Five Fundamental (But Understandable!) Mistakes We Make in Advancement

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

We are all guilty of mistakes, of course. But the kind of mistakes I want to address here are intentional and fundamental, not accidental or clumsy. Sometimes we forget what our offices are supposed to be all about, and then we get sucked up into other things that steal us away from advancing our schools’ missions.

When it comes to writing a blog about mistakes we make in advancement, there is no one more qualified than me to write it. No one has made more mistakes than me. I’ve been doing work in advancement for a long time, which has afforded me the opportunity to do almost everything wrong at least once.

There was the time I approved the printing of 535,000 solicitation brochures, despite an uncaught major typo in one of the brochure headlines. We caught the typo before the actual mailing…which meant we had to reprint all 535,000 brochures and swallow the cost.

And the time I "talked over" my $1 million major gift ask during a lunch-time solicitation. After blurting out the "ask" in a not so smooth manner, I informed the prospect that if he said "yes!" to such a gift I would gladly buy the restaurant’s best champagne for our table to enjoy. As stupid and ill-timed as my comment was, his reply was priceless: "Yea, I don't like champagne." He may not have liked champagne, or appreciated my clumsy ask, but he did love the school…and said yes to a $1 million gift and then to my offer of a pretty decent scotch.

We are all guilty of mistakes, of course. But the kind of mistakes I want to address here are intentional and fundamental, not accidental or clumsy. Sometimes we forget what our offices are supposed to be all about, and then we get sucked up into other things that steal us away from advancing our schools’ missions. Here’s my list of five:

We put activities or events that don’t fit logically into any specific school department, into the advancement office.

Every school has cherished traditions or activities that they want to sustain. Sometimes schools want to start a really cool or innovative activity that they saw flawlessly executed at another school. These are things like Grandparents Day, Career Day, and the New Parent Welcome Coffees. These are often worthwhile activities, but they really don’t have a logical school office or department to own and run them. So they get dumped into advancement.

I have been accused of being the archenemy of Cookies with Santa, but trust me, I love Santa and cookies. I just think our overworked advancement staff is better suited to raising much-needed funding for our school mission, and the local mall is better suited for doing Santa visits and providing cookies. I don’t have a solution to the dilemma; there really isn’t a good department in a school to "own" these kind of events. But I do know they don't pull our stakeholders closer to our mission, even if those who attend enjoy themselves. So they don’t belong in advancement anymore than they do the dean's office.

We don't leverage activities or opportunities as we should.

The way to get around the mistake noted above in #1 is to have advancement own and execute certain activities in a way that genuinely advances the school mission. When we run activities like the above, or even other things like reunions and Hall of Fame inductions and Homecoming…are we leveraging them for advancement purposes? Are the Career Day invitees major gift prospects? They should be. Do we engage our reunion-year classes in a year-long celebration of their graduation that includes asking each reunion year alum to make a "stretch" annual fund gift in honor of the year? Of course we should!

I am always amazed when I learn that schools run alumni or parent events that are basically social occasions for alums or parents to connect and have fun with each other – and nothing more. At these gatherings there is little to no connection with the current school mission. Indeed, many alum classes don’t want the advancement staff present at the reunion (except to do set up and clean up). That’s a huge mistake. Social media platforms do a great job providing connection opportunities for people. The advancement office doesn’t have to do that. If school stakeholders gather in our school’s name, then we need to use that get-together to forge a connection between them and the school today. And then let’s leverage that good feeling and stronger connection by soliciting their support in the right way and at the right time.

We place a greater emphasis on fundraising events than major gifts.

While everyone agrees in theory that major gifts are where it's at, in practice schools spend way more time, manpower and money on events. A really well-run event will still cost more than $.40 to raise a dollar, while a well-executed major gift ask may cost a cup of coffee (or for $1 million a nice scotch, I suppose.) It is indeed time for schools to put their money where their mouth is: if you believe major gifts are where it’s at, then be sure you have the staff, budget and time to make all of that a reality.

We focus on activity rather than results.

This is a tricky one because the results we frequently seek can be elusive. But many schools spend lots of energy on getting the mailing out or leaving a voicemail requesting an appointment with a major gift prospect…and forget that the activity itself is not the goal! It’s true, we can't realize results without execution of the right activity. But as we execute, we need to do so with our eye on the results.

So if the solicitation mailing doesn’t bring the results we need…or the voicemail request is ignored…what do we do next to get the results we need? That's the trick! Yes, advancement work is hard and getting harder every day. But just because it’s hard doesn't mean we get a "pass" on achieving success. Desire, persistence, creativity, focus are all required.

What's that old saying? Oh yea — Don't tell me how rough the sea is, just bring in the ship.

We don't analyze our data…and thus don't maximize our results.

Analysis takes time, a resource in short supply as we have earlier noted. But without really digging into your giving metrics — understanding what works and what doesn’t — you'll never really get the advancement engine humming the way it should. Too often it’s easier to simply crank up the same old activities in the same way again, even though you need different (better!) results. Tracking data, analyzing results and using them to modify tactics is essential, and also has never been easier thanks to the explosion of technological resources.

In addition, the amount of public data available has never been more plentiful or easier to access. When used strategically, electronic wealth research data will dramatically improve short and long-term results.

Mistakes happen, clumsy or otherwise. But the kind of foundational mistakes noted above are easily avoided with the right leadership and understanding of our purpose in advancement.

Posted on: September 15, 2021

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.