Can Pandemic Work from Home Ease Our Obsession with Busyness?

I work in fundraising at an elite boarding school. The school, like many of its counterparts, is also a non-profit which means that the cost of a student’s tuition does not cover 100% of the educational opportunities we provide. My colleagues and I, therefore, must achieve a multi-million dollar fundraising goal each year to support the 850 students, 30% of whom receive some sort of financial aid ranging from partial to full tuition coverage. While we possess the technological bells and whistles to aid us, it is really personal interaction that moves the needle. Calling, emailing, interacting on social media, and visiting our donors are the keys to raising the funds we need to keep our school at the top of its game.

On an average week, our Annual Fund Officers (AFOs) and Major Gifts Officers (MGOs) meet regularly to discuss their pools of donor prospects and their strategy for engagement. Beyond discussing their plans as a group, they are expected to record all of their interactions in a database so that their outreach can be quantified. There is pressure placed on not only making these interactions, but also showing that they have made them.

The quantifiable metrics for this particular type of work are connections made and dollars earned. Our AFOs & MGOs must rely heavily on the former since very often the dollars earned don’t show themselves until the very end of our fiscal cycle. While these team members may be working tirelessly to create the relationships, tell the story of the school and its students, and engage the donor, those dollars don’t actually count for anything until they’re in our coffers. They can say they’ve got a big gift hooked, but until that money is in the bank, they have nothing to show for it but a lot of talk.

The culture of our office is one of hard work and collaboration: everyone pulling together to do their part in the great fundraising machine which allows for all of our students to have the best possible education no matter their financial means. Unfortunately, that culture often comes across in the forms of meetings, off-the-cuff work-related chatter, “bouncing something offa you” and other shallow activities, all at the expense of working with deep purpose and concentration.

This need to show that you are actually working diligently when there are few immediately tangible results is described by Cal Newport in the second chapter of Deep Work as “busyness as a proxy for productivity” (Newport, 2016, p. 64).

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Steve Martin in The Jerk with caption: Leaving my Office for WFH
Steve Martin in THE JERK

When we all moved to remote work in March 2020, there was anxiety about working from home broken into two categories: who wouldn’t have enough work to keep them busy given the type of job they perform in the office, and how would we be able to tell who was working and who wasn’t? When suddenly faced with figuring out how to keep their employees occupied for an eight hour workday, management seemed to forget about all the hours that were currently filled chatting in the halls, making and consuming tea, and having pop-in meetings about anything and everything that often took over much of the in-office day. I imagine that our directors weren’t the only group of individuals who feared that productivity would grind to a halt when the workforce was left to their own devices. While I don’t think that before the pandemic there would be a situation in which large-scale work from home would ever be accepted as a viable option within the culture of my workplace, we found ourselves packing up our offices for what we expected would be a few weeks of interruption in the fourth, and most important fundraising quarter of the year.

Suddenly, instead of planning for Reunion, we were sending countless personal emails to check on our donors and their families. Instead of a large-scale end-of-year fundraising mailer, we opted to make everything far more personal. And instead of walking around the office, popping in on our colleagues to discuss the strategy of our next big campaign, we began planning a series of online webinars to keep our homebound alumni engaged.

The work culture of meetings driving production, marking emails sent in the database, and worshipping at the altar of technology to keep us ever-connected has persisted. What seems to have faded, though, is the anxiety around whether we can successfully perform our jobs away from the watchful eyes of our managers. Between March and June we were able to close our fundraising gap and even raise additional, COVID-related emergency funds.

When we left the office, we figured it would be for a few weeks at most. I can’t blame anyone for trying to labor under the belief that we should carry on as always – 3 hour meetings and all – until things went “back to normal.” But as we settle in for this extended work from home, which for my team will likely last the entire school year, it is time to rethink how we should be interacting with one another and with the work that we do. We will need to be constantly retooling how we work, coming up with new and exciting ways to engage our audience, allowing those frumpy old trappings of fundraising history to fall by the wayside. Reimagining how to reach a $6.5M goal without the tried-and-true models of events and handshake agreements over dinner will take a huge amount of work: not the busy kind that you can crank out between your 2:30 and 3:30 meeting, but the kind that will involve closing the door, turning off the ringer, and thinking the big thoughts. It will take fearlessness, grit, and a lot of hard work and collaboration – all places my team truly excels.

I, for one, am here for it. As the writer and designer on the team, I’ve always been a door closed, jam on the big projects, no one bother me while I’m working type. I hope my colleagues are able to be here for it too. Yesterday I taught my boss how to turn off the notifications on Microsoft Teams, so maybe we’re moving in the right direction.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work. New York: Grand Central Publishing.

One thought on “Can Pandemic Work from Home Ease Our Obsession with Busyness?

  1. Drew says:

    Hello Jenny,

    Awesome article! I found it so interesting. I’ve been so inspired to see how groups and non-profits have innovated, adapted, and overcame various fundraising models. I bet this program will certainly help develop interactive ways to communicate in a new era. I can’t wait to see how you and your team smash fundraising goals for this year.


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