Partners in Philanthropy   Partners in Philanthropy
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On Challenge

Do you remember those word problems in math back when you were in school? Or those blue-book exams in college, when you had to offer your interpretation of historical events or the meaning of metaphors used in literature? Most of us dreaded those questions. It was far easier to give rote answers to questions about dates, names, places and other such data that were easily memorized — and as easily forgotten.

Critical thinking. That ability was what the best teachers were trying to develop in us. It wasn’t what I would remember about 18th Century English Parliamentary history. It was the ability to analyze, to formulate principles, to perceive consequences, to use the known to test and discern the unknown, to develop reasoned responses. It was hard work, at least it was for me. It was like the neurons in my brain had to plow new paths through the cortex. It was slow going most of the time and the mental strain was taxing.

It was good training, though. As fund raisers, we have to use this ability frequently as we struggle to respond to the challenges posed by our donors. They ask us questions that we often don’t have ready answers to, or confront us with points of view we haven’t considered. If you’ve been in this business any length of time and have asked for significant gifts face-to-face, you know that it’s not simply a matter of making your case or telling your story. That may be sufficient for smaller gifts that are heartfelt responses to organizational needs. But when we start talking with donors about addressing problems in new ways, about radical solutions, or about creating opportunities filled with risk, we are trying to change paradigms or established patterns of thinking. Therein, lies our challenge, the challenge to think critically.

One of our current clients, a public secondary school, is upgrading its technology through a fund raising campaign. The other day we met with a key volunteer to prepare a request to a major donor prospect who had ties to the school. We were initially focused on making the case for technology, but the volunteer was almost dismissive about that. In his view, the need was plainly evident.

As he helped us realize, the challenge was not in convincing the prospect about the need for technology, it was in convincing the prospect to charitably support public education. Why should citizens contribute voluntarily to a public high school funded by local property taxes and the state’s general fund? If the need for technology was so critical, why wasn’t it a priority for the school district? Why weren’t educational outcomes improving as a result of spending more tax dollars? How could we assure that private contributions would be used effectively and efficiently?

All good questions. We had been so focused on the need for technology that we had not given enough thought to these questions. We had assumed that the general acceptance of the need to supplement funding for our tax-supported universities in the state would apply to public elementary and secondary schools. We believed that the tradition of giving to private and parochial schools would transmute to public education. We were challenged to rethink our case to address these fundamental issues. Like a good teacher, this volunteer was forcing us to think differently. He looked forward to our next meeting to see how we would respond.

Good training for us — which is exactly why we had scheduled the meeting with him. We want to be as well prepared as possible when we meet with major gift prospects. It is important to anticipate the challenges that will confront us. Donors develop confidence in us by our past performance as well as by our response to their challenges. Have we thought through the planning process and the implementation? Are we seeking an adequate sum of money to provide the necessary resources or are we trying to skimp? Are our goals realistic? How will the initiative be sustained? What impact will the project have? How will we (and hence the donor) know that we’re making a difference? Exactly what is that difference? How will it be measured?

This kind of training — being forced to think critically — is essential to success. I’m reading Stephen Ambrose’s book D-Day in preparation for a tour of Normandy and The Ardennes with my father-in-law who was a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division on D-Day and later fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight Eisenhower, believed resolutely in training. Much to his rue he had learned from his experience in North Africa against Erwin Rommel, Commander of Germany’s Afrika Korps, that well-trained troops can overcome the numerical and firepower superiority of the enemy. The Americans thought that their soldiers had been through the toughest training in the world, but they found out otherwise when officers panicked and men ran from battle initially at Kasserine Pass. Eisenhower vowed, "From now on I am going to make it a fixed rule that no unit from the time it reaches this theater until this war is won will ever stop training."

Our training as development professionals likewise is never finished. It is accomplished by continually listening to others and then responding on their terms, not ours. We have to think beyond our habitual ways; we have to see the forest, not just the trees. We have to maintain confidence and optimism in our vision and goals while addressing the realities which confront us. We have to keep asking questions of others so as not to become complacent that we already have the answers we need. I think that this is a mark of development professionals who succeed at securing major gift support.

Think of the challenges our donors pose as training for success. John Gardner in On Leadership believes that, "All talent develops through an interplay — sometimes over many years — between native gifts on the one hand and opportunities and challenges on the other." It is this interplay between our critical thinking skills and the challenges raised by donors that hones our talents as fund raisers.

If we are successful, we are leaders for our organizations. According to James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, "To enlist people in a vision, leaders must know their constituents and speak their language. People must believe that leaders understand their needs and have their interests at heart. Only through an intimate knowledge of their dreams, their hopes, their aspirations, their visions, their values is the leader able to enlist support. Leadership is a dialogue, not a monologue. Leaders breathe life into the hopes and dreams of others and enable them to see the exciting possibilities that the future holds. Leaders forge a unity of purpose by showing constituents how the dream is for the common good." I don’t think I’ve run across a better description of our role as development professionals!

Our success with donors is a result of dialogue, not monologue. We have to embrace — even seek out — the challenges our donors offer. I am grateful to those teachers who wouldn’t let me get by with facile, superficial answers, to those who developed in me the ability to think critically, to those who challenged me. They prepared me for what Kouzes and Posner believe is important to our development as leaders: "Seeing change as a challenge is important to psychological hardiness, and challenge is the key ingredient in people’s enjoying what they do. Challenge is also crucial to learning and career enhancement."

It is in tribute to those long-ago teachers and to the donors I have encountered — to the challenges they posed — that I tell people that I love what I do. I hope you do as well.

Suggested reading:

Kouzes, James M., and Posner, Barry Z., The Leadership Challenge, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995.

Gardner, James W., On Leadership, The Free Press, New York, 1990.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy


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