What’s possible at the union of self and service, the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need?

“How can I raise more money for my organization when we’re so big and we make gifts/grants in the community?”

This was the question that prompted a former client—a large hospital system foundation executive team—to invite me to help them answer that question. With apparent variations by sub-sector, it’s a common question among fundraising professionals. Why? What’s at work among so many professionals where these barriers serve to shrink possibility and constrict action and lift?

The story of this former client has many parallels. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the story….

Clearly, as I interviewed a few staff by phone and then arrived for an on-site staff retreat, this question had been bothering the team for quite some time. They explained that, while feeling well supported by administration and board, they operated daily under a felt pressure to raise more money. In their eyes, the context they were facing was narrowing the likelihood for success rather than expanding it. Staff, veteran fundraisers and newcomers alike, were feeling a pinch.

What to do? They asked, “How can we get organizational leaders to see that by being the largest employer in the area, by making grants to sponsor, underwrite, and support other community organizations, and by routinely seeing media headlines about the high cost of health care…foundation staff are running into stiff headwinds when trying to ask people to support the projects and people of the hospital system.”

“What if we take a few minutes to see if we can verbalize our assumptions beneath this question,” I suggested. Fine. OK. Whatever, their eyes said to me. “You work for a big, high profile nonprofit organization whose work potentially affects everyone and you’re asked to raise money on the organization’s behalf and gift or grant money on their behalf out in the community. Why is this a problem for you in your work as a fundraiser?” The responses came quickly:

  • “The hospital system’s big size is problematic.”
  • “Health care costs are high.”
  • “We (the hospital system) don’t/can’t demonstrate need.”

Undeterred, I pressed on. “So, why is that a problem for you?” Responses were:

  • “We think and act small (we’re modest).”
  • “The foundation isn’t as well-known as the hospital.”
  • “We’re part of an historical wave of need-driven fundraising in this state.”

“OK, why is that a problem for you in your work?” Their responses were:

  • “It’s (the message) about us.”
  • “Need is the principle driver of giving.”

Asking for their patience, I persisted again. “Why is that a problem?” Their responses—sometimes quite emphatically delivered—were:

  • “The priority is the money. It’s all about the money.”
  • “We’re fundraisers; therefore, it’s all about the money.”

Despite the shared exasperation in the room, I asked one final time: “Why is this a problem? What’s going on inside you that leads to this feeling like a problem?” Here the responses came more slowly and with less surety and far less intensity:

  • “We want our jobs to be easier and/or more rewarding.”
  • “I’m just plain uncomfortable with money conversations. I know ‘they’ won’t give if I don’t ask. I have to couch the ask in such a way that’s less objectionable.”

Don’t you feel tired just reading that conversation? In the room that day, I sure felt that way and I sensed the staff team did as well. I could see it in their faces and body language. It’s like we had stripped away the layers of psychic self-protection to expose a core vulnerability. Now what? My intent, then as now, is to highlight a required process of introspection, challenging false assumptions, and letting go of those that are in the way. Where we sit determines what we see. Our mindset, mental model, and prevailing assumptions govern the causal (operating) structures we put in place, which produce our repetitive patterns of behavior, which leads to daily occurrences and events. Those things that we initially identified as insurmountable barriers to our success have their roots in our internal constructs.

Working with the staff that day, we exposed these previously unspoken assumptions to new light; new scrutiny. Here’s what we came up with together:

 

Old Assumption

New View

“I’m just plain uncomfortable with money conversations. I know ‘they’ won’t give if I don’t ask. I have to couch the ask in such a way that’s less objectionable. We want our jobs to be easier and/or more rewarding.”

I operate from a deep belief that people not only want to give to something outside themselves—bigger than themselves—they LIKE to give. Therefore, my job is to uncover their joy and inner gladness. To serve it. To celebrate the intersections with my organization’s direction and to honor it when it leads a person in another direction. In that way, little of my work is about money. It’s about what Frederick Buechner defined as vocation: when one’s inner gladness meets the world’s great need. Freed by this viewpoint, the size of my organization, the headlines it evokes, and the profile of our community collaborations is far less important than the inner journey of a donor. To help illuminate that self-selected path with a donor is a reward beyond most. Pride and confidence results.

“We (the hospital system) don’t/can’t demonstrate need.”

We’re responsible for meeting our own organizational needs. Therefore, operating profitably is a necessity and a signal of effectiveness and strong leadership. We turn outward to meet the real needs of community. Unchanged for over [100] years – the [hospital system] mission is unrelenting in its focus on [the poor and vulnerable]. We invest in community as guided by that same mission. We invite you to do likewise. Pride and confidence results.

“The hospital system’s big size is problematic. You act like a big corporate donor.”

Despite our big size, we can’t and won’t act alone. The social determinants of health are too pervasive and pernicious to be addressed alone. We choose to act in partnership with other community players, some of whom need and deserve our support for their efforts. Our big size is good. The hospital system has the infrastructure, knowledge, and connection to act with and in community to produce better health outcomes. Pride and confidence results.

“Health care costs are high.”

Agreed. Yet, health care reform is pulling hospital systems toward more “upstream” focus, rather than treating illness as presented in patients; and 2) the rising acceptance of hospital systems playing the role of “anchor institutions.” Best practice systems – like Kaiser Permanente – continue to demonstrate that leveraging our multiple assets as a total health organization contribute to community and economic vitality. The more fully we play these seven anchor institution roles, the more likely we will be to make lasting improvements in community well-being. Going “upstream” is a major step in the direction of creating leverage for lasting change that corrals high cost. Pride and confidence results.

“We think and act small (we’re modest).”

The profile of the foundation is largely immaterial. The profile of the hospital system is what matters if that profile can serve the biggest dreams and imagined possibilities of a donor. Pride and confidence results.

“We’re part of an historical wave of need-driven fundraising in this state.”

I will no longer be bound by how others have repeated manipulative messages of immediate organizational needs, lifting organizational vulnerability like it’s an asset. I will respect myself, my colleagues, my organizational scorekeepers, and donors with the truth. If in so doing, we appear to walk an independent path; so be it. We believe what every donor wants is to:

  • Be understood – “Know me, care for me, ease my way”
  • Interact with transparency in a real, reciprocal relationship
  • Be part of something important; something bigger than myself
  • Know that my gift is connected to some impact of the greater good

Pride and confidence results.

I am proud of Suzanne, Cynthia, and their whole team for their collective courage to illuminate what was in their blind spots. They started out chiefly concerned about what they thought were widely shared opinions by others. The team concluded that those opinions were largely projections of their own fears, magnified and codified as a story they had been telling themselves for a long time. So long, in fact, that they had come to believe the story was not only true but overwhelming. It was in the way of their success.

However, they came to see that the story was of their own construction…or at least their own passive, unchallenged acceptance as “just the way things are.” They had come to morph that storyline into one of their own heroic stance in the face of great odds—succeeding despite great odds.

Once able to step back with new perspective—seeing with new eyes—the team came to see that the primary blockage was their own internal frame. They had to challenge their views that people really didn’t want to give and wouldn’t give significant gifts joyfully and gratefully—in search of deeper meaning and lasting impact. They had to challenge their views that their success was largely the product of spending 95% of their time in prospect research, strategizing, secondary staging and all manner of “set design,” believing that their very limited (“one shot”??) time with the “prospective donor” had to be “just right” if they were going to succeed in “persuading” the person effectively enough to “get” the gift.

The beauty of the lesson embedded in this true story is that NOTHING in the external environment changed, but ONE BIG THING in the individual staff members’ internal framing and mindset changed. Each staff person was now being invited to practice shifting from pursuing their work from a position of overcoming barriers and manipulating (albeit kindly and with good heart) “prospective donors” to do something they instinctively didn’t want to do…to a position of prioritizing and savoring every possible moment with community philanthropy partners as an opportunity to discern that person’s greatest aspiration, wildest hope, deepest gratitude and exploring in the most transparent way how to work toward serving that intention together, all the while being unapologetic for the time required to build and nurture this trusting relationship.

Is a mindset shift like this as simple as waving a wand, peeling back faulty assumptions and gaining some new insight that unlocks potential? No. Neither this staff team nor I are that naïve. I believe that any new stated intention requires attention…and practice. This staff has the benefit of an employment context where everyone undergoes a personality profiling exercise (in their case, Personalysis), wherein each person gets a peek at how they are wired to think and respond. Knowing that inherent construct and now enlightened by new insight, the next phase is intentional practice. I also suggested this team routinely meet to share their individual insights about their journey to make the shift. In that way, not only do they teach and reinforce one another, they each practice their introspection in a transparent way with colleagues.

Best of all, this new shared commitment to this type of exchange is rebuilding team culture—reshaping their shared story of their heroic battle to one of joyful coaching of self-motivated partners. Collectively, they are rebuilding a healthy, energizing, appreciative culture at the union of self and service, the place where their deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.

While this story is obviously hospital system philanthropy-oriented, the parallels to other sectors are significant. What self-limiting prevailing assumptions are holding you and your program back from its optimal success? What’s possible when your deep humility meets your authentic desire to serve a donor, helping her uncover her most important dreams and motivations? What’s your highest and best imagination about a lasting solution to an issue that both your organization and your donor co-design?

These are conversations that matter. Getting to them involves the courage to be vulnerable, to challenge long-held ideas of what’s true. To let go of false assumptions.

Ask yourself, “What conversation do I most need to have? How could the clarity from that conversation open new possibilities—for me and for those I care about? What will I do about that now?”

Please call me when you’re ready to shape your conversation; when you’re willing to step beyond technique; when you’re ready to create or rebuild a team culture of authenticity, deep relationship, trust, transparency, joy…and love. That’s a conversation I’ll lean into with my whole being.

Warmly,

Gary

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