Strategy: It’s Not Just a Buzzword

Strategy requires both the destination and the map of how to get there. It is both goals and objectives while honoring the vision. 

Let’s talk all things strategy. The word can mean many things to different people, so it’s important to start by coming to a common definition. Being strategic is not planning. It includes planning, but involves so much more. Strategy requires both the destination and the map of how to get there. It is both goals and objectives while honoring the vision. 

The official definition of being /strəˈtējik/ is: relating to the identification of long-term or overall aims and interests and the means of achieving them. 

While vision is not by definition a piece of being strategic, we would argue that your strategy will be far more successful if you have a vision. Take Harley Davidson as an example. Plenty of companies make motorcycles. But Harley Davidson isn’t just looking to make motorcycles; they are looking to fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycle riding. This is their vision, and their strategy is to make the best motorcycle on the road so they can fulfill those dreams. We’re not privy to the exact objectives or steps they’re taking to get there, but we can guess that it involves powerful engines, comfortable seats and more. They’re not just making motorcycles — they’re fulfilling dreams. And their strategy is what’s going to make sure they actually do that.

Much like Harley Davidson, a clear vision must lie at the heart of your strategy, and that vision must be to be the best you can and achieve something lofty. This drive will inspire both your employees and your customers to be and do better. It will also keep you focused and guide you through the choices you have to make. 

Using Strategy at the University of Michigan: A Real-Life Example 

When we finished the Michigan Difference Campaign on Dec. 31, 2008, with $3.2B raised ($700M over the goal), we knew we would have to go big for the next campaign and live up to our “Leaders and Best” slogan. As we began to prepare for the next big goal, we knew our success would depend on strategic follow-through, cracking tough nuts and identifying white whales. A key component to achieving this goal was creating strategy sessions that would encourage collaboration and force accountability while keeping the donor’s intent at the forefront of everyone’s minds. 

In March 2009, the associate vice president led the creation of three levels of strategy sessions to ensure the university was putting a strategic eye on the top prospects. Thus, three strategy sessions — Mega Gift, Leadership Gift and Major Gift strategy — were created. Mega was to be focused on those with a capacity of $25M or more, Leadership on those at the $1M to $25M level with a focus on $10M+ and Major on those with a capacity of $100K to $1M. 

The Mega and Leadership meetings were structured to review four to five top prospects at each monthly session. Major Gift Strategy was structured a little differently in that it was governed by a standing committee comprised of all the fundraisers from the large schools/colleges on campus, one from a small degree-granting school/college and one from a non-degree granting unit. This group also included members of the prospect development team. Another structural difference between the Major session and the others was that the Major session had a member of the regional gift team run the meeting, and it was focused on their region one time per year. 


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We followed this three-session format and the general structure until June 2016. By this time, we had nearly three years of our current campaign underway and an additional two years of silent phase counting behind us. It was at this time that we took a comprehensive review of all the sessions to determine how we wanted to proceed in the last two years of the campaign. We decided to revamp the Major Gift Strategy Sessions and change it to MStrategy, which is representative of Michigan and their block “M” logo. This was a branding decision to incorporate all things related to major gift and regional strategy for the university. 

MStrategy continues to focus on those with a capacity of $100K and up, but goes above the original $1M level to account for high-level prospects in each region. Additionally, this session is still run by the regional gift team but was expanded to three times per year for each region. Each regional fundraiser is charged with maintaining a dashboard of top regional prospects and selecting a small group for deeper discussion at each of their meetings. 

At the time of writing this article, we are at the point of review once again, with the end of our campaign and a vice presidential transition coming on Dec. 31, 2018. We will be reviewing all our strategy sessions and determining what they will look like moving forward into building the next campaign and beyond. 

Lessons Learned

We have had nearly a decade of time to reflect back on our strategy sessions and glean lessons from them. We have the following top six takeaways, among the many other small learnings along the way to share: 

Strategy sessions must have purpose and direction. No one will buy in to the idea or attend the actual sessions if there is no stated purpose and direction. We have found that having a focus such as an initiative or an end-goal, like getting a campaign gift, was crucial to getting the development community to rally behind the sessions. It is also critical that the purpose and direction are clearly communicated to all participants.

Leadership and fundraisers must be committed. It is so important to make sure that first and foremost the leadership of your organization supports the implementation and execution of strategy sessions. Secondly, the fundraisers must be supportive and willing to participate. Everyone involved needs to see the value of the time it takes to prepare and conduct the sessions, as well as see results. 

Next steps must be captured and fundraisers be held accountable. The great conversations should lead to actionable next steps, for which the fundraisers should be held accountable. It is important to capture, track and revisit the next steps. 

Discussion prospects must be selected carefully and strategically. Prospect development should play a prominent role in the identification and selection of discussion prospects. In order for the sessions to be truly strategic, the use of data and thoughtful review on the part of our teams is crucial. The data should drive the decision as to who needs to be discussed and when. Providing something for leadership and fundraisers to review and act upon is essential, because coming up with names on the fly is not always beneficial or easy.

Strategy sessions must be open to review and re-focusing. Over the evolution of our strategy sessions, we have had many points of pause to review and refocus the sessions. Strategy and strategy sessions must be flexible and open to change as different needs and initiatives arise. The type of prospects for discussion, leadership's priorities, the organization’s needs and the like will dictate the sessions and their direction at various times along the way. Given the work that goes into the sessions, it can be hard to remain open and flexible, but we must be open to change and listen to the strategy needs of our organization. 

It is important to demonstrate value. We are in a results-driven business, and each facet of the organization has to demonstrate its value. The strategy conversations should lead to action through next steps with the ultimate goal being a gift to the organization. It is important for everyone involved to see the value of the time spent on preparing, conducting and following up on the sessions. 

Being Strategic in Your Own Work

Being strategic isn’t just a great skill for building donor strategies. It is essential to building a career and the reputation of a department. How can you make your department the Harley Davidson of prospect development? 

At conferences, we often hear questions about getting a seat at the table. This is where strategy comes in. You want a seat at the table? We believe the old saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” will get you that seat. That said, there are five concrete steps to thinking strategically that can help you with that journey. Those steps are the same regardless of whether you work in prospect development, astrophysics or anywhere in between. These steps are outlined in a sidebar, but here we will walk through how we have used them at the University of Michigan to improve our own work. 

Aspiration: A few years ago, our team spent a lot of time discussing how we could demonstrate the value of our work. Though it is sometimes a challenge to directly tie gifts to our work, our aspiration was to do just that. 

Competitive Advantage: As we thought about how to tie our work to gifts, we decided we were the department on campus uniquely qualified to excel at discovery. It was something we had been involved in, but many people on campus worked in the space. Because of our close connections to both the data and our relationships with fundraisers, we believed (and continue to believe) that we are best positioned to provide the fundraisers with data-informed leads, leveraging our partnerships with them to ensure those leads are acted upon. 

Define Being Our Best: Choosing discovery as our competitive advantage, our next step was to determine what success at discovery looked like. We decided that for us it meant our prospect leads were being acted upon, that those prospects were eventually giving, and that they had a higher likelihood of giving than a random selection. 

Maximizing Our Capabilities: In order to get good at providing discovery leads, we needed to make more time to do that work. This meant creating efficiencies and changing our workflow. It also meant we needed to improve on how we were finding and presenting leads. At first, we provided long lists of people to fundraisers. We realized the lists were not actionable, just overwhelming. So we refined not only the number of prospects we were sending, but also how the data was presented, tailoring it to the specific data points that would capture the interest of that specific fundraiser. 

Create Systems and Metrics: Measuring success is of the utmost importance, because it keeps you and your team focused on the big picture. In this example, we created a system for tagging and tracking our prospects that includes a Tableau dashboard so at any time, anyone can see our progress. Our goal was to qualify $100M worth of prospects in a fiscal year. This required that the prospect was identified by our team, visited by a fundraiser, and assigned a gift officer capacity rating. This year we are expanding our goal from just qualification to $25M in gifts.

Here at the University of Michigan, we are passionate about strategy. It has been the key component to the success of our department and an area of very deliberate effort. As the larger prospect development community works to be more strategic, we can raise the profile of the profession and take it to the next level. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us with challenges or questions — it’s what we love.

This article relates to the Relationship Management domain in the Apra Body of Knowledge

Looking for more resources related to strategy? Check out Apra University's Plug In to Relationship Management 2018 education bundle for a wealth of information, including a session dedicated to strategy.   

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