Don’t take it personally

Jonathan Lewis’ recent blog post and accompanying video on fundraising hits the nail on the head: “The best fundraisers don’t fundraise.  Instead, they teach people to take realistic – and unrealistic!  – risks in the service of a better world. “

“Teaching” and “risk-taking” in service of a better world.

Maybe if we used that language more often we would have more great people getting into fundraising, more people in fundraising with the right mindset and orientation, and more funders taking risk.

I’m with Jonathan all the way until the closing paragraph, where he says, “Infuriating indeed is the patronizing ‘don’t take it personally’…If you believe in your mission and if you are giving it your all, then it’s always personal.  Every committed social entrepreneur takes organizational rejection personally!”

As I told Jonathan, I don’t think this is quite right.  Of course I feel it personally when I am rejected, when someone doesn’t share my passion or, worse, when my explanation of what we are trying to do at Acumen fails to capture the imagination of someone who I know is aligned with my passion and vision (in which case, shame on me).  I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t feel it; indeed, if the day comes when I stop feeling it I’d have to question my own passion and sense of commitment.

But when I let the rejection feel personal, and when I see other fundraisers do the same thing, I think that’s a big mistake.

The person I’m meeting with came into the meeting with a worldview, with ideas, with momentum in a certain direction…and so did I.  I feel like my job is to listen, explore, connect, tease out alignment, and then to inspire action (aside: the “inspire action” bit is really important and not easy to get right.)

But when that alignment isn’t there and I end up feeling personally rejected then I believe I’m misdiagnosing what just went on in that meeting.

When someone says no, it could be an execution error on my part: maybe I handled the meeting poorly, didn’t listen enough, was off my game, didn’t have a real and compelling ask, didn’t tell compelling stories, or didn’t articulate how Acumen could help the funder realize their vision.  Hopefully, after fundraising for nearly seven years I make fewer and fewer of those mistakes, but I’m sure I do make them plenty.  When this is what’s gone wrong,  I need to use a rejection to figure out how I can get better, how I can hone my craft, how I can turn “no’s” into “not now’s.”  Taking these sorts of rejections personally places blame in the wrong place: I didn’t do my job well, plain and simple.

And when what I’m fundraising for doesn’t inspire a funder or align with their vision, then something entirely different is at play.  That’s a question of worldview, a question of where they are in their journey.  It’s about lack of alignment of vision and values and aspiration.  What they’re looking for is not what I’m selling.

(Note that it’s easy to see, when I’m selling database software or consumer copiers, the difference between being turned down because the person isn’t buying anything right now, buys from my competitor, or decides to buy productivity software and a high-end color printers instead.  In philanthropy what we mostly see is the person giving or not giving to us, so everything gets much more muddled).

Almost always, it’s not personal.  I have not been rejected.  The moment I take rejection too personally is the moment I lose forward momentum, the moment I begin to question myself at a more fundamental level, the moment I forget that real long-term partnerships happen because of a deep sense of alignment, not because someone chose to buy what I’m selling.

5 thoughts on “Don’t take it personally

  1. Thank you for this deep and meaningful conversation, which is important to me as a funder because I want to be able to empathize with those who bring their vulnerability and great opportunities to me — and also because I am often offering those world changing opportunities to others. Much of the time a “no” does not reflect a misspoken ask. It means simply that tour opportunity, one among scores I receive every month, does not deeply resonate with my story. True transformative giving by an individual funder (not foundation staff trained to duvirce personal passions from philanthropy) is like vocation: “It is where my deepest longing meets the world’s greatest need.” ((Frederick Buechner). To know my deepest longing, you have to create an authentic relationship with me and listen far more than speak — and share a bit if your own soul with mine. This is the antithesis of salesmanshi

  2. Sasha, I agree and disagree with you. Yes, feelings are personal, and when we’re rejected we feel sad/angry/frustrated etc. And, yes, rejection is fundamentally about the rejecter’s world view, not ours—it’s not personal.


    It’s also possible for us to receive enough rejection that it’s appropriate to “question [ourselves] at a more fundamental level”. I think, for example, of the many people who, when we look back, were ahead of their time: those who espoused ideas and worldviews that society was simply not ready for. Life did not turn out well for some of them. I’m not arguing for or against plowing on amidst what turn out to be staggering odds—that’s an individual decision. But all of us working to facilitate change in individuals, groups, or society have the right to reevaluate our lifework on the basis of overwhelming feedback and, perhaps, to take what we’ve experienced “personally” and make appropriate changes. All feedback is information, and continuing on the same path regardless may be ignoring something important.

  3. Sasha, don’t take this personally, but I actually agree with your quibble. Hahahaha.

    There are many reasons why rejection occurs, and many reasons for an unsuccessful outcome or conversation. As in all human endeavors, our ‘rejection/success meter’ is often determined in and by degree and intensity, timing, talent and luck.

    Without succumbing to psychobabble, funders and fundraisers alike should be neither overly thin-skinned nor immune to criticism. It is a balancing act, first and foremost, which requires a large dose of grace and manners.

    I think my point was simply that the work is personal. I do it because I care. So do you. Hence, when a funder says “don’t take it personally,” the attempt at depersonalization or distancing on the funder’s part is, I think, bullshit.

    Thanks, Sasha, for every single word you write.

  4. Andrian, incredibly well-said. Thank you for this. I think it’s the accumulation of feedback that gives us real data; and at the same time each individual rejection cannot kick us in the gut.

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