OK, Boomer.

The Negative Affect of Generational Clichés on Institutional Advancement

OK, I get the cliché.  I will admit that I’m of that boomer generation, although on the younger end of it.  But there was a time when we boomers were the age of today’s millennials. I remember many years ago when I was lucky enough to get a community college dean’s position while I was still in my 20’s.  While I was excited to be in the position, it was a continuing challenge to be taken seriously by my older colleagues.  Even though I was on the president’s management team, many of my ideas were passed over unless validated by an “older” member of the team.

I remember thinking “They just don’t get it – I’m younger with fewer biases and can see the future pretty clearly.”  I carried that chip on my shoulder for quite a while, until one day an older member of the management team took some time to talk with me.  He told me that, even though our approach and outlook were different, I had to remember that we all wanted the same thing – for our students to be successful, to provide quality teaching and learning, and to be an asset for the communities we served.  He told me one other thing that I’ve carried with me to this day – that no one has a monopoly on wisdom.  We shouldn’t put people into generational boxes, cultural boxes, or any other type of “box.”  That may be fine for statisticians, but it doesn’t describe you or me as individuals.

From that day forward, I changed my attitude.  I was still the innovator – the “non-traditionalist” but I took the time to listen.  When that older team member became president of the college, I’m proud to say he became my mentor.  I was patient enough to really listen to his voice of experience, and he was patient enough with me to genuinely consider my ideas.  We worked well together as a team.  I carried that experience with me into my consulting life and my own presidency.

What does that have to do with institutional advancement?  I think it has a lot to do with all aspects of advancement.  Sometimes we fail to see the differences in what might motivate a potential contributor/investor in our college.  How many times have we fallen into these traps?

  • We steer a potential lead gift towards an endowed scholarship or a naming opportunity before really listening to what they want. Often, because a prospect is older, we think we can pigeonhole their interest without first asking how they want their investment spent.
  • We tend to put all our alumni into the same box without taking into consideration that there are early career alums, mid-career alums, and late career or retired alums, each having differing life experiences. How often do we listen to alums across the age spectrum to learn about different interests or motivations or how they feel about the college?
  • We build advancement marketing campaigns around concepts that motivate us, rather than considering the different characteristics of our intended audience.

The list can go on, but I believe I’ve made my point.  In my experience following community college advancement efforts, I’ve noticed a tendency to cultivate lead gifts from boomers, market to “gen Xers”, and treat alumni as millennials.  Often, our approach to advancement is to rely on generational stereotypes rather than reaching out to individuals.

That’s why I tell my prospective clients that the approach to feasibility studies must cut across stereotypes and focus on the individual.  We’ve developed a feasibility study process that, we believe, helps to do just that. Just as no one has a monopoly on wisdom, no one approach to advancement reaches everyone.  Instead of “OK, boomer” how about “OK, boomer (or gen Xer, or millennial)”, I’m ready to listen.


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