Reorganizing Advancement Is Not (Itself) Enough to Drive Success

Over the last few years, I have helped a number of organizations review the way they deploy their advancement teams. I also led the reorganization of a newly combined alumni relations and annual giving team at a leading private university.

Through these experiences I’ve noticed a couple of frequent expectations among the leaders driving the reorganization process. One expectation is that the newly arranged team will be more efficient. The other is that they’ll be more effective.

Below are some thoughts on both these ambitions. And I close with a comment on one key factor that all organizations require, even if they’re not changing their reporting lines.


Resources are scarce! Budgeting is a contact sport, and if the Vice President says “Yes” to adding a major gift officer, it might mean shrinking the advancement services or alumni relations teams. So, efficiency matters.

The Efficiency goal drives many reorganization efforts. And it can make sense. I consulted on one such effort that revealed duplicated effort between two large, merging offices. Each organization hosted its own finance, budget, and HR specialists. And with big organizations there might also be a facility manager or an events team whose work would overlap with their colleagues’ in an integrated model. In these cases, combining the functions across teams makes sense. One medium-sized public institution redeployed the budget and the staff time spared by integration to create alumni-facing roles that would increase audience engagement.

On the flip side, my Switchboard colleague Chelsea Haring points out that it’s critical to factor in up-front financial costs when estimating the ROI of a re-org. If you’re increasing the experience, education, or specialization required to satisfy new job descriptions, don’t expect to hire the new people for the same salaries you paid staff members with less experience, education, or specialized knowledge.


This is tougher. Effectiveness is only partially the result of structure. You might say that effective organizational design is “necessary, but not sufficient” for long-term success.

I managed an annual fund reorganization that increased efficiency without measurably affecting our effectiveness—as measured by traditional metrics—in the first year. After the vice president and I had moved on to new roles, our successors decided on yet another model, and reorganized again. Nobody will ever know for sure whether our original work would have improved results—we only know that if it were going to be more effective, it would have needed more time. As I mentioned in a recent commentary on integrating alumni relations and fundraising, re-orgs often affect an organization’s culture. And cultural change requires a lengthy interval before you can accurately judge its effects.

Why can’t the “right” structure guarantee success? Two reasons:

  • “Effectiveness” means successfully achieving your stated goals. You do have stated goals, don't you? That's the first hurdle to address: having a strategic road map. Almost every alumni office and association has a mission statement that describes its purpose. But to fulfill that mission and achieve that purpose, you need to know which few high-level, long-term achievements will get you there. So a strategic plan is the first step, to identify and articulate what will fulfill your mission. Without it, the best organizational structure will still fall short.

  • You must measure and report your success. Therefore, you need metrics that tell you whether you are reaching your goals. Too often, we track inputs instead of outcomes. For example, many alumni communities have a goal of “engaging people through online interaction.” The assumption is that if you’re engaged online, you’re going to be supportive of alma mater. Maybe so. But maybe not. An alumna joining your LinkedIn group or opening your e-newsletter is not “success.” Making a donation, volunteering one’s time or responding to a student’s request for information—those are successful outcomes.

So two necessary steps—identifying priority goals, and tracking outcomes—lead us to the final question: how do you do that? And the top answer is:

Collaborative Planning

Every alumni community strategic plan I’ve read or helped to draft in recent years includes multiple mentions of “reaching out across campus,” “partnering with other units,” or “collaborating to break down silos.”

This is certainly a critical means to more effective engagement of students and alumni. However, too often, that collaboration happens after the plan is written. The alumni team drafts engagement goals and strategies for the next three years, chooses tactics to get them there, and even sets up some metrics to track their progress. They produce the final document, and only then do they share it with the development office, admissions, career services, and maybe even academic departments.

The problem in this scenario is that it’s already too late for effective partnership. By setting its goals and choosing its strategies in isolation (the familiar silo problem), your team prevents partners from co-owning the plan’s results. A truly collaborative partnership means bringing institutional partners into the planning process at the start—when you’re revisiting your mission statement—develop goals jointly and ensure that responsibility for success belongs to all those involved.

Hosting a brown bag lunch where you highlight for another office the top three things you included in your plan usually results in exactly one thing: a delicious lunch. You need your colleagues to help you identify what you want to achieve and why, and to plan alongside you exactly how to achieve it.

That’s true collaboration, the secret ingredient to shared success.

For more on inter-office collaboration, read about how Stony Brook University made alumni relations a priority across campus.