There are 3 standards advancement programs can be measured against:
- The Standard of Averages – this compares your program results to an aggregate of other institutions which may (or may not) be similar to your institution and advancement program;
- The Standard of Specific Institutions – this compares your program results to a set of specifically identified institutions. Again, these institutions may (or may not) be similar to your institution and program;
- The Standard of Progress – this compares your advancement program’s current results to your past results.
For decades, our profession has been obsessed with the concept of “best practices.” At conferences and all types of professional development opportunities, advancement professionals have been told that there are “practices” that should be adopted by everyone doing this work.
This drumbeat of “imitation application,” encourages advancement leaders to adopt goals for their programs based on Standards 1 and 2 above. They compare themselves to others. How are we doing against our peer group? Our aspirant group? Against other institutions who are “similar” to us?
But, even a cursory look at the myriad institutional types conducting advancement work will confirm that institutional settings, histories, leadership, opportunities, and constraints are so distinctive and singular as to make most “best practices” figments of advancement leaders’ imaginations.
So, what if chasing what others are doing isn’t the pathway to success? What if the pathway involves far more creativity, nuance, ingenuity, enthusiasm, and self-reflection than simply copying the work of others?
The real work of advancement leadership begins with a deep embrace of institutional mission and vision. The authentic advancement leader then strives to understand the unique characteristics of the team, the donor base, the culture, and the institution’s philanthropic history.
Then, the effective advancement leader establishes inventive and, sometimes, original goals and strategies based on Standard 3. They compare their program’s efficacy to the progress that needs to be made in support of the mission, the vision, and those being served. They compare their program results to their past results and to what needs to happen in the future.
Yes, of course, we should peek at and learn from what others are doing. But formal comparisons with others are tremendously overrated.
Far better for your program to be better tomorrow than it is today. That’s the standard that matters most.