Our world has evolved into more complex technologies supporting deeper and multi-faceted relationships with constituents. So, it is time we ask why higher education advancement professionals are consistently overlooking a significant opportunity that forward-thinking colleagues in healthcare and the performing arts industries are already benefiting from. The opportunity: combined philanthropy operations.

Federalism vs States’ Rights

Before we go too far, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that “merged operations” can mean a few different things. In healthcare, for example, some health systems created shared technology to be used by operations staff who remain dedicated to individual divisions. Other health systems moved toward one merged operations staff serving all programs. Combining operations can be one of two ways: center-led, or shared-service. Center-led (a.k.a. strong federal) is where the centralized operations team defines strategies and determines where and how operations efforts will be used. Shared-service center model (a.k.a. strong states’ rights) is where the programs determine their needs and the service center’s role is to provide the operational service as effectively as possible.

Higher education institutions that are part of a system, like many state institutions, have a natural opportunity to explore combining operations to support their foundations’ advancement services. They can choose center-led or shared-service approaches, and they can determine how staffing models can work across their locations.

What the ballet knows that you don’t.

Let’s look at our cousins in performing arts – your local symphony, ballet, children’s theater, and others are entirely separate organizations, but many regions in the US have well-established arts operational consortia that run multi-organization patron engagement, ticking and fundraising from a cloud-based system with one operational support team. The individual arts organizations did not let overlap in constituents stop them – they created rules of the road for their combined operations managing to fundraise separately and effectively work from an integrated technology. What is stopping a group of private colleges from creating a similar operating consortium?

Now is the time.

Increased buying power isn’t just nice; it’s critical.

The fundraising we do today is supported by an increasingly complex array of full-featured point solutions and CRM systems. A complete system implementation of a modern set of tools translates to more dollars raised. A mid-sized university philanthropy operation may struggle to find the budget for tools that are full-featured and modern, but a larger combination of multiple operations may have the budget to create an ecosystem that can support today’s and tomorrow’s fundraising.

Hello, work-from-anywhere.

Every advancement services shop learned in COVID-19 that effective virtual philanthropy operations were feasible and could be done from home. Once the office disbursed to their separate homes to do their work, we saw a welcome end to the last vestiges of the inaccurate, yet stubbornly persistent, myth “gift processing must always physically happen in this office.”

The talent game.

Talent for an advancement services team is a blend of skills and types. Forward-thinking operations leaders need awareness of the latest regulations, technology, and efficiencies. The team needs technology-savvy individuals to manage integrations, write or support customizations, analyze and assess data. We need detail-oriented processors to run mass process operations while having the discipline and skill to do quality control for key transactions. Where one small shop has to make do with a handful of individuals to meet all of those needs, a more extensive operation supporting fundraising across multiple foundations can search for, hire, and retain more specialized individuals. Today, we have come to understand the benefit of building this “dream team” across a wide geography of big cities and small towns.

This confluence of factors has made now the right time for higher education institutions to explore combing operations. With lessons learned from our healthcare and arts colleagues providing us a roadmap to success, and the vast array of approaches to the technology, people, and processes available, this is too good to pass up.

Ready to strategize?

 After several years as an energetic and successful fundraiser, Ellen began consulting in the field of technology and philanthropy operations when her hair was dark and Windows 3.0 was hot. Decades later, Ellen continues to combine her love of the fast-paced technology environment with her experience in fund-raising, accounting and nonprofit management to serve organizations. 

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