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Fifty Shades of Fundraising

50 Shades of FundraisingIt all started innocently enough. I was having a running series of craptastic days where I was constantly fending off internal threats to my integrity, capability, and autonomy as a digital fundraiser. Where departmental politics was bound and determined to win out over what – at least in my mind – was best for our donor relationships.

So I floated a comment to what has become my go-to community of fellow nonprofiteers: the Nonprofit Happy Hour group on Facebook:

Ever feel like you’re being ask to fundraise while blindfolded, having both arms tied behind your back, and shoved in a small box? I’m…uh…asking for a friend.

What came out of this was an outpouring of similar stories of frustration and countless reactions that indicated I wasn’t alone. Which is what we all need sometimes. We need the validation that comes when another person sees us and empathizes with our experience.

What also came out of it was some good ole bawdy humor. I put my comment out there not sensing the delightfully devilish sadomasochism that floats just below the surface of the nonprofit sector. But there it was and it was surfaced by a group member who asked, “Hmm, are you sure someone hasn’t been reading ‘Fifty Shades of Fundraising’?” Well, that’s just gold right there and even though it looks like some folks tried to cash in on the idea around the time the book and movie came out, they didn’t really follow through on the concept.

That’s all the opening I need. So, without further ado, I present some snippets from Fifty Shades of Fundraising:

I’ll start with Elaine’s as she is the muse who has inspired this work:
“Your mission statement,” she panted. “It’s so…biiiig…it will never fit into 50 words!”

My riff off of that:
“OMG, your CTA! It’s so long…I can’t believe how it all fits in your email.”

And some others:
Breathlessly, she told him, “I love the way you use your exclamation point to punctuate my donor appeal.”

With a stern look on her face and a twinkle in her eye, she told him, “I think it’s time to introduce you to my Board.”

They noticed they were alone. It was late at night in the conference room before the annual fundraising drive. He looked longingly into her bloodshot eyes and said, “I love how you stuff that envelope.”

Okay, your turn. If you have a gift for subtle innuendo and a predilection for softcore copywriting, show us what you got. Don’t be shy.

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Got A Little Too Much JQA In Your Organization?

I’m always a little late to the game when it comes to finding good podcasts. However, I have a wife who has a longer commute than me (sorry, honey) and has found podcasts to be a balm to soothe her mind and stoke her intellect while navigating Atlanta’s daily traffic woes. One of the latest podcasts she has introduced to me is Presidential, which is produced by the Washington Post. Each week, Lillian Cunningham devotes an episode to one President – starting with Washington and ending with Obama – and explores their character and the legacy they left as Chief Executive. Well, consider this history nerd fully fascinated and engaged.

Now, even though the podcast started a few months ago, I just started listening and am only caught up to John Quincy Adams (AKA JQA). But already I’ve learned so much about the birth of this nation and how even the Founding Fathers were complex individuals who didn’t always get governance right. And I’ve learned that while we might think our current political climate is completely FUBAR, from the moment of our nation’s founding there was discord among opposing viewpoints, constitutional squabbles, and racial tensions that don’t seem that different from what we are experiencing today. In some ways, it’s rather comforting to know there really has never been a golden age when all Americans – regardless of color, religion, creed, etc. – held hands and sang Kumbaya. Yes, granted there have been better times than others, but this “union” of states has always been in some phase of precarious tension that could tear it apart.

A related and important question raised in the podcast series, and which gets to the title of this post, is what does effective leadership look like? Let’s say you have someone with a bold vision for what they want to see and a strong policy framework in mind to make it happen. That sounds like effective leadership, doesn’t it? It’s supposedly what we want from the person in charge. By that definition, JQA was a visionary leader who wanted to dramatically overhaul the infrastructure of the young U.S.A. The only problem was that Congress wasn’t having any of it. The result: gridlock. No one was willing to budge or compromise for reasons both petty and pragmatic. Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like what’s happening “over there” in Washington right now, yes?

But what if it’s also happening right now in our own organizations? Show of hands where there is no conflict holding up a crucial project or keeping a department from surpassing its goals. Yup, thought so. I’m not suggesting that conflict is inherently bad…quite the opposite. Productive conflict that focuses on mission and a mutually desired objective is what moves organizations into new areas of growth. Yet, on the other hand, unhealthy conflict occurs when leaders believe their own vision is the only vision and their way of getting there is the only way of getting there. (It’s also not too healthy when leaders get too caught up in their own fears of change and paranoia of not being completely in control, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I get it, though. If figuring out how to create win-win scenarios on a daily basis was easy, thinkers like Stephen Covey wouldn’t have sold millions of books. Organizations like yours and mine would be operating with close to zero friction. And JQA’s presidency would be considered a rousing success rather than the one term failure that history has judged it to be.

Here’s the question I invite you to ponder along with me: how can we practice effective leadership which best balances our vision for organizational success so it is also inclusive of the visions held by others? When things stop working well, that seems to me one of the only ways we can dislodge ourselves from the political mire that holds us back from doing world-changing work.

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Screw the Golden Rule: It Doesn’t Work in Digital Philanthropy

We’re taught that in order to be a good person, we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” Don’t get me wrong – being a good person is a worthy goal. However, following the Golden Rule can make you an ineffective (and eventually unemployed) fundraiser.

Why? Because we are not our donors. We can’t assume that what we like is what a donor wants.

Our donors come in many different flavors, with their own distinct motivations and identities. And they don’t think like professional fundraisers…they think like themselves.

I’ve sat in far too many meetings lately where I’ve heard, “Let’s create a campaign around [X]. That’s what would motivate me.” Stop. Right. There.

First of all, what you like or dislike is not a strategy. It’s a lazy way out of doing the hard work of making decisions based on actual data. Feel free to start with a hunch, but take the time to test and verify it.

This has become a mantra of mine that my colleagues have heard countless times now: I am a data point of one. And in the world of statistical significance, a singular data point is not enough on which to build a successful fundraising campaign.

Perhaps our nonprofits would be better if we adopted the Fundraising Platinum Rule – suggested by Tony Alessandra and then Michael Rosen – which is more donor-centered: Know thy donor through data and treat them how they want to be treated.

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Every Hero Needs A Theme Song

Leathers - Deftones“They’re my theme music. Every good hero should have some.”
Bernie Casey as Jack Spade
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka

Bernie Casey is absolutely right. If we’re to be the hero of our own movie (and we damn well better be) then we’re going to need a badass theme song to match.

To this day, my theme music is Leathers by Deftones.

When I was living through my own hellish nightmare of depression a couple of years ago, when all seemed lost and felt empty, this song was my constant companion. There was rarely a day when I didn’t plug earbuds in to my iPhone and let the ferocity of the song wash over and drive through me.

Chino Moreno – through his lyrics and voice – was able to help me rediscover (at least for short periods of time) my inner power that had become elusive and difficult to grasp. While I know Chino wasn’t writing specifically for me, the timing of the song’s release in late 2012 and its intense message felt like an uncannily personal plea. It is an anthem challenging me to be courageous, to not allow the diminishment of my self by others, to own my wholeness that includes strengths as well as inadequacies, to show what I am made of.

The song opens like this:

This is
Your chance
revolt, resist!
Open your chest, look down, reach in.

Shedding your skin,
Showing your texture.
Time to let everything inside show.
You’re cutting all ties
Now and forever, time to let
Everything outside you

Even though I’ve moved beyond this dark place in my life, Leathers continues to hold meaning for me. It remains my theme song…so much so that I have a t-shirt for days when I want to openly claim my badassery. It reminds me not only of where I’ve been but also galvanizes me to create a present and future in which I am unafraid to express my full self.

As you’ve probably guessed, I’m moved primarily by metal and hard rock. Your groove may be more geared toward pop, country, or gospel. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you have your own theme song that brings out your hero or heroine.

What’s your theme music? Your anthem that propels you through the dark and rough times, inspires you to remember who you truly are, strengthens your resolve and focus needed to kick the shit out of anything that gets in your way?

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Five Observations For Surviving The Modern Workplace

Zigzag MazeThis post might serve as some indication as to the type of week I’ve had. One where the veil has been pulled aside to further clarify some observations that I’ve noticed in my long and winding career journey.

1. Our organization is not our family.
This very notion that my organization is a family has always made me cringe. Unless we’re related by blood or marriage or some other legal compact, there’s not one shred of truth to this. Further, it feels cultish, like I’ve joined up with the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners.

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, goes so far as to say that its one of the worst lies a company can tell its employees. It’s misguided at best and deceptive at its worst.

In a Harvard Business Review article, he elaborated:

In a real family, parents can’t fire their children. Try to imagine disowning your child for poor performance: ‘We’re sorry Susie, but your mom and I have decided you’re just not a good fit. Your table-setting effort has been deteriorating for the past 6 months, and your obsession with ponies just isn’t adding any value. We’re going to have to let you go. But don’t take it the wrong way; it’s just family.’

2. Our organization is not responsible for our happiness.
On the face of it, this feels stupidly obvious. But how many times have we felt pissed off, frustrated, and ultimately unhappy only then to blame our organization for it. Take a moment and reflect on your recent experience. Go ahead…I’ll wait. Hey, I did it just this week. It’s all too easy to feel we’re owed happiness at work by the very organization that feels it’s owed our loyalty in return for a signed paycheck.

However, who gets to determine our happiness? We do, of course.

3. Our boss is not our friend. And conversely, our employee is not our friend.
This isn’t to suggest that the boss-employee dynamic shouldn’t be friendly. But do not mistake that dynamic for a true friendship. The boss still holds the upper hand in the power structure. Don’t believe me? The next time you have the chance to do what you want versus what your boss wants, go your own way. Where your friend may be irritated, your boss is likely going to see it as a direct challenge to their authority. Do it too many times and you’re going to find yourself taken behind the woodshed for a professional whipping.

And god forbid that you work for a friend or hire a friend. The times when this works out for everyone is vastly outnumbered by the times when it ends in tragedy.

4. Our job does not define our identity.
I am an entrepreneur. I am a dentist. I am a diner waitress. I am an assistant to the traveling secretary of the New York Yankees. Or for me, I am a digital nonprofit fundraiser.

Yes, these can all be true statements…and untrue if we believe our job is our sole defining role. The times when I’ve identified myself as primarily a marketer, an entrepreneur, or a fundraiser are the times when I have been a shitty husband, father, and friend. These are also the times when I forget that I am a writer, a hiker, an amateur naturalist, a Steelers fan, and several other things that I enjoy in my life.

5. Our work is not our life.
There’s a thin line between being invested in our work (which is good) and being over-invested (which can lead to the type of obsessive behavior that robs us of strong relationships and our well-being). Over-investing in work can also lead to a type of vicious anxiety where the work isn’t just part of our life…it can feel like it’s life or death.

One mistake can cancel out several superb accomplishments. Then, fear of committing another mistake can prompt job insecurity and a paralyzing fear that just one more mistake can lead to a pink slip. And then we’re marked by the stigma of the Scarlet Letter F – for Fired AKA Failure-at-Life.

Whoa, whoa, whoa. But wait.

If you’re still with me so far, hang on. I’m about to take this whole line of thinking for a U-turn because maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe this is my cynical persona taking me for a ride.

Instead, if I listen to the quiet voice of inner wisdom that whispers in the space where my ego screams, it reminds me that all is One and Life is interconnected. And our Work is a testament to our love not just for our self but a gift to this fractured world.

As someone who has experienced career success as well as career hell, here’s where I openly admit that I struggle with two concepts: realism and idealism. The real provides a protective fence for my ego. By avowing that my organization is not my family, it allows me to keep the group at arm’s length so I can’t be hurt. By acknowledging that my employee is not my friend, I can more easily make the decision to cut him loose with a parting comment that it’s “just business.” Maybe this protective fence is what keeps me from fully living life, fully sharing my talents with others, fully being human (and therefore vulnerable) with each person I encounter in my daily journey.

Perhaps these five “cynical” concepts I’ve described above have the opportunity to be turned around and transformed into something more spiritually rewarding, and therefore more radical in society and our modern workplace. What if organizations can be more human spaces where respect wins over condescension, courage over fear, service over power, and vulnerability over arrogance?

I wonder what our organizations would look like?

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