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Advancement and the Great Return of 2021: CCAE Exposé #1

October 2021
Written by: Richard Fisher

First and foremost, the Great Return is about people, not places. It is not an event, it is a process.

At no time in living memory has there been a crisis so sudden in its impact and so unpredictable in its effects and in its duration. COVID has changed educational institutions in Canada for ever, and only now are all those involved coming to grips with what that will mean going forward.

The Great Return of Fall 2021 has put all the detailed planning to the test and yet much of the discussion has focused on returning students and, of course, new management models (read: office space!). But advancement teams are, above all, in the relationship business and the Great Return presents a unique opportunity to sharpen the focus on that primary mission: alumni, donors and staff. The task now is to ensure that advancement teams are re-built in such a way that donors and alumni feel more valued than ever, especially as personal contact has been limited in recent times.

Keeping a ’people first’ approach is indispensable. One myth that been soundly demolished in the COVID era is that staff working from home are somehow not pulling their weight. To the contrary, many team members are suffering burn-out from 9-5 Zoom calls followed by several more hours of actual work. The Holy Grail of work/life balance has gone out of the home office window.

Per Brian Fetherstonhaugh, McGill alumnus and former Global CEO, the question is not going to be whether to adopt a hybrid model, but which model to adopt? Universities tend to be hierarchical places where office size matters but, per Fetherstonhaugh, the office needs to be reinvented as a beacon of high-quality activity, not a hub for the humdrum.

The support of and from Human Resources is more important now than ever – not every staff member has the chance to work comfortably from home, either physically or emotionally.  These are not theoretical issues - ongoing support for staff wellbeing will be one of the keys to the long-term success of any future model. For all managers empathy is an indispensable skill, not an optional extra. Anything less than a fully human approach is likely to pose a real challenge for recruitment and retention.  People are not numbers.

Inevitably, there will be times when things go wrong and even well-resourced companies like Apple have faced a backlash for mandating its employees to attend the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays! Rigid flexibility is a contradiction in terms.  Allison M. Villancourt, writing in The Chronicle for Higher Education, has a more detailed take on this issue specific to post-secondary institutions, recommending above all that institutions base their decisions on their individual mandates and cultures - and then remain flexible.

And so - the million dollar question - where does all this leave advancement office space after the Great Return? Can advancement teams risk looking like the only part of the institution that doesn’t get it, especially given their outward-facing donor and alumni engagement mission? Maybe advancement office spaces will not need to be as large, but how will they be different? Can flexible office space really work? If everyone is wearing noise-canceling headphones is the office space truly open? Does any of this enhance teamwork and productivity? What about confidential discussions with donors, alumni and staff? As obvious as the answers to these questions may seem, the open office model has been tried for decades – with mixed results. Even Silicon Valley is re-thinking the entire concept.

Individual institutions will discover the blueprints that work for them, but there is a need to keep planning models flexible and responsive to avoid getting entrenched again in outdated practices.  

And, most importantly, through the Great Return, how does advancement leadership maintain its focus on all of its people – donors, alumni and staff – while re-imagining for the future?


Related resource:

View the companion video for CCAE Exposé #1: featuring Derek Cassoff and Marc Weinstein of McGill University