The donor base of your institution is very important. However, the “constituency base” is what we should be thinking about. Our constituency base includes financial supporters, prospective students, current students, alumni, supportive churches, partner organizations, and general “friends” of your institution. We usually have multiple departments developing isolated methods for communicating with the different subgroups of the constituency base.

That wouldn’t be a problem except for the fact that many departments are develop these methods without thinking about the group as a whole. The Advancement Office talks with donors, but fails to consider current or prospective students. The Enrollment Office talks to prospective students, but may not be thinking about donors or maybe even current students. The Registrar and Student Services Offices are talking to the current students, but may not be considering donors or churches. We are often isolated in our approaches to the creation and delivery of messages to the various subgroups of our constituency base.

Why does it matter?

The reality is that everyone in our constituency base is interconnected. Most of our prospective students were referred by a pastor, alum, current student, or donor. Most of our donors are members of churches who would like to know more information about us. They all want the same information. Yes, I know there are nuances. Students don’t need donor receipts and donors don’t need grade sheets. However, I would bet there are donors and alumni who would be interested in the course schedule.

Thinking about our constituency base as a whole is important because it requires us to think more clearly about our brand message. What is it that we are trying to communicate to the world? Who do we say we are? What do we promise to be and to deliver? Our entire constituency base needs to hear the same answers to those questions. The answers need to look and sound the same. We need to recognize that our constituency base is interconnected and begin creating communication strategies that not only welcome that interconnectedness, but also take advantage of it.

The other reality is that we don’t control who sees the various messages we publish. The image above shows the demographic breakdown for Northern’s Facebook page (the bar graphs), and the worldwide connections for all of Facebook. The global graphic was created by Facebook and the technical details behind it are facinating. Basically, they created a model which visualized the connections on Facebook and the visualization ended up looking like the globe. All of this is to say that we need to recognize our constituency base is broad and interconnected. Given current communication trends, our communication systems and institutional planning processes need to function based on the understanding that our messages could be seen by anyone in our constituency base. We don’t control the message. Understanding the interconnected nature of our constituency base will help us design staff positions, events, and communications which take advantage of that reality.

Examples

Northern seminary and our Director of “Advancement/Enrollment/Church Relations/Alumni Relations/Student Relations”
In my role at Northern, I hold senior-level responsibility for all communication, enrollment and advancement initiatives. As part of my staff, I have a person whose current title is “Director of Advancement.” He has that title because it is the best one I could think of. In his role he is required to speak with donors, churches, alumni, friends of the seminary, current students, prospective students, and seminary partners. To be fair, his primary responsibility at this time is to develop relationships with donors.

However, by requiring the person in that position to think more broadly about the constituency base, the individual develops deep institutional knowledge. He could work with a doctor of ministry student throughout the admission process or advise a master’s student on which courses to take. He can talk with a church about resources provided by the seminary, or speak to the pastor about academic programs he or she may be interested in. When talking with a donor, he can talk about our new campus development plans and move fluidly into conversations about the academic programs in which students supported by that donor’s scholarship fund are enrolled. When he visits alumni or talks with them on the phone, the conversation will range from stories about students to the recent doctor of ministry programs we launched to our new church-based certificate program.

Asbury’s Tennent Weekends
Asbury Theological Seminary has developed a weekend program which is specifically developed to create interaction with every subgroup of its constituency base. The same message is shared throughout the weekend which starts on Friday morning and runs through Sunday afternoon. Held in locations with a concentration of members within their constituency base, the event is comprised of various activities meant to speak to all the subgroups. Alumni, donors, prospective students, church members, pastors, church missions committees, and friends will participate throughout the weekend.

By creating these weekend events, Asbury has found a way to maximize its energy, resources, and message. Rather than an alumni director planning something for the alumni, the enrollment department planning something for the prospective students, and the development officer planning something for the major donors, they took a “systems approach” and thought more broadly about the message they are trying to communicate to their constituency base. Then they found ways to do it efficiently and effectively.

The Mindset Drives Everything

It isn’t difficult to develop systems and communication strategies which use a “constituency base” approach. In my experience, the hardest part is developing the mindset throughout the entire institution. If everyone develops the mindset, creating communication strategies becomes natural.

How to develop the mindset

Ask questions
The easiest way to begin developing this mindset within your organization (and likely to be the most well-received by your staff) is to ask questions which require it. When someone brings an idea forward, the leadership could ask, “What other departments did you collaborate with when developing this idea?” If the answer to that question is, “No other department,” encourage the person to bring the idea back after involving other departments. Every level, every type of position, and every department of the organization should be required to adhere to this collaboration “rule.”

Another good time to ask a question is when decisions are being made. The people or person making the decision should ask, “Who else on staff at the institution is impacted by this decision?” After that is answered, ask the question, “Did those impacted by the decision have an opportunity to provide input?” If those impacted by the decision were not involved in the process, the decision should not be made. Obviously, there are times when decisions need to be made quickly and everyone cannot be involved, but such emergencies are truly rare. Please do not use this as an excuse for failing to involve the right people.

By asking these two simple questions you will begin to see the mindset within your institution. People begin to become “cross-thinktional” by nature and the constituency mindset blossoms.

Trade jobs
Another way to develop this mindset is to require people to “trade” jobs. I mean this both literally and figuratively. At Northern we didn’t have people trade jobs so much as “mashed up” various tasks and assigned them to one person. The financial aid coordinator also works with student registration, the DMin program, and serves as an assistant to the Dean’s Office. By bringing together all these tasks, we were able to create a position that required a constituency base mindset. The coordinator works with churches, alumni, current and prospective students each week simply by fulfilling the daily responsibilities of her job.

However, we have also literally traded jobs or had someone serve in a different function for a given period of time. Our Dean of Academic Programs has served as an “admissions counselor” at an exhibit booth. Our Chief of Institutional Advancement (me) has spent time entering prospective student data and receipting gifts. Our Associate Director of Communications has shadowed our admissions team on student visits.

Are there ways the people at your institution could “trade” jobs? Could you require people to spend two weeks learning everything about another person’s job? Could you have a development officer work as an admissions counselor and vice versa? What about having your registrar shadow an admissions counselor? Could the academic dean (as opposed the dean/president of an embedded school) go on a few visits with a development officer? There is no better way to learn how everything is connected than by actually experiencing it.

Let me know how it works!

Please share your thoughts with me. How do you see this process coming together at your institution? What is the first step you would take? How would you adjust the process? Whatever you do, please let me know how it works!