How to Handle a Shrinking Advancement Team

Managers of advancement teams and organizations are some of the most creative and collaborative people for one reason: Their people are their primary resource.

No matter the prestige of your institution, if you’re an advancement professional you understand the challenge of doing more with less budget. After all, your focus is raising money — not spending it.

You’ve learned how to leverage people — colleagues, volunteers, constituents, faculty, students, etc. — to benefit the school, and you’ve taught your team members to do the same.

You’ve learned how mobilize people into becoming advocates and supporters.

What happens, however, when the group of people you rely on the most — your own team — shrinks in size?

Losing valuable team members, no matter for what reason, can feel like a crushing blow. There are steps you can take, however, to minimize the impact to your organization.

In fact, you can turn the situation into an opportunity to expand the capabilities of your remaining team members, and improve your team’s effectiveness.

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Keep Your Cool — and Maintain Your Team’s Morale

“Never let them see you sweat.” That’s a great tagline for a deodorant commercial, but when you’ve lost a team member (or more than one), it can be challenging to stay calm. But stay calm you must, because your team is looking to you to for cues as to how to respond.

If the loss of your employee was due to budget cuts or layoffs, it can be tempting to point fingers at HR or your leadership. Don’t succumb to this temptation. Your remaining team members need you to confidently lead the way forward — not get stuck in the mud playing the blame game.

Your advancement staff is going to be anxious. There’s no way around it. Reassure them that you’ve got their best interests at heart, and you’re confident that your team will be fine going forward.

Whether the team member was let go or they left on their own, the most important thing you can do besides keep a confident outlook is keep your eyes open for opportunities during this time of transition.

Prioritize Goals and Focus on Improving Productivity

The work didn’t shrink just because your team did. When you lose team members, look for opportunities to improve efficiencies first and foremost.

Don’t just start randomly assigning tasks to your remaining staff. First, get together with your team to review the department’s goals and objectives. Make sure when the meeting ends, everyone understands your team’s purpose and exactly how success will be measured.

Now that everyone is realigned, you can get down to the brass tacks of rethinking your team’s workflows.

Schedule additional team meetings to specifically discuss the following topics:

  1. Eliminating unnecessary work. What is the team doing, or what are they responsible for, that they shouldn’t be?
  2. Prioritizing the responsibilities that weren’t eliminated in the previous meeting.
  3. Creating a go-forward plan together. Just because you’re the leader and you need to remain cool, calm and confident doesn’t mean you have to come up with the go-forward plan yourself. Let your team members have a part in the planning, and they’ll be more motivated and committed to taking action on that plan. (Note: No matter what, make sure cross-training is a part of that go-forward plan!)
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Communicate — and Communicate More

Change is always hard. When people’s livelihoods are on the line, it’s even harder. Manage it well, however, and it can bring your team together in new ways.

When your team shrinks, your communication (or lack thereof) will directly impact how your team moves forward.

  • Immediately dispel rumors. Uncertainty leads to misinformation, which can wreak havoc on an already anxious team.
  • Provide information to your team as it comes up — don’t wait for the weekly meeting.
  • Don’t dodge questions. Instead, look at questions as opportunities to engage employees in constructive conversations.
  • Make yourself available for meetings with your team members so they know they’ll have the chance to talk to you about their concerns.
  • Explain your challenges, and be open about the solutions you’re considering. Who knows? Your staff may have even better ideas for continuing to do their jobs effectively and achieving departmental goals.

For more reading on the topic of communicating with your team, check out this article.

Use Technology to Bridge the Gap

When you went through the exercise of examining your team’s goals and responsibilities, you might have spotted areas where new or different technology might help, or where you can use your existing technology differently.

For example:

  • Automating tasks in your current systems
  • Tweaking systems to work better together
  • Replacing unnecessarily complex tools (e.g. your advancement software)

Set aside time to consider how a change in technology might improve the effectiveness of your smaller team.

Some of this may require a developer’s assistance — but the efficiency improvements are likely to greatly outweigh the initial setup cost.

A Smaller Team Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Thing

Small groups can be powerful. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos famously instituted the “two-pizza rule” to determine group sizes for this very reason. A smaller group is more agile, more creative, and there is greater trust between members.

When you lose a team member, it can be a shock to you and your remaining staff — but it’s not always a bad thing. It can spur you to take a closer look at how things are getting done, and make improvements for more efficiency and better collaboration.

Your smaller team may even end up tighter-knit and happier in their roles!