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The Fine Art of Strategic Planning

A conversation with Brenda Ricard, Associate Vice President, Advancement Operations and Planning, Boston College; Christine Tempesta, Director, Strategic Initiatives, MIT Alumni Association, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Interview Transcript

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay. today, we’re going to be talking about strategic planning in advancement John Bryson, author of a book on strategic planning for public and non-profit organizations, has written that strategic planning is a disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization is, what it does and why it does it.

This planning, he indicates, requires broad-scale information gathering, exploring alternatives, and an emphasis on future implications as we make our present decisions. He goes on to say that strategic planning is a set of concepts, procedures and tools by which organizations can think strategically, clarify sense of direction and establish priorities, but it involves making decisions today in light of their future consequences as a result of developing a basis or a benchmark for these decisions.

So, with that as a background, I would like to ask each of you if you could describe your current position in planning for the advancement program at your respective institutions. And let’s start with you, Brenda, as the Associate Vice President for Advancement, Operations and Planning at Boston College.

Brenda Ricard: Thank you, Cynthia. You know, mine is an interesting role and it’s one that touches all of the different units within advancement at Boston College. We’re a large division with over 190 FTEs and ultimately, my challenge is to make sure that we’re using each of these FTEs to make progress against each of our four campaign goals. These goals were established at the beginning of the campaign by our leadership team and we measure ourselves annually in terms of progress against those goals.

At the same time, the effectiveness of these positions is also dependent on other resources, technology, for instance. And it’s my job to make sure that we have the right combination of what I like to call shoe leather and technology to maximize our engagement in our fundraising productivity.

Cynthia Woolbright: Good and could you just share with us quickly, if you don’t mind, what your four campaign goals are?

Brenda Ricard: the overall goal for the campaign in terms of fundraising is $1.5 billion. We have a goal to dramatically increase our undergraduates’ giving participation – or undergraduate alumni giving participation; to dramatically increase the number of people in our Giving Society; and our fourth goal is to increase the number of actively engaged alumni and parent volunteers on an annual basis.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay, so they’re a part of that strategic planning and what you measure against.

Brenda Ricard: That’s exactly the case. Those are the four points that we’re charging towards.

Cynthia Woolbright: Christine, I know that you serve as the Director of Strategic Initiatives there at MIT in the Alumni Association and wanted to see if you could share your overview

Christine Tempesta: Sure. It’s certainly a little bit different from what Brenda described. In my role, I serve the Alumni Association. We have about 95 FTE inside the Alumni Association for MIT. And this role started in 2008 and the aspects of it include strategic planning around volunteer leadership development, around metrics for the Association that expand beyond the usual fundraising metrics and some new initiatives, some things that we haven’t tried before; some innovative, entrepreneurial aspects that may be mission- or vision-focused: things like energy and the environment that can translate into new activities for alumni.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, if you could each share how each of your positions evolved into these responsibilities. How did you come to realize that we really need someone fulltime doing this?

Christine Tempesta: So, mine came out of the fact that we didn’t really have a lot of time to work on strategy. In a typical shop, you have a lot of time to do tactical things and get the job done, plan the event, recruit the volunteer, go see the donor, But we didn’t have enough time to focus on strategy and that left us without team flexibility to try new endeavors and to really focus on measuring the effectiveness of what we had already done.

In addition to that, we had a greater seriousness about pipeline for volunteers going all the way up the institutional levels to our corporation members, which is our board of trustees and a reinvigorated interest in making sure that the pipeline was full of the best people.

I was Director of Alumni Relations. I had a really large shop and I was managing and doing a lot of tactical things, getting things done. But I didn’t have a lot of time for strategy nor did any of the other senior managers in our organization, so in splitting my group apart from the others and creating a strategic initiatives group, the idea was, well, it would give us more time for metrics, more time for flexibility, more time for focus on strategy for the future and more time to think about things like the volunteer pipeline and spend more effort on it.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay and for you, Brenda, how did this role come about ?

Brenda Ricard: Well, I think a lot of the evolution of my role, the creation of the job to begin with was directly tied to both a new senior leadership team, the university’s desire to begin the silent phase of a campaign and a decision by our board of trustees back in 2004 right at the end of our prior campaign to increase the FTE count by 60 people across advancement at Boston College.

So, in fact, we launched our current campaign publically in 2008 and you know, it’s interesting because in 2004 when they said, “Yes, you can have 60 more positions,” that was all fine and well and good, but it was under a previous senior leader. The new senior leader had to make some decisions about, “Okay, so where do we put them?”

And my previous position on campus was actually in the office of the executive vice-president, who whispered in my ear on the way down here, you know, “We need to really understand how these positions can be used most effectively and we need to understand what sort of corresponding funding will get that organization to some level of equilibrium.” So, they funded the positions, but at the time, did not provide any additional funding on the operating side, which is a little bit of a problem.

Christine Tempesta: Challenging.

Brenda Ricard: The current senior vice-president for advancement was trying to round out his leadership team. Everyone else that he had hired was new in terms of being from outside of the university. And you know, he realized that he needed somebody on his team who understood how this university worked; someone who had an operations and fiscal background; and someone who could partner with the other unit leaders to really begin to develop sound plans for organizational effectiveness that would drive movement and progress towards the campaign goals, so there was a lot of synergy, obviously, as we were thinking about what this campaign was going to look like.

Cynthia Woolbright: You’d get a lot of alignment, I would think.

Brenda Ricard: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly the case. My own tenure at BC, I’ve been here 24 years this month. I had spent ten years in student affairs in different roles, always on the operation and administrative side and then, six years in the executive vice-president’s office and had worked on lots of re-engineering projects. I had worked on the university’s strategic planning process and my own graduate studies in the area of re-engineering and organizational development made the fit very synergistic at the time. So, it’s worked out very well.

But I think the key to our ongoing success with this role is that we’re not complacent. You know, we didn’t deploy those 60 people and say, “Okay, we’re done.” Instead, every time a position turns over, we think strategically about, “Okay, where are we making progress against those goals? And we don’t hesitate to move people – move these positions around the organization to meet the needs of wherever we are in the state of the campaign at that given moment or for the upcoming year.

Cynthia Woolbright: Let’s talk about what are those characteristics and skills that someone would need? what skills and characteristics and experiences do you think we would need for someone in the position you hold?

Brenda Ricard: I think someone in an operations and strategic planning role, by definition, has to be someone who likes handling a lot of balls in the air at the same time; someone who can think broadly about the mission and the different needs of each unit, you know, because we touch each one of those and above all, a sense of humor.

Cynthia Woolbright: Yes. Thanks. All right, Christine. What about you?

Christine Tempesta: I definitely agree with Brenda, a sense of humor is paramount. I would say that the metrics and analytics’ skills are really important. Being able to analyze the big picture, as well as understand the small details is really valuable. Being able to interpret for others to engage, to get consensus around a project or an idea.

A person who would replace me would have to be very entrepreneurial because this was a start-up unit and it’s still in a start-up phase to some degree, even almost five years later.

Cynthia Woolbright: Christine, who in the organization do you report to?

Christine Tempesta: I report to the vice-president of the Alumni Association with interaction, across all elements of the institute, including resource development as well as all the deans, the president, provost, etcetera.

Cynthia Woolbright: All right, thank you, and what about you, Brenda? Your reporting relationship?

Brenda Ricard: I report directly to the senior vice-president for advancement, but like Christine, have many touch points across campus with colleagues, especially in finance and human resources. Information technology is another big one.

Cynthia Woolbright: What’s the response of the staff to the planning that is being set into motion? How have they been engaged?

Christine Tempesta: It can certainly depend broadly on their interest in being innovative. In every organization, there are people who want to stay the course, do it the way we’ve always done it and there are others who are really enjoying innovation and change and moving people around.

Brenda Ricard: And any time there’s a vacancy, it is our responsibility as stewards of the resources of the university to redeploy those resources in a way that can maximize effectiveness. So, in the early phase of the campaign, for instance, we actually staffed up our research group because they were plowing through lots of wealth screening data.

Cynthia Woolbright: Christine, how are you involving other institutional partners in your area? Christine Tempesta: Well, one of the things we introduced was a new way of looking at overall metrics. We introduced something we call a Venn diagram. And it basically shows interaction with our alumni across three major components: face-to-face interaction, virtual interaction and philanthropic interaction. We’re able to illustrate that in a number of ways.

So from talking to a dean of a particular school, I can show he or she exactly how their alumni rate in the Venn diagram, what kinds of things they’re doing. And it’s just given us a really nice overview for talking about how we’re trying to move the organization forward and what metrics we’re measuring and how individual unit schools, departments, graduate alumni versus undergraduate alumni stand up to that measure.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay and are you involving volunteers as part of that?

Christine Tempesta: Absolutely, in fact I was talking just this morning with a group of volunteers who are helping us work on our dashboard metrics and how we’re going to be using those for core and contextual metrics for the future. So, yes, we’ve used a lot of volunteers in the process and we’ve been consistent across all parts of the organization, whether they’re staff or volunteers or faculty or institutional leaders, to use the same Venn diagram. And think about moving the organization forward in terms of overall alumni engagement. So, right now, MIT engages about 50% of its alumni annually and we have goals in terms of how we want to push that forward in the overall percentage in the coming years.

Cynthia Woolbright: Brenda, let me ask about volunteers and about how you’re reporting.

Brenda Ricard: Well, I love Christine’s idea about using a Venn diagram. Like Christine, we’re certainly engaging volunteers. At every level of the campaign, from the campaign co-chairs down to regional committee chairs to our alumni board of directors, all sorts of affinity groups, etcetera. And we do a lot of communication with the volunteers and with alumni as a whole.

We are in a brand new alumni center So, for the first time in the history of advancement of Boston College, we’re all in one place, which has been huge. And we are now welcoming our alumni into the Cadigan Alumni Center. And so, they feel like they have a place to come, also.

So, how are we reporting out? Well, we’re doing that through a number of different mechanisms, whether it’s campaign donor-specific type newsletters, both in print and electronic; whether it’s the various sorts of honor rolls and different challenges that we’re communicating, class-to-class. We’re very class-oriented in terms of reunion. We’ve had the opportunity to do some very creative things in this new building and are working on things like a wall recognizing the donors to our highest level Giving Society.

Boston College is in its relative infancy in terms of really focusing on gift planning and while we know that a lot of emphasis on that goal for this campaign is not going to result in a lot of cash, we also knew that not focusing on it would only be to the detriment of future campaigns. So, there’s a lot of communication around each of these.

Cynthia Woolbright: And Christine, for you, how are you reporting out on the advancement of strategic planning and your results and benchmarking that you’re doing?

Christine Tempesta: We’ve been doing a lot of benchmarking in relationship to metrics and for the Alumni Association non-financial campaign goals as we’re also in the silent phase of a comprehensive campaign here at MIT. We’ve been really fine-tuning this idea of the Venn diagram and also accompanying it with a dashboard.

In terms of metrics, when I first came to MIT 17 years ago, we didn’t have any other than the ones related to fundraising. And I had come from a place in health non-profit where we measured everything.

So, we started adding a lot of metrics. At the time, the board was asking for additional metrics. We gave them our management metrics. The things that would determine whether or not your unit was doing a good job.

And even though we’ve had this Venn diagram since 2008, or FY ’09, and we started using the dashboard in fiscal year ’10, we’re still trying to make it a full part of our culture.

In fact, we’re getting ready to transfer from Advance to Advance Web so if you work with alumni clubs, let’s say, and you’re assigned a certain set of clubs, when you open your Advance database in the morning, you can look at all the clubs assigned to you and the actual visual look at the Venn diagram as it relates to those clubs.

You can look at the overall alumni body and then, just the alumni in Phoenix, Arizona and see how they’re doing. You could kind of instantly be aware of what limitations that population might have. You know, are they not engaging philanthropically? Are they not having enough events so there’s no face-to-face activity and so on. So, it takes a while to get those cultures created.

Cynthia Woolbright: That sounds amazing. So, in what ways, then, how are people conducting their business differently?

Christine Tempesta: You remember 10-15 years ago, if you even spoke the idea of fundraising in relation to alumni relations activity, it was really—

—forbidden. And I think we’re beyond that now. We recognize that these two things, all of the things that we do, they go together and they foster engagement overall. So, that’s what we’re trying to achieve and of course, every part of the Venn diagram has its own objectives, but we’re trying to foster engagement.

The other thing that was brought to us by our current EVP, Judy Cole, we had thought of our work historically here at MIT as serving the alumni. She changed that perspective simply “No, you don’t serve the alumni. We serve the institute.” And it was very hard at first for people to understand that and acknowledge that.

But as we began to establish more alignment with institutional initiatives, we became, of course, more appreciated by the institute administration and then, also, more effective in engaging our alumni with the things that the institute wants them to engage in. And, so that was very successful.

Cynthia Woolbright: Brenda, how is BC conducting its business differently?

Brenda Ricard: Well, if I reflect back, I think we are doing business very differently. In the prior campaign, there were a lot of people trying to get to a number, but not necessarily thinking about what’s the algorithm to get there. There was a lot of activity, with no sense of what guidance and navigation is.

And I think what we’ve been able to provide that guidance and navigation so we can get to the end of this campaign. We’ve invested in places where we needed to grow, whether it was our gift planning shop or our corporate and foundation relation shop. We created a school development program. The deans here had never been staffed in prior campaigns and that has reaped benefits – there are so many that are tangible, but also intangible in terms of the way the university—now sees us as a partner instead of this great mystery of an organization.

And because the strategic goals for this campaign were so clearly articulated and the strategic plan for the university has been so clearly articulated, it’s been phenomenal to see that progress and relatively efficient progress without a lot of swirl.

Cynthia Woolbright: So, you sound very excited about what you’re doing. What do each of you see as your key benefits that come from this strategic planning?

Brenda Ricard: It’s people, I think, relish understanding what they’re supposed to be doing when you keep putting those goals out in front of people, whether you’re the records assistant or you’re the international capital giving officer, it becomes clear.

We do an annual conference when I first got here, it was only fundraisers with a couple of other administrators invited. And I said, “This is ridiculous. Every single person on this team needs to know what the goal is and how their role contributes to that goal.” And because we have this plan and because we have the process and the clarity of understanding, I think that does enable people to be more effective and efficient.

Cynthia Woolbright: Christine what do you see as some of the key benefits?

Christine Tempesta: This is a compass for people and as Brenda said, if they see themselves in the results and the planning, it becomes more efficient for them.

The other benefits include legitimizing or authenticating the value of this type of work for the institution. I think when you have the strategic plan clarified and defined and being used to provide direction, it does make other faculty and administrators realize that, “Oh, this is a real group, not just a set of party planners.”

Cynthia Woolbright: Colleagues who wish to have such a position, what are some of the things that you would advise them to do.

Christine Tempesta: I think getting a good background in a variety of parts of the advancement shop is relatively important I think you have to be, like many of our colleagues, a solid relationship builder because you’re going to have to build trust and help people understand that you understand them and their goals and objectives as you’re moving forward.

Cynthia Woolbright: And for you, Brenda, what would you advise?

Brenda Ricard: Well, as Christine said, you have to have an interest in a lot of different things. You have to have an appreciation for the details, but you have to be able to see the big picture. You cannot be afraid of conflict and you cannot be afraid of making a decision.

Brenda Ricard: You have to have an appreciation for numbers. You have to be attracted by problem-solving. It’s a great job. It’s a huge amount of fun. Every day is completely different. It requires a high level of energy and stamina and don’t forget that sense of humor because none of it’s personal.

Cynthia Woolbright: The last question would be what lessons have you learned from this?

Christine Tempesta: Economies change. Don’t worry. Just wait. It’ll come back.

Cynthia Woolbright: Okay. Good, and Brenda, for you, what lessons?

Brenda Ricard: I think some of the biggest ones are, every time there’s turnover or something happens, learning to appreciate each of those opportunities as an opportunity instead of the end of the world. Being able to go with the flow, but again, always keeping your eye on the destination.

And appreciating different perspectives. I’ve learned so much from my fundraising colleagues.

I had a unique path to this job because I was never in development before. I’ve always been an operations person, so the opportunity to take the skills that I had and to really have an appreciation for how people in different roles in the same organization are looking at the same problem or the same opportunity. And that, to me, has been a huge learning opportunity.

Cynthia Woolbright: I do want to thank you both very much for your time and obviously, your skill sets and your sense of humors certainly come across, so thank you both very, very much.


Brenda Ricard

Brenda Ricard has spent the past twenty-three years working in higher education administration at Boston College, where she currently serves as the Associate Vice President, Operations and Planning for University Advancement, leading the units supporting the work of a $1.5 billion comprehensive fundraising campaign.  Her professional experiences have included significant work in strategic planning, organizational development, and reengineering in higher education.


Christine Tempesta

Christine Tempesta is the Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Alumni Association at MIT, where she focuses on volunteer leadership identification and development, metrics, and strategic projects mirroring institutional mission and vision. A strategist and ardent fan of technology, she works online and off to create community and establish meaningful interactions between alumni, students, and staff. She also serves as Chair of the CASE District 1 Board of Directors.

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