world around them and start to step into the cause-led mission space, this goes beyond alumni relations and also more into wider public relations and general communications. Fundraising has already stepped well beyond the alumni networks; it’s high time alumni relations does too. However, if it’s too institutionally complex or political to create a single team combining at least alumni relations and annual giving – and at most all of fundraising and communications – then there is an alternative. A solid audience analysis, segmentation and “user journey” analysis that is done above all of these teams, with their involvement, will provide much clearer guidance and shared goals. When goals are distributed without this analysis, friction is inevitable. But if the strategy across all of these areas is defined first, then the goals become both much easier to create, and much less conflicted between team. Furthermore, it might be possible to reimagine team structure based around the specific goals, rather than based around conventional divisional structures such as “alumni relations”.

Read on for Training.