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On Conviction

In thinking about what makes us effective development professionals, the word "conviction" kept coming to mind. Several definitions in Merriam’s International Dictionary apply to us: 1) a strong persuasion or belief; 2) the state of being convinced; and 3) a feeling or awareness of the rightness, truth or certainty of what is thought, spoken or done. It’s interesting that the Latin root is convictio meaning demonstration.

The reason this quality of conviction seems so important is that it takes us back to what is most compelling about raising funds for our organizations — their missions. To persuade others to join in supporting our missions, we must ourselves be convinced of the rightness of what our institutions are all about. We have to believe in what we’re doing.

In my column on motivating ourselves, I quoted psychologist Abraham Maslow, "Self-actualizing people are, without one single exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are devoted, working at something, something which is very precious to them — some calling or vocation in the old sense, the priestly sense."

As the practice of development has advanced its professionalism, I fear that we may have lost this sense of having a calling or vocation. While establishing ethical standards, developing a body of knowledge, and certifying our mastery of skills are important, it may be that our rational, analytical propensities are overtaking our emotional, creative qualities (left brain versus right brain).

We tend to think of our skills as being transportable from one employer to another. And our professional skills certainly are, but where are we emotionally? How persuasive can we be in describing our organizations’ missions and visions with passion? How portable is our conviction?

In earlier columns I wrote about our responsibilities as leaders and that people look to leaders to inspire them. James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge state, "We believe that it’s not necessary to be a famous, charismatic person to inspire a shared vision. It is necessary to believe, however — and to develop the skills to transmit that belief."

How can we believe passionately in feeding the hungry one week, and in the next week pour ourselves into building an art museum or securing an endowment for a professorship or ...? The average tenure of professionals in our field is only two years. Are we being true to ourselves or serving our institutions well?

When was the last time you asked yourself what you believe in? As Kouzes and Posner write, "The true force that attracts others is the force of the heart. Inspirational presentations are heart to heart, spirit to spirit, life to life. It’s when you share what’s in your soul that you can truly move others."

A common complaint among development professionals is that they can’t motivate their boards to raise funds. Our local NSFRE chapter recently heard a presentation by Steven Murphy, director of development for Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, on the care and feeding of volunteers. He quoted the board president in his orientation to new trustees as follows:

"As trustees of this community we have an obligation to demonstrate the leadership that we have accepted — not just with our time and talents, but with our treasures. As members of this Board, I expect you will support the annual fund, the capital campaign and our special events — and that these gifts should be the largest and most significant of your life. Why? Because we are dealing with our children’s lives and they are the future of our community and those that will fill these seats for their children."

That is a powerful demonstration of belief! In Profiles of Excellence, authors E. B. Knauft, Renee Berger and Sandra Gray cite leadership as one of the four hallmarks of excellence. They found, "Leaders have convictions [emphasis mine] and the strength to stand by them. This applies whether adhering to the organization’s mission or projecting a vision, whether insisting on ethical practices in fund raising or dealing with staff and volunteers. Such persistence or ‘toughness’ is not a superficial trait or a sign of rigidity. It is a basic survival skill in the nonprofit world."

It is essential for us, as development professionals, to examine what we believe. When we know this, we will know within which organizations we should practice our skills, and we can seek out those opportunities. As Kouzes and Posner explain, "... the first milestone on the journey to leadership credibility is clarity of personal values.... Values help us determine what to do and what not to do. They’re the deep-seated, pervasive standards that influence every aspect of our lives; our moral judgments, our responses to others, our commitments to personal and organizational goals."

If we are simply applying our skills to our jobs, we are becoming alienated from ourselves. Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm in his books, Man for Himself and The Sane Society, postulates that our modern society has assumed a marketing orientation. In our profession many of us have assumed a marketing orientation regarding our own skills and advancing our careers. Much of what we do professionally is done with an eye on the next job — more money, more responsibility, more power, more prestige.

As Fromm writes, "In this orientation, man experiences himself as a thing to be employed successfully on the market. He does not experience himself as an active agent, as the bearer of human powers. He is alienated from these powers. His aim is to sell himself successfully on the market. His sense of self does not stem from his activity as a loving and thinking individual, but from his socio-economic role."

He goes on, "That is the way he experiences himself, not as a man, with love, fear, convictions, doubts, but as that abstraction, alienated from his real nature, which fulfills a certain function in the social system. His sense of value depends on his success: on whether he can sell himself favorably, whether he can make more of himself than he started out with, whether he is a success. His body, his mind and his soul are his capital, and his task in life is to invest it favorably, to make a profit of himself. Human qualities like friendliness, courtesy, kindness, are transformed into commodities, into assets of the ‘personality package,’ conducive to a higher price on the personality market."

We are more than that. Working in the nonprofit sector gives us the opportunity to invest ourselves in something greater than ourselves. We have the power to choose to work in organizations which reflect our values, further our sense of self, and allow us to fully express ourselves.

When we know what we believe and we join our professional skills to missions of organizations we believe in, we can achieve extraordinary results. We can reclaim our conviction that one person can make a difference. We can follow the example of extraordinary people like Mother Teresa of whom John F. Kennedy, Jr. wrote in a recent issue of George, "...she was able to transform the lives not just of the poor whom she aided but of the rich whom she relentlessly solicited." She was a woman with strong convictions. As she told Kennedy, "You see, I ask everyone for help all the time. I ask, and I ask, and just when they think they’ve done enough and are fed up with me, I ask for more. I have no shame."

Mother Teresa instinctively understood the root meaning of conviction: demonstration. She acted upon her convictions. Indeed, she displayed the courage of her convictions.

We each have the potential to make a difference. What do you believe in? Do you have the conviction to act upon those beliefs? Like Mother Teresa, do you ask and ask again, and then ask for more? Or are you too professional?

Suggested readings:

Bolman, Lee G. and Deal, Terrence, E., Leading with Soul, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995.

Fromm, Erich, Man for Himself, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1947.

Fromm, Erich, The Sane Society, Holt Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1955.

Knauft, E. B., Berger, Renee A. and Gray, Sandra T., Profiles of Excellence, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1991.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B., The Leadership Challenge: How To Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995.

Maslow, A., The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Viking Press, New York, 1971.

Maslow, A., Motivation and Personality, Harper, New York, 1954.

Maslow, A., Toward a Psychology of Being, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1968.


Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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