What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There


By Laurence A. Pagnoni, MPA

“The same behavior that has led to our success can make it difficult to change. The same behavior that helped us reach one level, may not be what’s needed to reach the next.”

Marshall Goldsmith, author

A $5 million award letter arrived from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, an historic moment in the 15-year-old nonprofit’s existence. They had arrived. Their mission is to build bathrooms in rural schools in the poorest areas to meet children’s basic hygiene needs. It’s a transformative service.

I suggested to the executive director that this was a perfect time, no better time in fact, for them to build a professional fundraising team to leverage the award. Up until now, the executive did all the fundraising. “No, he said, “we need to keep focusing on the program.”

That’s when I thought of Marshall Goldsmith’s powerful book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There (Hachette Books, 2007).

It made me sad that the executive was so set in his ways, a man who frequently boasts about having an open mind.

Yet I know how set in my ways I can also be.

Are you set in your fundraising ways?

If new revenue opportunities, or a new path was recommended to you, would you miss it, or be open to it? Do you think that you have an open mind, but the evidence is mounting otherwise?

Advanced fundraising requires us to be open to new strategies and tactics that are likely to increase our fundraising returns on investment, so as to raise more funds.

Yet most development officers tell me that they have a near-impossible time getting their CEO and Board to adopt new revenue approaches, let alone to invest more in development infrastructure.

Degenerative Tendencies

Just like people, organizations have their bad habits too. Peter Drucker called them our “degenerative tendencies,” the things we do to shoot ourselves in the foot. The awful predictability of most adverse organizational behaviors is rooted in leaders being unaware of the degenerative tendencies within their own organizational culture. Underinvesting in fundraising infrastructure is one such tendency.

Not being aware of your degenerative tendencies won’t serve the health and well-being of your nonprofit, even when the Gates Foundation recognizes your genius.

Frank Feedback Time

To break out of such entrenched bad habits, Goldsmith recommends that we ask for frank feedback and make a special effort to acknowledge it when it’s given.

He also suggests that we listen deeply when people make spontaneous comments about our personal behavior, or about organizational behaviors. He asks his readers to write the comments down and track our emotional reactions to them, and to describe what we plan to do about what was said.

This is what it means to build reflection into our action agenda. If patterns emerge, then you will know what to fix to ensure constant improvement.

For example, one senior fundraiser told me that she met resistance every time she asked for an enhanced development budget to pay for increased prospect research. Her request amounted to a $120,000 item in a ten-million-dollar annual budget, for an organization with $4 million in reserves. Moreover, I helped her forecast the revenue likely to be generated by the research within 36 months, and the forecast showed an eight-to-one return.  Eight dollars would be raised for every dollar invested. In our preliminary research we found 45 hidden major donor prospects among her current donors, and an additional 345 new potential major donor prospects. Yet her request was denied. Describing why it was denied would be more complex than we have space for here, but suffice it to say that she ran into entrenched organizational bad habits.

I encouraged her not to get lost in feeling discouraged, but instead to bring the light of day as gently as she could to those bad habits. How do I do that, she asked me? I suggested that she work privately with the CEO to introduce “frank feedback time” into their executive team meetings. The time allocated for the agenda item was just 10 minutes.  The four-person executive team would go around and make short statements about any organizational bad habits they experienced; they then allowed a few more minutes for clarifying questions or comments. To say the least, the practice generated many new, positive behaviors for the executive team and fostered organizational growth. Two years later, the senior fundraiser got her prospect research budget approved.

I’ve asked her to call the executive director of the bathroom-building nonprofit to share her experience. I remain hopeful.

What’s your experience with introducing advanced fundraising methods into your nonprofit? Please let us know below, and please share this post with colleagues who may find it useful.

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