The power to mobilize resources

Remember that old, broken conventional wisdom about how fundraising works in the nonprofit sector– a few folks that sit in the corner while the rest of the people do the important program work over here?

Just the other day I was talking with the new class of Acumen Fund Fellows – as impressive a class as we’ve ever had – and I was struck with how important it is to strike at the heart of this destructive, outdated mindset.

What I shared with them (more emphatically than I or they expected, I suspect) is that for anyone, for absolutely anyone, who plans to make change by working in the nonprofit / social enterprise sector, the ability to mobilize capital behind your idea is one of the most important, most untaught, most underdeveloped skills around.

If you can get funding, you can set up shop, you can create breakthrough approaches that cut through the status quo, you can make things happen.

It’s ironic, actually, because in the high-tech world, successfully pitching a top-tier VC fund is fetishized even while the capital needed to launch technology businesses keeps decreasing.  Yet in the nonprofit sector where by definition we are in the business of addressing social issues in a way that the market is not – as it currently is structured – built to address, the ability to mobilize resources is downplayed in its importance.

So let me be as clear as possible: this is a skill required of all you who aspire to be leaders in our space.  We need you to learn how to do this because we need you to make lasting, large-scale change.

Please don’t put this off or think someone’s going to do it for you.  And please don’t think that just because you don’t know any really wealthy people that you can’t start working on this now.

The first shift you can make is to acknowledge that this is something you want to learn how to do.  That intention alone will unlock your potential, will set you apart from your peers, will set you down the path that you’re going to need to walk – and going to want to walk – sooner than you know.

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Willing and able

I had a professor once, a big fan of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who was emphatic about the limits of didactic learning.

“Try to learn how to farm from a book,” he’d say, “and you’ll discover when it’s better to learn from experience.”

It’s true, one cannot learn ANYTHING from a book (or from the web, or through online courses, etc.), but the number of things that you’re ABLE to self-teach is growing exponentially.

(I know you agree on some level, but to get this viscerally check out the Kahn Academy’s videos that explain EBITDA, the law of large numbers, 3-variable linear equations, or the Geithner plan.  This was built by one guy in his spare time.)

The pace of progress is hard to process, but I can’t help but notice, gathering dust on my bookshelf, a 15-year-old copy of German in 10 Minutes a Day, whose text exhorted me, unsuccessfully, to say “eeech seeche minuh koffer” (“I’m looking for my luggage,” in useless phonetics).  I threw in the towel after Lesson One because this was no way to learn a language – me alone with a book, sounding things out.

But if I wanted to try again, today, I could go online and have interactive, audio learning, repetition, playback that taps into the parts of my brain I need to activate to learn to communicate.  The excuse that I couldn’t learn German without going to Germany used to be true, and it isn’t any more  (and the same logic applies to understanding balance sheets and cashflow statements, DCF valuations, C++; Ruby on Rails; PhotoShop….you name it.  That means that the reason I don’t have a good working knowledge of everything on that list is because I choose not to).

If you’ve already gone to school, to college, through graduate school under the old system, getting your head around the new system requires a drastic rerientation.  The first thing to understand is that the barrier, for most of us, has silently shifted from what we’re able to learn to what we’re willing to learn.

Two conclusions:

  1. The value of deciding, of initiating, of self-directed action keeps on going up – because we have so much more leverage for each thing we decide to learn
  2. The value of things that only YOU can share and teach, things that someone cannot learn by themselves, has gone UP  – and your ability to share these things with everyone for free has gone up as well.  (And that’s a lot to wrap your head around too – a post for another day).

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