The word ‘strategy’


Once every few months, to my complete horror, someone on our industry listserv will ask unashamedly for a copy of another university’s advancement strategy to use as an example to write their own. If you don’t ask you don’t get, right?

As much as I worry about the strategy that they’ll put together based on someone else’s unique set of circumstances, I really have to wonder whether anyone is really crazy enough to hand over their office’s most valuable piece of planning to a competitor?

On reflection, more than likely this kind of misplaced generosity comes from a few common misunderstandings to do with strategy.

Perhaps they think that higher education institutions are much of a muchness, and our strategies are pretty much interchangeable.

If their advancement strategy could work for any institution, it’s not a very good strategy! Strategy is not a formula; it should reflect key insights that only you see or have available – whether they be about the strengths of your team, the weaknesses of competitors or the opportunities presented by the wider institution. If it doesn’t have an element of unique insight to get people excited and exploit your difference, it’s not going to lift your performance comparatively – and will probably be quickly forgotten by those who you want to follow it.

Well, maybe they don’t see the harm because universities don’t really have competitors – we each have our own alumni, right?

I find this statement particularly disheartening, and as a teacher of mine used to say, it’s a load of old cabbages. Yes, we’re very lucky to work in a pretty open industry that regularly benchmarks and shares best practice. But we compete more than we care to admit. Whether it’s vying to recruit the best fundraising staff, striving for the time and attention of wealthy individuals, or even the £s from our alumni’s pockets – we’re constantly in battle with dozens of worthy causes and organisations, not to mention the rest of the daily noise our target audiences have to wade through to even open our emails! If your strategy doesn’t clearly state why anyone should give their time or money to your institution over any other charity (let alone university), or even care enough to open the mail you send, it’s back to the drawing board.

OK, but let’s be honest, no one really looks at the strategy once it’s been signed off. It’s a box-ticking exercise.

If you really believe this, then just don’t bother. Your time would be better spent on the long list of things you undoubtedly have to do this week. It’s so busy in the office these days! You barely have time for lunch, let alone to put together a lengthy document that no one will read. Especially with all that pressure you’ve got to launch a new campaign, put the case together for that niche fundraising project, figure out those cost savings you’ve been asked to make and extend the contract on that customer relationship management software you hate…. But on the other hand, should you really be asked to downsize when you’re ramping up for a new campaign? And if that CRM fails, are you going to able to cope with that catastrophe when the team’s busier? And will that pet-project help you achieve that audacious goal you set? A strong strategy will help you to think clearly and avoid chasing your tail. And a really really good one will exist in your daily decision-making and not in a dusty drawer.

As much as I was tempted to reply to those poor souls who want a paint-by-numbers strategy and try to reason with them, I know it won’t be what they want to hear. But I truly believe that when you really do need a good strategy, you’ll bite the bullet and write one.

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