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On Wonder

Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky!

How many times did you sing this little melody as a child? It’s been around a very long time as Jane Taylor, who wrote Rhymes for the Nursery, died in 1827 at the age of 44.

Some of us are able to keep this child-like wonder of the world into our adulthood. We grow up to become discoverers, usually called life-long learners these days. It’s an especially useful quality for a development professional to have.

I closed my article on knowledge with a quote from Francis Bacon who said that wonder is the seed of knowledge and is "an impression of pleasure in itself." His utilization of the word relates to its use as both verb and noun. As a verb, it is applied in the sense of to want to know. As a noun, it means something or someone who causes astonishment and admiration, a feeling of surprise or awe aroused by something unexpected, or a miracle.

People who are new to development always want to know what they should say or do in a meeting with a donor or a prospective donor. I tell them all they have to do is ask questions and listen. That is the best kind of prospect research after all. It’s not what we can mine from a reference source like Who’s Who or the Securities and Exchange Commission. Those can help us quantify the financial capacity of an individual, but they cannot tell us who this person is.

Most of us, particularly when we are new to a position, are insecure in not knowing. We are afraid of making a mistake, of appearing stupid. Often our board members and other volunteers feel the same way. Development is new to them and often laced with apprehension. Wonder is the key. As David James Duncan writes in the spring issue of Orion, "...once wonder smites you, you’re smitten by wonder alone. Fear can’t penetrate till the wonder subsides."

The way to approach a donor or prospect is not to be armed with loads of information and mentally prepared to make a sales pitch. That has been the experience of too many donors. Instead, they should be approached with a sense of wonder. What is your interest? What do you think? How do you feel about this? We have to be genuine about this, we have to really want to know. We have to operate from our ignorance — of what this person is all about — although not about the mission and programs of our organization!

"Philosophically speaking, wonder is crucial to the discovery of knowledge, yet has everything to do with ignorance. By this I mean that only an admission of our ignorance can open us to fresh knowings — and wonder is the experience of that admission: wonder is unknowing, experienced as a pleasure," according to Duncan.

Wonder starts with basic questions that are easy to answer and which do not probe too deeply. Each question leads to another as if you were unraveling a ball of thread to finally reveal the core of the person. Then we find out what her values are, what his dreams are, what his fears are and what her needs are. As we discover, we are developing a relationship — a relationship based on trust, respect and admiration.

Why is it that we are so often afraid of encounters with our donors and prospective donors? I think that it is precisely because we view them as objects — as donors and prospective donors — instead of just as people we would like to get to know. We have so structured our work into goals, objectives, strategies and tasks that we have forgotten that we are dealing with individuals over whom we have no control. We may arrive at a point where we have influence, but we do not have control.

When we give up this illusion of control, we may begin to realize our goals. As Erich Fromm in To Have or To Be? believed, it is when we forget about ourselves and what we want that we are able to respond fully and spontaneously to other people, that new ideas are given birth and that our conversation comes to life. In a real dialogue we "begin to dance together."

An illustration comes to mind. One of our clients has launched a capital campaign to build a new facility. One of the major gift prospects was asked to host an informational meeting in his conference room for a group of people whose support is important to the campaign. In following up, we didn’t approach him with a particular gift in mind, but a more general role he could effectively perform in the campaign. The ensuing discussion was a true dialogue as we spontaneously explored a variety of ideas. The result was a commitment to a gift and a leadership role far beyond what we would have planned in advance. It came about because we did not try to control the conversation, we wondered aloud together about possibilities, and the project became his as well as ours.

When we go about our work in this way, a donor or prospective donor becomes a wonder to us. We are able to penetrate the exterior to find inside this wonderful creation of God’s imagination. Each and every one of us are awesome creations — that is, we fill one another with awe.

So many of us, so much of the time look without really seeing. Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership believes that we wear blinders which block our access to awareness. These blinders include our conscious learning. So, in a sense we have to forget what we have learned about development. Then, he suggests, "set forth upon your journey may be given the secret of the kingdom: awe and wonder before the majesty and the mystery of all creation."

Duncan reminds us that "Wonder is not curiosity. Wonder is to curiosity what ecstasy is to mere pleasure. Wonder is not astonishment, either, Astonishment is too brief. The only definable limit to the duration of wonder is the limit of our ability to remain open." It is not easy to throw our blinders aside and to be open to others. We are so trained to be intentional, to be goal-directed, to be in control, that it feels unnatural to let go. The limit of our ability to remain open is a test of our self-assurance and our determination as well as our endurance.

Wonder is a pleasurable state. Duncan confesses, "Wonder is my second favorite condition to be in, after love, and I sometimes wonder whether there’s a difference: maybe love is just wonder aimed at a beloved. Wonder is like grace, in that it’s not a condition we grasp: wonder grasps us."

We need to be child-like again in our relationships with our donors. We need to hear that small voice singing, "How I wonder what you are!"

If you are in a position that does not allow you to cultivate this sense of wonder, you may be misplaced. We work with clients who seek this kind of development professional. If you are curious, contact us. You may find with Duncan that "Wonder is anything closed, suddenly opening: anything at all opening."

Suggested readings:

Bugbee, Henry, The Inward Morning, to be republished by the Georgia University Press in 1999.

Fromm, Erich, To Have Or To Be?, Bantam Books, New York, 1981.

Greenleaf, Robert, Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1977.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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