Jennifer L. Blanck
Jennifer L. Blanck, MEd, MSWB, is director of constituent engagement for the Group on Institutional Advancement at the Association of American Medical Colleges.
When a new team took over a 21-year-old survey and a member questioned its value, the team decided to listen rather than defend the status quo. By conducting a listening tour, the team uncovered insights that amplified the survey’s impact.
Since 1999, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has conducted an annual Development Survey—a national benchmarking survey measuring the impact, costs, and staffing of fundraising at its member medical schools, teaching hospitals, and health systems.
In 2020, the survey underwent significant transition. Almost everything was new—program leadership, data stewards, and collection and reporting platforms.
Just a few months after our new program team took over, we hosted the annual meeting of the survey’s advisory committee—a group of 10 chief development officers (CDOs) from member institutions. During the meeting, a new committee member who was well-established in the field questioned the survey’s value and took the meeting agenda in a different direction.
Caught off guard and still learning about the survey, we weren’t as prepared as we would have liked to be. Rather than become defensive, we offered some reflections, turned to the other committee members, and let the conversation continue—paying attention to what was being said, who was talking, and who wasn’t. Only a few voices chimed in, which meant it wasn’t clear if that signaled agreement or something else.
After the survey cycle was complete and we published the data, we decided we needed to do four things: Dig deeper into the issue, hear all voices, better understand the survey’s value proposition, and identify potential areas needing change.
We used a structured interview format—meeting with each committee member individually, asking the same set of questions, and allowing the conversation to go wherever the member wanted. [See sidebar for questions.]
We called it a “listening tour” to emphasize our role. We weren’t there to defend, explain, or persuade, but rather to listen and learn. We wanted candid feedback. Although not disclosed to the committee, we also wanted to avoid members being influenced or intimidated by each other.
At the start of each interview, we highlighted the main goal: to maximize the value of the survey for participating institutions. Introductions ended with, “Bottom line: There are no wrong answers. We’re just here to learn.”
Committee members were open and offered thoughtful feedback. Even the well-established CDO who had questioned the survey’s value provided positive input.
The listening tour presented a broader understanding of the survey. In addition to obtaining candid perspectives and feedback, the experience
Generated new ideas, including templates for CDOs to adapt and share with their teams to inform them about the survey and its possible uses, peer-to-peer learning opportunities, and additional analysis by overlaying another AAMC data set.
We are now conducting an internal listening tour to learn more about the activities of other AAMC affinity groups and to connect with colleagues while working remotely. Instead of engaging individuals, my team meets with another team each time. We share four questions in advance and ask additional questions based on what we learn from each affinity group’s website. [See sidebar for initial questions.]
The internal listening tour is helping us to learn more about groups’ current programming and pandemic-related changes, connect with other team members, identify ideas and approaches to improve our own work, uncover possible areas for collaboration, and obtain institutional history.
The tour has also helped new team members learn about their own groups and AAMC history. After meeting with everyone in our own unit, we plan to expand to other teams across the association. Listening instead of talking has given our team deeper insights into the value our programs offer, improved our work, and allowed us to build stronger connections with our constituents and colleagues.