The Culture Club: how advancement teams are building back better CCAE Exposé #7

Written by: Richard Fisher
*with additional input from Concordia University and the University of Windsor.

As the worst of the pandemic wanes it is tempting to think that our institutions are all at similar stages of return, facing similar issues. But the pandemic has rolled out in different ways across the country, often reflecting public health policy in the province. Jo-Ann Campbell-Boutilier, Executive Director, College Advancement and the Holland College Foundation in Prince Edward Island reminds us that PEI post-secondary institutions were more insulated than many from the effects of the pandemic: “We were fortunate that PEI was able to isolate itself very quickly so for the most part, our work in advancement was less disrupted. And as we are a small team in a relatively small institution we were able to maintain a positive culture despite all the upheavals elsewhere”.

At the other end of the spectrum, Liz Gorman, Director, Development and Alumni Relations at St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario says the college is thoughtfully addressing the return to campus as Ontario opens up after being hit hard by Omicron. Kingston was particularly hard hit: “Return to work has been a ‘long runway’ and it’s really just starting for our team – previously the focus was rightly on getting student-facing services back up and running in person. There is a kindness in allowing flexibility, where possible, for those for whom this may be a big adjustment – as long as there is a clear end goal in sight. There is no perfect formula for this.” In fact, as Gorman came to SLC during the pandemic, her team has never actually met all together with one team member located on the Cornwall campus – plus, like her, two new hires were made during the pandemic who are just starting to experience campus in person!

Most institutions, however, are landing somewhere between these two poles.

‘Hybrid’ is the new ‘pivot’

Having ‘pivoted’ for the last couple of years, advancement teams are now trying to implement a ‘hybrid’ model that works for their units. The advancement team at the University of Guelph for example, is experimenting with an entirely new model that melds remote working with a reinvented office space that has few dedicated offices in favour of ‘hoteling’ spaces – i.e. non-dedicated workspaces that are used interchangeably as needed for different staff and differing tasks.

[A word about the open office – we should not assume that an open office necessarily makes people more collaborative, especially if everyone is wearing noise-canceling headphones!]

Motivation is a moving target

In addition to altered working practices, another key challenge through the pandemic has been keeping teams motivated, even as their working world kaleidoscopes from one day to the next. As is so often the case, the through line here is visible leadership – especially in challenging times. A little kindness and good humour go a long way.

For many advancement teams, ‘little and often’ seems to be the mantra, as is remembering that there are other things that can be done outside of work, whether virtual or, increasingly in person: wine tasting, game nights, book clubs and film nights do not have to stop when office life resumes. Some advancement units have set up social and wellness committees with rotating membership to implement fresh ideas from different people. The days of relying on a departmental holiday lunch and annual jamboree already seem so 2019!

Work in progress

Focusing on the work itself, keeping the team involved is key – regular and realistic updates from senior leadership are more important than infrequent extravaganza. The pandemic has taught us that working time is a precious commodity, so we should be careful not to relapse into extended meetings in a room full of people who do not need to be there. Keep meetings productive and short, but don’t forget to be human. Your staff may need support to adapt to the new normal and we should be there for them. Give them a voice and let them use it.

Recently, the CBC quoted Professor Linda Duxbury of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University as saying: “You’ve got to … actually start talking to your people [and] stop pretending … that there is some magical plan you can implement and it’ll be a miracle,” she said. This may be a challenge for the more top-down advancement units, but whether the ‘great return’ becomes the ‘great resignation’ may well depend on how far senior leadership is willing to step out of its comfort zone.

Looking forward, advancement units seem to be feeling very positive about the future. They have come through the pandemic surprisingly well and there is a lot of pent-up energy waiting to get out there with ever more creative ways to engage our alumni, our donors and our staff. And, as we return we need to ensure that we retain the best of our pandemic experiences and add them to our existing skillsets to help build a better ‘hybrid’ future.



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