Reminders in Troubling Times

Every Monday morning at Acumen, in all of our offices, we hold a staff meeting. It starts with context from the last week and ends with “Aha’s,” reflections from the previous week relevant to our work and to our mission.

These past few weeks have been a drumbeat of global news going from bad to worse, of fear taking center stage. At some point it gets hard to even find the right words.

Here are some of the reminders I heard from colleagues yesterday that I needed to hear.

That if you’re paying attention to the world right now, you are probably hurting.

That if you come across someone who is hurting, they could use a sign of love, of warmth, of kindness, maybe even a hug.

That we can express care and connection through actions big and small.

That how we act in each of our daily interactions has ripple effects for us and for those around us.

That the world desperately needs the people who are fighting against evil, against injustice, and against division to remain hopeful.

That these same people need support from people who, today, are sitting on the sidelines.

And that being part of an organization that is working to make positive change in the world puts us in a leveraged position to be a force for good, and that this in itself is a reason to redouble our efforts and redouble our hope.

Please, let us keep at it. Let us keep fighting the fight.

Please, let us keep listening to each other and holding each other in our hearts.

Please, let us show each other, and let us show those that are angry and frustrated and tired and hopeless, that what unites us is stronger than what divides us.

The Kick

I’ve started swimming again.

To be more accurate, I started a year ago, dipping into the pool because the tendinitis in my right arm was so bad that it hurt to hold a coffee cup, let alone a racquet.

I’d avoided swimming for decades. As a child, for reasons I can’t explain, swimming terrified me. I was the kid who cried before every swimming lesson, tears streaming down my face while I stood waiting to be picked up each summer Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

No surprise, then, that 30 years later, despite being physically active, 25 meters of freestyle left me clutching the side of the pool, panting for breath. Something about having my head in the water and needing to breathe to one side brought me back to Beginner Swimming lessons and the dreaded 25 meters of freestyle I had to swim to pass the test.

Nothing like an injury to get me to face my fears. Swimming was the only activity that eased the shooting pain in my injured right arm, relaxing the muscles and stretching out the tendons. That was motivation enough.

Over the course of last summer, I willed myself into the water, swimming 50 meters, then 100, then further. While I did eventually push through to being able to swim a few hundred yards, that old underlying panic still lurked. It was a feeling that at any moment I could devolve into a terrified kid gasping for breath.

(By way of contrast, my wife loves the water. She would describe her Zen-like experience swimming laps, and I’d listen, perplexed. To me, “ease” and swimming mixed like oil and water.)

At the start of this summer, I realized that, despite the progress I made last year, much of my effort and willpower had been taking me in the wrong direction: if I’m trying to work through a fear, then more effort and strain aren’t the right tools to use. This summer, I’ve been trying to figure out where that old panic comes from, and how it’s affecting what I do in the water.

What I’ve recently discovered is that my fear of not being able to breathe is manifesting in every stroke I take. Each stroke, I do a frantic flutter kick and I tense up my whole body in a misguided attempt to lift my full head (and half my torso, it seems) out of the water. That kick, that tensing up, it’s that 30-year-old terror resurfacing to sabotage my stroke and leave me exhausted.

I find it so tempting to muscle my way through these sorts of situations – not just in the water. Wouldn’t it be nice if fear were something we could overpower and wrestle to the ground?

I can’t, directly, beat back the fear, but I can change what I do in the water. I can focus on the behavior that the fear has created – in this case, the kick. So, as I swim laps, I focus on kicking less, on tensing up less, on straining less, and as I change what I’m doing with my body, over time, a bit of ease begins to seep in.

We discover this same pattern so often if we’re willing to look for it. We waste energy on things that feed on the energy we give them: the energy we put into stalling before sitting down to work; the energy we put into maintaining an image of strength and confidence for those around us; the energy we put into protecting someone who can stand on their own two feet; the energy we put into the decades-old stories someone put into our heads that we’ve never let go.

Most of the time, this energy comes from a place of fear or self-preservation. These fears lace themselves through our days and through our relationships. If left unexamined and unaddressed, they exhaust us, draining our mental and physical faculties and insulating us from what our experience could be.

We don’t overcome fear with more effort or by straining more.

We overcome fear by looking back to the source, seeing it clearly and, from a place of calm and clarity, discovering that we can behave differently and that, when we do, those old fears no longer have the power to hold us.

Fundraisers in the Digital Age

One of the characteristics I don’t see people talk about as much when looking for successful, modern-day fundraisers are writing skills and digital proficiency.

It’s easy to think that the traditional job interview is a great way to find good fundraisers, and it is a good place to start. Fundraising meetings have a lot in common with job interviews: the potential funder is trying to figure out your story, your motivation for being there, and whether she connects enough with you and with what you’re saying to make a commitment to investing in a relationship with you and, over time, with your organization. A lot like hiring.

But it’s a mistake to stop there.

We know that today everyone lives on their devices. This means that a big part of the modern fundraiser’s job is to maintain and feed a web of relationships: a good fundraiser invests heavily in a core group of 20 relationships but is keeping a lower-touch pulse on as many as 100 relationships at various stages. This has gotten much easier thanks to technology – if you do it right.

The modern fundraiser’s secrets weapons are things like the ability to quickly craft a great email before or after a meeting; to sift through a lot of information online and find that one story that’s going to further the conversation you just had with a potential funder; to know when to call or to text or to write a handwritten note, and what tone and style to use in each medium.  If you can do this all fast and without breaking a sweat you can feed the network and be present and top of mind in many people’s lives.

This means that great fundraisers do more than just create connection in the room. Great fundraisers are a sense-makers, companions on the philanthropists’ journey to understand context and where their own philanthropic efforts fit in and can make a difference.

Put the gloves down

What does it mean to say that real fundraising is about building long-term partnership?

It means that some of the most important meetings you have with long-term funders are the ones that cover topics that don’t require their funding support:

The amazing, fully funded project that you’re just kicking off with a few other partners.

The great piece of work that you both know is outside of their formal strategy that you’re really excited about.

The new initiative where you’d value their experience and input.

Some funders are so used to – and so tired of – being pitched constantly that they end up behaving protectively, as if the only thought running through their head is, “how many times will I have to say ‘no’ in this meeting?”  I’ve had funders start sentence after sentence with, “we’re not doing any new funding this cycle” long before I’ve asked for anything. There’s no hope of building a relationship if someone has their gloves up protecting themselves from an onslaught of asks.

Fundraisers can be part of the problem, acting as if that every meeting should include a financial ask, and fearing that they’ve made a mistake if they don’t ask for money each time.

Every meeting should help deepen the relationship and, even better, should give everyone around the table the chance to contribute meaningfully to making positive change happen. Often that’s not about money.

Taking a stance that you’re not constantly, desperately on the lookout for funding is one of the best ways to allow the partners you hope to work with to put down their gloves and actually listen.

How philanthropists really decide where to give

The natural place to start, as a fundraiser, is at your desk. You judiciously read every webpage, article and report about a potential funder’s strategy in search of the best fit between a donor and the work you are doing.

And then, research completed and grant application submitted, you’re surprised to figure out that the fit isn’t there after all. The pieces don’t snap together cleanly, your proposal has been turned down. Then what?

Perplexed, you may head back to your desk to do a little more research.

Please don’t, because the answer you’re looking for is not somewhere on the screen or hidden away in a Google cache.

Philanthropy – whether a $25 donation to an Indiegogo campaign or a multimillion dollar grant from a huge foundation – is always personal. The published philanthropy strategies you are researching are a sensible narrative that pulls together a bunch of threads, but they are not the whole truth. Far from it.

Think of it from the other side: there simply is no such thing as the best place to give a donation (heck, there’s no such thing as a best car) so there’s no analysis that gives the philanthropist the right answer no matter how much they spent trying to figure out the problem.

All the best philanthropists I know have a healthy dash of angel investor in them. Angels invest in people above all else, because they know that when you can find that rare combination of grit, belief, tenacity, vision, people skills, humility, audacity, courage, and, and, and….

You see, that’s the point.

The list is too long, the unicorn-like combination of attributes so rare, that it’s always, fundamentally, about someone’s belief in you.

(and, for those keeping track, ‘you’ is not just the founder or the CEO.  Not by a long shot).

Imagined Distance

Every nonprofit fundraising campaign is about closing the imagined distance between a person and an issue.

The imagined distance between health today and a potential disease tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and someone who is suffering from that disease today.

The imagined distance between the safety you feel today and the potential of being a victim tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and the person who is a victim today.

The imagined distance between the rights you take as a given today and the loss of those rights tomorrow. Or the imagined distance between you and a person who does not have those same rights today.

The imagined distance between me and you, when “you” is someone I think I don’t know, someone I think is different from me, someone I have been choosing to look away from.

Once it’s revealed and felt that this distance is just a mirage, a construct that allows us to hide from our shared connection and shared humanity, then and only then is it time to explain why your organization, your intervention, your solution is going to make a difference.

But step 1 is to break down those walls – walls that create safety but that also create separation.

Because, ultimately, while safety creates comfort, it doesn’t hold a candle to what people really crave: connection, meaning, and a sense of purpose.

The nod

Earlier this year, I had a chance to give one of the biggest, highest-pressure talks of my life. Going in, I was nervous, but overall I felt pretty good about it. The topic was interesting, the narrative arc of the story compelling, and I felt like I’d done enough “big talks” to be ready for this one.

Because this talk was filmed, there was a formal dress rehearsal for all of the speakers a few hours before we went on stage. This was a chance to iron out any bumps in the talks, get a final bit of feedback from the event organizers, and make sure that the talk took less than the allotted 10 minutes.

As I sat listening to the other speakers rehearse, I was reminded of my time as a high school wrestler, when I’d always be a bundle of nerves on the sidelines before the match. In a wrestling meet, the matches progress by weight class. I remember watching each of my teammates finish their matches and walk off the mat, and how I’d feel a huge pang of envy that they’d gotten it over with and my turn was yet to come.

The first speaker nailed her talk. So did the second one. On and on….Deep breath.

Finally I was up. I started, and though I made a few wrong turns and hit a couple of dead ends, it seemed like the talk was going fine. Then, two-thirds of the way in, one of the staff from the event team raised a sign saying I was out of time. My 10 minutes were up. I mumbled my way through the last few minutes, and walked off in a cold sweat.

What a moment to discover that timing myself reading the talk and timing myself actually speaking were two different things. It turns out that I speak about a third slower than I read. Great.

I had exactly 120 minutes to cut one third of my talk and re-learn the shortened version. In those two hours, it was as if that quiet voice in the back of my head, the insidious one that whispers “you are going to fail!” suddenly had a microphone and it was drowning out any clear thinking or sense that I could pull this off.

Thankfully, I had help. Friends and colleagues rushed to my side to sift through what should stay and what should go, and, after pacing and sweating and delivering my rewritten talk as many times as I could to an empty room, I stood in front of the audience and in front of the cameras to give the new talk.

That’s when I received a gift.

All the other speakers – the people who hadn’t made the mistake I had, the ones I was secretly jealous of – were in the audience in the front row. And as I looked out to them just before the cameras started rolling, they were a collective source of positive energy. As I started to speak, many of their faces lit up – they smiled, they nodded, they affirmed. This group that had seen me fail just two hours ago had clearly decided that they wanted to help me succeed. And so they morphed into a band of new friends who, with every nod and smile, rooted me on and communicated that I could do it.

It’s so easy to focus on the guy or gal at the front of the room, sweating under the lights. This is why it’s so easy to forget the real gifts we can deliver from any seat.

The opportunities to lead, to support, to encourage, to reinforce, and, yes, to cheer on – even with something as simple as a smile and a nod – those opportunities are everywhere, and they are (and we are) much more capable than we realize to help others shine.

(HT: Shooting an Elephant)