Balance, Prioritization and Perspective in Advancement

William J. Acton William J. Acton, Senior Partner at Advancement Partners

Not everything we do in our work in advancement is equally important. Candidly, there is a lot we do that, well, we should just forget about. Some of those activities cause max stress and steal max time, with little to no revenue return or true advancement result.

A few weeks ago, I came across a great and timely Ted Talk about how these days everyone seems to be carrying on about how “crazy busy” their lives are. Think back on your own recent conversations…isn’t it true? Isn’t everyone telling you how incredibly “crazy” and “busy” they are? Is this a new, post pandemic thing? Or has it been going on for a while?

The woman who gives the talk is actually one of the very few people who can legitimately claim to be crazy-busy at work: she is an ER doctor. But rather than be overwhelmed by it all, she fights her crazy-busy battles with specific, smart medical strategies (called triage, of course), along with a mindfulness and demeanor that make me hope the next doctor I need employs the same kind of thinking.

Nobody enjoys the company of a crazy-busy person. They tend to be manic, maybe crabby, certainly unproductive, definitely not fun. And really, when people claim to be so very, very busy…do they think they are the only ones who are busy? That nobody else could possibly be as busy?

Let’s all just agree that most of us do NOT have lives and careers that are so busy that we are insane.

What matters in our lives and our work? What makes a difference? What battles should we fight (because they truly will make a difference)? How do we take a moment, take a step back and figure out…is this what we need to be doing…right now…to really, truly make a difference?

My late great mom – a source I often cite in this blog – was the exact opposite of crazy-busy. She was always calm and balanced and pretty unflappable. She maintained this demeanor despite raising eight kids (nine if you count my dad, which we probably should), and managing everything about our lives and the household that needed to be managed. She did NOT do a lot of things. She also fortunately did not have to work outside the home, thanks to my dad’s hard work and her incredible resourcefulness and talent. She also had a full-time household staff of eight, and built in baby-sitters and carpool helpers (when said staff reached certain ages).

Still, our house was incredibly busy, as you can imagine with eight kids in constant “Go Mode.” But it was never crazy. Mom made some wise decisions that helped keep things humming and herself productive and calm. For example, while we were a family of many hockey players (with a backyard rink each winter), she made it a rule that she never tied a skate for any child. If she did tie skates…well, that’s pretty much all she would be doing from October through May. If we wanted to skate, we either had to tie our own or find someone who would tie ours for us.

She also made a decision that every summer morning she would take whatever kids were home (including an occasional random friend or neighbor) to the beach. She would catch up on her reading while we played in the sand and water. And then she would bring us home, make us lunch and then send us, exhausted, to our rooms to nap or read for an hour…so she could get things done.

She knew how to be efficient, how to prioritize, how to triage, in order to get the things done that mattered. She also knew how to keep calm and multi-task: she drank a glass of wine while she made dinner for the family.

So how does any of this apply to those of us who work in education? I take three lessons from watching my mom’s truly successful efforts: (a) balance, (b) prioritization and (c) perspective. Not everything we do in our work in advancement is equally important. Candidly, there is a lot we do that, well, we should just forget about. Some of those activities cause max stress and steal max time, with little to no revenue return or true advancement result.

Of course, exercising this kind of discipline requires thought and the occasional tough decision. If we are the boss, we can’t be having our precious staff time eaten up by activities that are only important because there is no other department or person in the school to do them. There are so many meetings, but how critical are most of them for advancement to attend? Do we really need that annual fund report sliced seven ways and delivered to us every week? And we all know there is no end to the activities we could plan and execute – receptions and reunions and lunches. Most have value and purpose. But aren’t many of these meetings and events metaphorical skate-tiers? Should we really be doing all of them? Are these activities equally important as true advancement? Are they pushing our school mission forward? I know they are causing stress right along with any good they are creating.

Mindfulness is a very trendy word – but it’s a good word. It’s what we all need to be doing before we jump headfirst into the next activity because we “have to.” Nobody will remember how great that meeting was or how fun that alumni “meet and greet” was…if the school doesn’t have an advancement office that generates the operating revenue it needs, builds the required endowment to sustain its future, and finds the major gifts to renovate the science labs. This is no time to waste time. But it’s also no time to go manic.

I do not remember how old I was when I learned to tie my own skates. I do know my mom never tied them, and I do remember, vividly, my days at the beach. The things that matter – that’s what matters. And in our profession, the thing that matters is advancement.

Posted on: September 29, 2022

William J. Acton

William J. Acton

Senior Partner

A graduate of Loyola Academy (Wilmette, IL) and the College of Holy Cross (Worcester, MA), Bill has over 30 years of hands-on experience in organizational advancement, strategic planning, board training and capital campaign management. Prior to beginning his consulting career in 1993, he worked in development for Loyola Academy (running its alumni and annual giving programs) and then for Cardinal Bernardin at the Archdiocese of Chicago, as the first Director of Development for archdiocese’s four-school seminary system and then as the first Director of the Cardinal's Annual Appeal.

Over the past 22 years, Bill has specialized in capital campaign management, major gift solicitation, strategic planning and development operation re-engineering. Partnering with school leaders, he has personally engaged in over 4,500 major gift solicitation calls ranging from $5,000 to $10,000,000.

Bill lives in Elmhurst, IL with his wife Sheila. They are members of Old St. Patrick’s Church (Chicago, IL) and the proud parents of two adult daughters, Mary Alice – a development director at a Chicago Catholic grade school – and Margy, a Chicago-based sports physical therapist.