Stand Up is the new Lean In

My dearest family, friends, fundraisers, and donors:

In his 2010 Christmas letter, a donor wrote Count that day lost whose low descending sun sees at thy hand no worthy action done. This appears in the Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, on an imposing stone marking the future resting place of philanthropist John Craig Eaton. It’s a tough measure. Trying to personally define ‘worthy action’ means questioning what life is all about, and for what purpose one was put here. A gift to a good charity is certainly worthwhile. If you spend one day making money and the next day you give it to a worthy charity, both days were worthwhile. If you spend decades in pursuit of wealth, and then give it away to worthy causes, then you can argue that your whole life was worthwhile. That seems to be where I am.

And where am I? Here at the end of 2013, I remain in that most worthwhile profession of fundraising, and celebrated my twentieth year of serving the social profit sector. It was a very human year for me: kindness and weakness abounded. Themes of 2013 were new beginnings and change management, and authenticity of character and trust.

And endings. In JANUARY, the Friends of High Park Zoo held its inaugural AGM (with over 25% membership attendance!) and I was elected vice chair of the board. By July, I was acting chair, and by August, gone. It’d been almost two years, and my mandate of saving the zoo (in the short term anyway) was fulfilled. I was proud to have been part of founding FoHPZ, and, with continued hard work, confident we’d always have a neighbourhood zoo in our backyards to enjoy. But I also believed I wasn’t the one who could propel the organization forward.

In government there’s the principle of cabinet solidarity, which is well established in most parliamentary democracies. The idea is that even if you disagree with a decision, when in public, you support it in solidarity. One voice. The principle of board solidarity is pretty much the same.

In my observation, FoHPZ consisted of three parallel, if equally well-meaning, but ultimately incompatible agendas as our new organization struggled with typical growing pains (the board, the volunteers, and the local councilor who has an ex-officio position). Tensions arose over process and communication, and the result was a fractured governance body, which, while achieving our mandate, did so with some mistrust of each other. Still, I remain proud of what I helped start and achieved, thank everyone who donated and encourage you to do again. We need it: the operating funds were not reinstated in the 2014 city budget.

FEBRUARY was Tristan and Isolde. Ben Heppner sings Wagner! I hope to forever hear that half-diminished seventh chord – aka the Tristan chord – playing in the radio in my head. The music, of course, but it was the physical expression of the artists that astounded me. I saw what shame, vulnerability, naivety, and bullying look like through the purifying form of opera. I remain transformed, and recall a defining quote from blog post about fundraising for the arts: your job,working here in the arts, is to make those lives worth saving.

By MARCH, the plans for a major office renovation were approved (we knocked down all the physical walls and proverbial silos) and we moved upstairs to temporary quarters during the demolition and retrofit. As a director on the management team, I was of course responsible for managing my team’s concerns, mostly how we’d ensure business continuity during those three months upstairs. I made soothing and encouraging statements (one voice!) but, I do admit now the thought of us in each other’s pockets, doing all the noisy things we do to raise millions of dollars, gave me heartburn.

Some of 2013’s greatest lessons and moments of grace came from this experience. The first: our donor engagement officers (responsible for one-to-one relationships with major and planned giving donors) went from private offices to the donor relations bullpen; this was bootcamp for adjusting to the future open concept office. And it worked. Because everyone was on the phone: whether it was updating credit card numbers or upgrading gifts, or booking face-to-face meetings or following up on a proposal. No one could be self-conscious, and everyone learned from overhearing each other’s conversations and turns of phrases. As for me, I couldn’t get the chair and table to feel right in my temporary work station. Some lean in; I stood up! I ditched the chair, and stacked eight packages of copy paper under my monitor and four under my keyboard.

I’ve barely sat down since and I’ve upgraded to a stand-up workstation. Stand up to stand out! You’ll be reborn. I find the air cleaner up here, and have noticed my expression and energy have benefitted, particularly on the phone (there’s much to support this in the sales training literature.Sitting is the new smoking.

APRIL brought an astonishing example of worthy action, by a great and loyal donor, notable Canadian, businessman and philanthropist, Salah Bachir. Years ago, Salah said to me, “Rebecca. Don’t call just to thank me. Call when I can do something. Well. We needed awareness,had a film to show, and, as president of Cineplex Media, Salah had the venues, equipment, and personnel. A pilot screening for Toronto-area donors turned into a cross-country tour at Cineplex theatres, with a panel debate after each viewing. In each city, every ticket was taken. I won’t thank you, dearest Salah, for bringing the field to so many Canadians. But do know your impatient protestations years ago, “Never mind the thanking! What can I do?”is characteristic of that worthy action we call humanitarianism. And made me a better fundraiser.

In MAY, I became 20 years younger than Doctor Who.

Finally, for now: I find the most meaningful and successful stewardship activities are informed by the dominant culture of our organization: trenchant and reactionary. Largely impermanent. So how to negotiate a donor’s request to permanently name a mobile clinic after his late friend?

We couldn’t do that, we had to tell him. (Donor conversations can sometimes feel like auto-drip, don’t they, esteemed fundraising colleagues? We can’t do that. We don’t do that. We’dnever do that).

Photo of G

But did something. What we could do was, through many hours of listening and looking at photo albums, come to know G., the departed friend of the donor, and why she had made him a large residuary of her estate (he wanted none of it for himself, but to donate it in her memory).

G. was Betty Davis without the cigarette, often outspoken, abrasive and intolerant. She had a strong sense of beauty and impeccable taste. A photographer at heart, she had an eye for colour and all things artistic. Definitive in word and deed. Having indicated his late friend was an ardent feminist (a woman completely aware of her worth, who would not settle for anything less) and very interested in women’s health, he wished for the funds to be designated to a project in line with those values. And we learned he himself was fanatical about the French language.

So in JUNE Katherine, our prospect researcher, would go to Haiti for her first field visit and also lead a memorial service for G. at the Centre de Reference Urgences Obstetricales, attended by staff and aid workers. A piece of G.’s art would be hung up in a ward.

I just love this. In getting to know the donor, his friend, and what spurred them, we offered acreative way to memorialize her that was both exquisitely G. and MSF.

My candlewick and eggnog are low. I will sign off for now, dears, and conclude my 2013 reflections in the next post. (And I do realize I have not started to unpack for you the disappointments and challenges of the year. Wish me the courage and perspective to do so). In the meantime, I hope some of the worthy actions that buoyed me this year gave you inspiration, too.

Best wishes holiday wishes to all.



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