A philanthropy problem

The easiest thing to forget when you are raising funds is this:

Philanthropists have a philanthropy problem

By “philanthropists” I mean people who consistently engage in philanthropy–people for whom philanthropy an important part of what they do and who they are.

Someone who has the means, the values and the practice of being active philanthropically has, by definition, a philanthropy problem. She has a set of things she is trying to make happen in the world through her philanthropy. Her problem is that it is hard to do great philanthropy, it is hard to find great people and great organizations, and it is hard to make change in the world.

Fundraisers and nonprofit professionals forget this. Maybe we find it hard to relate because we don’t feel like we have a philanthropy problem (though that’s an easy issue to address: the more we give philanthropically the more we will get in touch with this feeling.)

But mostly I think it’s a comingling two things: an overall sense of fear and intimidation (of the philanthropist—which neither she nor we want) and our lack of empathy.

The fear is connected to our misplaced sense of worth–that somehow this thing we are doing might not really be “worth it” (in every sense) and, by association, worthy of support–and, as a result, a sense that we’re intruding on the philanthropists life and time.

The lack of empathy is connected to that fear–this time our fear that we will fail in this meeting, which causes us to be centered on our selves and our worries. This chatter overwhelms our clear thinking and our open hearts. So we close our eyes to the experience of the person with whom we are trying to connect, and we lose sight of the fact that we are showing up with a solution to her problem.

Since colorful stories and images are the best way to cement memories in our brains, here’s a too-loud version of this situation from This American Life Episode 319: Cars. It’s not a perfect analogy by any stretch–there’s not a lot of heart opening and genuine connection in the car-buying business–but it shines a light on how easy it is to forget that the person in the “showroom” is there because she is has a problem she’s come there to solve.

The speaker is Sal Lanzilotta, a manager at the Chrysler Town & Country dealership in Long Island. He’s giving his salespeople a pep talk:

Sal Lanzilotta

Customer says they’re not ready to buy a car. They’re all not ready to buy a car. Let’s go over it again. They’re in a car dealership.

They got in their car, drove through hell to get here, looked for a parking spot for 10 minutes, parked, got out of the car, and walked into a car dealer, not because the coffee’s good. We went over this, because the coffee here is not good. They came here because we sell cars, and they want to buy one.

The philanthropist is sitting across from us with a philanthropy problem to solve. We are sitting across from the philanthropist with a solution that makes difference. Why do we act like we have to start with an apology?

When we boil it all down, I wonder if where we keep tripping up is in forgetting that what we have on offer is way more valuable than a car.

The nonprofit chasm

Here’s how a former CEO (for about a decade) of one of a well-known, well-respected U.S. charity started his story about his time there:

“It was a federated structure, so as CEO I raised only 20% of the money.  So of course I had no power and no authority.  Sure, I had it on paper, but really I had nothing.”

So here’s the chasm we have to cross in our sector: the good CEOs obviously get it, they understand that who you take money from is who you are; and they understand the inextricable link between what funds come in (and who brings them in) and power, strategy, and decision-making within the organization.

Yet at the same time there’s general agreement that nonprofit fundraising is still mostly broken, that fundraising jobs are career dead-ends, that fundraising is “overhead” (read: waste, something to be minimized).

Here’s a thought: let’s borrow a page from the corporate playbook.  Let’s take our best, highest-potential up-and-comers and put them through multi-year leadership rotations through ALL major functions in the organization (and no, it doesn’t count if they do 7 program rotations, one for each of your program areas, and then 1 “back office” rotation to cover HR, marketing, and fundraising).  That way no one gets to the top without having been on the front lines.

Oh, we also need a little more rabble-rousing.