Delivering a baby, delivering a budget

One morning last December I went to outer space and plucked a star. We named her Beatrix.

She’s our first, and I’d not had much exposure to newborns before. Even less on how to care for one.

Bea and I’ve taken many long walks these past five months (moves management, verily) and I’ve had time to think back over my twenty-year fundraising career, and if there was anything there that could teach me to be a parent. More interestingly to my colleagues and team, how would giving birth and nurturing a newborn shape my leadership style back at work?

The following themes emerged during our walks. Some themes I recognized and have practiced for years in my leadership; others have become clear for me only recently. And please don’t think I’m likening donors or my team members to babies! Absolutely not. This about expressing some of the heartfelt, hard-held, and I now realize hard-wired principles I carry as a leader, professionally and personally:

1. Everyone has the right for the conditions to thrive.

There is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. There’s no such global treaty for managers. Yet everyone deserves to be managed well and so often aren’t. If you’re a manager, I believe your team and the individuals in it should be your priority. Certainly before paperwork and emails. Sometimes over donors, even. Do not accept a management position if your impulse and zest isn’t to develop your team’s abilities to its fullest. Don’t display your insecurities and disappointments in front of them; it’s not about you. Do work one-on-one with everyone to develop inspiring performance plans with clear accountabilities and expectations. Conduct and paper performance reviews. Check in regularly. Believe in and manage your team as if it’s the only one you’ll have again.

2. All relationships aren’t equal.

“Because the Mama said so”, jumped in our wise friend between my husband and me.

This was when the baby was less than a month, and he and I were disagreeing on a point about feeding, one in which his actions were agitating her and therefore distressing me.

With those words, our friend helped us make sense of what we were experiencing: that at that time, the baby’s needs were pretty much all biologically based. And the unassailable fact was that, in our family construct, again, at that time, only I could meet them. Why diminish this power? We had to acknowledge our co-parenting ideals sometimes wouldn’t always be what was best for the baby.

This I believe, too, about relationship fundraising: relationships just aren’t equal. They can’t be, although things may change and evolve. We need have the maturity and judgment to see beyond rank, accepted best practices, assumptions, ego, gift levels, and heritage to evaluate what’s best for the donor.

Example: solicitation teams ensure donors are brought closer to the organization and not just a person representing it (e.g. the donor manager). But I don’t believe more than one person can lead the process. (How I cringe when I hear about development officers marching two by two, per policy, for donor meetings other than corporate or maybe discovery calls.) If they’re doing their job, donor managers will be in close and frequent contact with their prospects, and the rest of the solicitation team should defer to their judgment about when and how to solicit and who should do it. And the prospect clearance process should be transparent; donor managers should have as strong a voice here as leadership. And leaders: don’t scoop the best prospects based on your rank alone, and remember that everyone in your organization should be taken into consideration as assignments are made. Team members: sometimes we all need to accept decisions and even a bit of ambiguity. But what must be unambiguous at every donor meeting is who’s taking the lead, and who’s there to take notes and listen. Because the donor manager said so.

3. The hard work begins after the gift arrives.

After I landed back in the hospital from outer space, I’d have to concern myself with this child every minute for the next two decades.

The hard work really does begin after the gift arrives. I think this point is well understood by fundraisers, but often detrimentally misunderstood within the rest of our organizations. Such a shame, because great stewardship is within most people’s comfort level and crucial to securing and upgrading future gifts. Accountability is the hard work: it takes time, rigour, and savvy politicking to get the information you need to maintain and increase donors’ confidence that our charity is the one they can have the greatest impact through.

Taking eight of our current annual major gift donors, have a look at the effect on their giving after we instituted regular stewardship meetings about two years ago:

Last gift before first stewardship meeting Highest gift since relationship development % Increase Additional revenue
Donor 1 $10,000 $1,000,000 9,900% $990,000
Donor 2 $25,000 $500,000 1,900% $475,000
Donor 3 $25,000 $300,000 1,100% $275,000
Donor 4 $10,000 $100,000 900% $90,000
Donor 5 $25,000 $90,000 260% $65,000
Donor 6 $20,000 $70,000 250% $50,000
Donor 7 $35,000 $85,000 143% $50,000
Donor 8 $25,000 $60,000 140% $35,000
Avg % increase: 1,824% Total: $2,030,000

Plot your own donors’ giving against the evolution of a relationship with your organization. And continue or start to share every piece of information about programs your donor has supported and invite discussion, equally during formal reporting periods and ad hoc. As above, revenue will grow. Stewardship is our commitment and responsibility to deepening donors understanding of their philanthropic impact after they’ve made the investment. And it’s the hard work.

4. The most generous giving is based on emotion, not reason.

People mark others life passages with presents. So often gift-giving is reflexive: going to a wedding? Choose from the registry. Send flowers to the funeral home or a charitable gift in memory of the deceased. Religious rites especially have prescribed gift practices.

Births are different. Beyond stuffed toys and cigars, for some people the birth of a child reaches so deeply down their stem of caring it roots at the base of the soul. Among the countless things I’ve learned the past five months, the mystery, motivation, and capacity of human generosity have been some of the most unexpected.

For at times, people made me feel I was the only person to ever have had a child. Family, friends, and, especially surprisingly, so many acquaintances quite peripheral to my personal life, all came to us with offerings exquisite and personal. Hand-made and knitted clothes, quilts, poems, and long letters. A favourite book mailed from Toronto’s oldest post office to heighten the celebration. Music and multiple three-course meals dropped at our house. Whatever the gift, I observed in each such authenticity in giving.

In the charitable sector, we try to identify and codify donor motivations: is it for their legacy, or desire to make a difference? Perhaps they have compassion for those in need, are grateful for services received, or simply require tax benefits that year. But I believe my benefactors were giving these things to me because my having a baby tweaked something emotional in each giver, and I’ve felt giving far more generous, joyful, and creative for having coming from an emotional – and not rational – place. My understanding of gratitude’s effect has also deepened.

As I prepare to return to work, to lead my team, this is the principle I look most forward to exploring with them and our donors: emotion in giving. We can all feel cynical towards a donor, or the fatigue of our work, that we forget behind most donations there was human emotion. And the more we bring emotion to the surface, the richer we’ll be, charity and gift-giver.

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